Journalism school updates Unabomber saga
While most people would feel nervous receiving a letter
from the Unabomber, for UM journalism graduate student Dan Testa it was
cause for jubilation.
The letter arrived at UM’s journalism school in March — right
before Testa attended Associate Professor Sherry Venema’s feature
writing class. That class, along with Teresa Tamura’s advanced photojournalism
students and Keith Graham’s design class, spent spring semester
producing a 52-page, full-color publication commemorating the 10-year
anniversary of Ted Kaczynski’s arrest.
The nine-page Kaczynski letter was neatly handwritten and included meticulous
footnotes. Written on legal-sized paper, it became one of the centerpieces
of the UM project.
“We got the idea from the University of Nebraska,” Venema
said, “which had done a gorgeous publication about 40 years after
the publication of ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Copote and its
impact on this little town in Kansas. At a faculty meeting last fall,
Jerry Brown, our dean, said we should do something like this about the
The UM publication finished printing in July and will be distributed to
accredited journalism schools around the country, friends of the journalism
school, donors and the student authors, among others. Copies also will
be distributed in Lincoln, where Kaczynski had lived.
Students delved into media coverage of the Unabomber saga, interviewed
Kaczynski acquaintances, recreated the FBI manhunt and examined current
attitudes toward Kaczynski’s 35,000-word Manifesto. The student
publication is online at http://www.umt.edu/journalism.
Venema said her students updated and expanded the Unabomber saga with
their publication, including stories on the whereabouts of Kaczynski’s
cabin (the FBI has it in the Sacramento, Calif., area) and who now owns
the land near Lincoln where he lived. Students also managed to get interviews
from people leery of the media, such as Lincoln librarian Sherri Wood,
who had befriended Kaczynski.
Testa had written Kaczynski to ask for an interview, but expectations
were low for any sort of response. In the surprising letter, the convicted
domestic terrorist wrote of his distrust of the media and how he found
journalists to be dishonest:
“I’ve learned by experience that there is a technique that
journalists use: They contact a potential interviewee and tell him that
they want to give him a chance to tell his side of the story, or they
tell him that they want to be objective and get at the true facts. Then
when the poor sucker falls for it and gives an interview, the journalists
slant their story to suit their own purposes, often very much to the disadvantage
of the interviewee.”
Kaczynski wrote that he would agree to an interview if the UM project
investigated a 1999 book, “Unabomber: the Secret Life of Ted Kaczynski,”
which Kaczynski claims “consisted mostly of lies.”
“Of course we weren’t going to do that,” Venema said,
“but Dan (Testa) ended up writing a story not only about his life
in prison, but also about the letter.”
She said another student, Paul Brohaugh, also received a letter from Kaczynski.
Brohaugh used the letter to write a story about the Manifesto.
She said the publication was an excellent learning tool for UM’s
journalism students. It allowed them to brainstorm story ideas, do interviews,
work with photojournalists and undergo successive rewrites.
“So it was a very real-world experience,” Venema said. “I’m
just delighted with the final product.”
— By Cary Shimek and journalism school Web reporter Sarah Swan