WASHINGTON -- For any editor, the choices are terrible: Cave in to a terrorist, publish a lengthy diatribe and set a dangerous precedent. Refuse, and run the risk that the terrorist will kill more people.
That is exactly what editors at the New York Times and the Washington Post face as they consider whether to run a 62-page, single-spaced manifesto from a terrorist dubbed the Unabomber, whose 17 years of random bomb attacks have killed three people and wounded 23.
"I can well understand an editor or publisher wanting to head off the possibility of a calamity by bending journalistic rules a bit," said Marvin Kalb, a former CBS News correspondent and now a media analyst.
"If you had to be journalistically pure and say, 'I am not going to yield' . . . and the next day a plane went up, how do you sleep at night?"
The anonymous Unabomber, so named because many of his targets have been universities, has eluded the FBI for years. He promised to forgo future bomb attacks designed to kill people if the Times or the Post publishes his railings against the industrial revolution.
Penthouse magazine has already offered to print the Unabomber's manifesto. But the bomber wants exposure in the "respectable" newspapers first. If Penthouse is his only option, he has reserved the right to kill one more person.
Top editors at both newspapers say they are considering the request that they received Wednesday.
"We will act responsibly and not rashly, knowing that lives could be at stake," Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. said in a statement.
To Mr. Kalb, the Post and the Times have already bent the rules by publishing lengthy accounts of the bomber's manifesto, "Industrial Society and Its Future."
If they decide to go further, it would not be the first time mainstream media capitulated to terrorists.
During the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, radio stations across the state and CNN agreed to a government request to broadcast a 58-minute harangue by cult leader David Koresh.
In the end, Ellen Hume, media analyst with the Washington-based Annenberg Center for Communications, said that computer technology after all might be the best way to satisfy the bomber's demands.
"I suggest that the Unabomber's entire document be put on the Internet," Ms. Hume said. "It will be distributed even more widely than if it were in the New York Times or Washington Post.
"He could achieve his goal of having the public understand what his complaint is without holding anyone hostage."