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The Media Downplay the Unabomber-McVeigh Parellels

The Media Downplay the Unabomber-McVeigh Parellels
by L. Brent Bozell III
April 11, 1996

The discovery of Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski does more than signal the end of an exhaustive federal manhunt - it provides a fascinating parallel to the apprehension of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh. The extreme of militia-loving, government-hating ideology meets an opposite extreme of nature-loving, technology-hating ideology.

Why is the parallel so fascinating? Because of the media's different rules in the game of connect-the-dots between isolated, violent loners and mainstream political figures. Everyone remembers the flurry of accusations (led by national healer Bill Clinton) that the Oklahoma City bombing was encouraged by conservative radio talk show hosts. Reporters and columnists even found ways to pin the bombing on Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich.

The Oklahoma City bombing was portrayed as an intensely ideological event. The May 1, 1995 Time cover story was headlined "The Oklahoma blast reveals the paranoid life and times of accused bomber Timothy McVeigh and his right-wing associates." The news magazines used labels like "far right" and "extreme right" to explain McVeigh's enthusiasms in twelve stories since the blast. Funny thing - they used these same terms to describe presidential candidates like Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan as they started their campaigns last spring.

Now try to search a media data base for "Unabomber" and "left wing." Despite two major newspapers publishing a rambling 35,000-word diatribe raging against capitalism and technology, you won't find the press use any variant of "far left" or "extreme left." (You will find, however, a Newsweek item using the Unabomber metaphor to describe Bill Kristol's faxed memos against the Clinton health plan.) Even with the discovery of Kaczynski, and the preponderance of evidence showing his leftist ties, reporters are still having trouble coughing up an ideological angle.

While reporters jumped at the chance to describe McVeigh's attempts to join the Michigan Militia and his membership in the National Rifle Association, little fanfare has been devoted to ABC reporter Brian Ross's scoop: that Kaczynski may have been inspired by the radical-left activists of the group Earth First.

ABC matched its emphasis on the McVeigh-NRA story with an April 5 lead story on "World News Tonight" featuring Ross: "ABC News has also learned that Kaczynski's name appeared in FBI files in November 1994 in connection with an FBI investigation of a radical environmental group called Earth First, which is active in Montana. Over the years, Earth First has best been known as a violent group spiking trees and blowing up logging equipment, and in many respects, its anti-corporate philosophy parallels that of the Unabomber." Ross also noted that the list of Unabomber targets resembles a list made by a radical environmental journal.

Reporters would not dream of attaching Earth First to "mainstream" environmental groups the way they attached McVeigh to talk show hosts. Is the notion far-fetched? A 1990 Los Angeles Times story noted that the sentiment that Earth First is a positive force "seems to be shared by many in the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and other mainstream environmental groups." The Times quoted Brock Evans of the "conservative" Audubon Society: "I honor Earth First for having the guts to do the things they do. It's not for me, but I understand why they do what they do. And, ultimately, we all help each other."

Indeed, some reporters are actually insisting that Kaczynski is no leftist. In the April 7 Washington Post, reporters Joel Achenbach and Serge Kovaleski note: "He did not join the anti-war movement...He never opted for long hair and beads and sandals. A photograph of Kaczynski circulated this week at Berkeley shows him in the late 1960s still wearing a jacket and tie, hair short, face neatly shaven."

Newsweek's Tom Morganthau quotes one source saying Kaczynski grew "disgusted with the widespread drug use and liberal politics" at Berkeley. He added: "Maybe so: the Unabomer [sic] manifesto is harshly critical of leftism." In another article, Evan Thomas emphasized a 1985 letter from the Unabomber claiming to be part of "The Freedom Club, which he described as 'strictly anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-leftist,' but most of all, anti-science and technology." How very, very convenient. The same could be said of Trappist monks. But if this ideology is driven by the idea of the abolition of technology (and preferably, humans), how can it do that without completely authoritarian government control?

Reporters surely will suggest that they're only reflecting the nuances of Kaczynski's thinking, creating the most accurate portrait of his disturbed ideology. Maybe. But since the media did no such thing in lumping Timothy McVeigh to the entire conservative movement, just as they lumped John Salvi to the entire pro-life movement, it's a pill that's impossible to swallow.