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Media Bombs Capital

illustration
Sean Crary

The Unabomber trial brings a technological juggernaut to Sacramento, where TV news crews camp out in tents to report a non-event

By Marc Herman

CONSIDER FOR a moment the wire. Not the wire in the bombs that led to the alleged Unabomber's arrest. There are pictures of those available at the trial--wires wrapped around a small bit of paper, which slid against other wires to complete a circuit and set off the bombs that killed three people and wounded 23 others. Consider instead The Wire, over which the Associated Press or Reuters once sent their missives to the world.

Also consider that the first thing reporters did upon arrival here at the John Moss Federal Building in Sacramento was string wire, high and taut. The networks had rented half a parking lot near the Macy's across the street to hold satellite dishes. Now, the unattended cameras in the media tents do nothing but look menacing, like cannons sticking out the side of a pirate ship.

Each media organization has ponied up five grand to get a space in the compound. The cameras are pointed across Capitol Street at the federal courthouse, where the Unabomber trial, the cause of all the media technology falling from the sky on poor, flat Sacramento, is under way.

There are security guards and police officers wandering tiredly in front of the building with their hands in the pockets of their fake-fur-lined blue jackets, trying to keep themselves warm and occupied. During the recesses, the print reporters--from the Sacramento Bee, USA Today, the Newark Star-Ledger and seemingly half the daily blabs in the country--burst out of the doors to hold agreeable little bull sessions on the sidewalk.

A typical example from a few weeks ago: Two skinny men, one waving a court document rolled up as if to beat a dog, are competing to see who can agree with the other first. The case will go to New Jersey, site of another Unabomber attack, if "they decide to kill him twice," says the Newark reporter, a handsome, thirtyish Clark Kent type in a leather coat. The paper he is holding is a copy of a brief filed that day. Kent banters with a man from the Sacramento AP office.

"They say it decapitated him. But I've seen the pictures. It didn't decapitate him," he says. I ask if I can read the brief over his shoulder. The Newark guy says, "And who are you?" I fight back an urge to tell the guy I'm not there as a reporter, but just want to read the document. A strange facet of the reporting industry--the fierce guarding of information, the keeping of it as a proprietary commodity, only to distribute it as broadly and widely as possible two minutes later--is on full display for a moment. I have to make my job my last name, flash my membership card as it were, to get him to smile and stop seeming so suspicious. The feeling of being with the cool kids at school is fairly strong.

A Hermit Celebrity

THE NEWARK FELLOW starts talKing about wounds again. The AP representative nods approvingly. There is little for him to do either. The AP's primary reporter on the scene, Linda Deutch, empress of trial reporters and semi-official town crier of this event, is already inside.

Deutch, fiftyish, small and alert, is at first a beautiful antidote to the popular image of an important reporter covering a big story--the folk image not a few of the other gathered media, with their practiced faux weariness and skeptics' bearing, seem to be shooting for. With her shock of orange hair, Deutch looks more like a pocket Ethel Merman. She seems, unfortunately, unlikely to sing.

Alas, she is probably the only one at this strange trial, besides perhaps the defendant, who does not seem like an extra in a show. After the session ends, she plods responsibly (if a little uninterestingly) off to the bureau to file the day's events. On slow days, she gets interviewed herself for a while--when jury selection began, Rob Morse of the San Francisco Examiner dedicated a column in part to her--but that is starting to taper off. In the courtroom now, she seems to serve as a constant judgment that the rest of the media looks upon with a sort of wonder: the possibility of a time when we all understood trials as primarily about the issues they raise, and not about the peculiarities of the people involved.

The Unabomber trial is a boondoggle. Amid the pastoral Denverness of the capital, the unmanned cameras and the facilities for which the networKs are paying tens of thousands are all doing nothing. The tents are empty, and the notebooks are desperate so far. Fortunately, there is already assumed to be a payoff in the offing.

The verdict should be winging its way in next spring, so everyone seems willing to wait a few months. But the trial is perceived to have no drama at this point. And no debates. And no issues. It only has media and K. himself, the first accused serial killer in history to have his motive printed as a 35,000-word treatise in two major newspapers.

The well-known defendant, Theodore Kacynski, may be an alleged murderer, but he's still got the upper hand in how he is portrayed. Big-time lawyers apparently realize that the only way their cases will be covered is by making celebrities of their clients--Timothy McVeigh, O.J. Simpson, Richard Ramirez (L.A.'s "Night StalKer"), whomever. But K. isn't submitting to a psychological evaluation, isn't letting us know who he is, isn't buying into the celebrity that could be his in a second.

We're all out here waiting to turn on the freak machine. He's thrown his shoe in the machine. He'd clearly rather be back at the cabin. He's already told us what he thinks and forced us to read it, to deal with his concepts. We can't. No one is talking about the concepts. We can only talk about the execution.

Writing on the Walls

THE UNABOMBER Manifesto reads at first a lot like a white paper from a conservative think tank. Most of the first part is a long disquisition on the nature of liberal guilt. K. seems mostly annoyed. He also seems fairly liberal himself, though to make that case you have to presume guilt--basing the conclusion in part on the fairly persuasive evidence that he once allegedly murdered a timber industry lobbyist, a move many environmentalists may have at least wondered about from time to time.

The Manifesto also reads liKe a manifesto.

This is the media's title for it, not K's. The defense points this out in court sometimes, referring to the document as "what has been termed 'the Manifesto,' " or "this material," or otherwise tacitly indicating that the name wasn't his idea. Which perhaps is too bad. For example, would mornings not be more fun if Liz Smith's or Leigh Weimers' columns were called manifestos?

The defense strategy so far seems rooted in manifesto-esque, direct, provoked aspects of K.'s behavior--his tendency to have strong opinions, to rant, to stay away from other people, to dislike doctors and technical people, to be antisocial in such an extreme way that he gets fired from a nice gig teaching math in a community of traditionally wonderfully social people), at UC-Berkeley. (He left a tenure-track professorship in California? Proof he's mad.)

The guy is perhaps to be forgiven for believing the walls of technology were closing in, the defense is expected to argue. He lived in a 10-by-10 box.

The Lincoln cabin has been delivered by flatbed to Sacramento from Montana. This is a defense idea. Attorneys intend to show that their client could not have been mentally sound, since he spent all his time typing in a snowed-in plywood cube on a mountainside. They are trying to paint a picture of K. as a bearded Nell, rather than a Killer Thoreau.

Coming out of the trial at the end of the day, looking across at the camera operators who will spend the next several months playing with wires while huddling in white tents measuring about 10 by 10, in the service of a fairly arbitrary sense of what is important, one finds the whole argument of insanity becoming deeply worrisome. If K. is insane, so are the TV crews.

That is where it stands. As of this writing the Unabomber trial remains in the jury-selection phase. This is the crowning weirdness of it all. Everyone wants to be on this jury. You will be famous. You may get to kill or save someone's life. You will almost assuredly be on television or interviewed by the newspapers. It is therefore somewhat fitting that Judge Burrell, presiding over the trial, seems obsessed with the microphones in the courtroom. He keeps instructing the prospective jurors, over a hundred of whom are being interviewed by him and cross-examined by the lawyers one at a time, on how to relate better to the audio equipment. To speak up, to speak into the microphone, to address the defense and the prosecution with their answers.

What is being sought is a collection of 12 people who have nothing to do with the media, have not looked at coverage of the trial, have completely written off the entire massive effort outside, liKe K. has. Over the wires, the voir dire is being called boring, but in the courtroom it is intense and dramatic, the jurors looking at K. in his new haircut and red sweater, he whispering to his lawyer about things you can only guess at as a string of people try to answer some of the hardest questions one can be asKed: When is it appropriate to kill someone? Is it your belief that premeditatively killing someone is moral if there has been a trial? Is violence ever justified? Does a pattern of violence indicate insanity? Is there a difference in your mind between a life in prison without chance of parole and death? Can you really believe in your heart of hearts that K. is innocent unless someone proves otherwise?

Following a morning session a few weeks back, after seven prospective jurors were dismissed, everyone broke tiredly for lunch. In the afternoon the judge tried again to find a group of people who had ignored the viewing of a non-event by a bored, if high-tech audience. K. faced the judge. No one could see if he was pleased.

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From the Dec. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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