Richard Jewell and The Olympic Bombing
In the early morning of July 27, 1996, with the summer Olympic Games under way in Atlanta, a pipe bomb exploded in the city's Centennial Park, killing two people and injuring 111. In the days following, law enforcement agencies began to focus on a security guard named Richard Jewell, who initially had been praised for helping evacuate the area. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was first to publish the police suspicions, followed quickly by the Atlanta-based CNN and NBC (which was broadcasting the Olympics.) The Richard Jewell story presented the media with an irresistible "read"—the tale of a hero-turned-suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The case raises major issues about the relations between the press and law enforcement sources. Looking primarily at the reporting of the hometown paper, we focus on two related issues:
Given that police can make mistakes, what level of proof and sourcing is required to say a story is verified?
Do journalists have a responsibility to balance the public's right to know with the presumption of innocence?
This case study of the Richard Jewell story was written by journalists, not lawyers, and is not intended to debate the legal implications of the case. Rather, it is designed for teachers and students to focus on the journalistic issues that arise. It should be noted, as well, that attorneys for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution do not agree with all the facts as presented by the authors. The authors and the attorneys also differ on several matters of interpretation.
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At 12:58 a.m. on July 27, 1996, with the summer Olympics in full swing, the Atlanta Police Department received a 911 call from an anonymous caller saying: "There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes."
The caller, a male, hung up immediately. Police attempted to check the source of the call and otherwise respond. It was too late. At 1:20 a.m., a pipe bomb exploded near a huge sound-and-light tower erected by AT&T, which had become a major attraction for visitors to Centennial Olympic Park. The blast killed two people and injured 111 others.
Before the 911 warning reached the area of the sound-and-light tower where Richard Jewell, 33, was stationed as a security guard, Jewell had noticed a small backpack lying unattended nearby. He pointed it out to an agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who summoned bomb technicians. Jewell participated in helping to evacuate the area as the bomb exploded.
Initially, news reports portrayed him in heroic terms. For example, Katie Couric of NBC said in interviewing him: "You were in the right place at the right time and you did the right thing, Richard."
Just 72 hours after the tragic explosion, however, newspapers, led by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and television networks began reporting that Jewell, once the hero, was now the "focus" of the FBI's investigation—the man the bureau now saw as the likely perpetrator.
To assess the performance of the news media in the Atlanta Olympic bombing, it is necessary to reconstruct both the step-by-step progress of the official investigation and the reporting that accompanied it. Daily news reporting almost always involves making decisions under pressure—pressures of time, of competition and, frequently, pressures of having incomplete information. All those pressures were present in the Jewell case, but they did not make it unique. What did is the presence of the Olympics, an international event that has the world's attention—and particularly that of the media world—focused on Atlanta. Such events are usually a Code Blue for the local media, a moment for those outlets with a special connection to the events to demonstrate their journalistic mettle in the public eye. Reputations are made or broken, journalists often believe, by how you perform when the world is in your backyard. In this case, pressures focused particularly on three outlets: NBC, which was broadcasting the games; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the hometown paper for the games; and CNN, which, like the paper, is located in Atlanta.
Maintaining high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance under pressure is the essence of professional journalism, just as life-and-death situations are the daily norm for surgeons. It is against that expectation that the performance of the news media should be measured in the aftermath of the Olympic bombing. All the more so because, when the story turned in upon Richard Jewell, it was clear that the media would be dealing with an ordinary citizen, not a politician or other veteran of the media wars.
The case relies on thousands of pages of sworn statements from principals in the case. An internal Justice Department report on the FBI's interview of Jewell and tracing the leak of his identity was also considered. The Journal-Constitution's lawyer, Peter C. Canfield, ruled out direct interviews of the reporters, columnist, copy editors and management of the paper.
The resulting inability to speak directly with some of those involved has been offset in part by examination of an aborted, but impressive, attempt by a Journal-Constitution reporter to examine how her paper handled the Jewell story, as well as by interviews with lawyers for Jewell and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The First Moments
Jewell was interviewed by the Secret Service, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI on July 27, the day of the explosion, and again on July 28. In those interviews, investigators considered him a witness, not a suspect. That began to shift during the afternoon of July 28, when, according to the Justice Department, the president of Piedmont College, Ray Cleere, called the FBI in Atlanta after seeing Jewell interviewed on television.
Cleere raised the possibility that Jewell could have been involved in planting the bomb, basing the suggestion on problems in Jewell's earlier record as a policeman at the school. On the strength of this information, the FBI decided to run a background check on Jewell. As an example of how this could happen, agents recalled a case in Southern California not long before in which a volunteer firefighter had apparently set a series of fires so that he could extinguish them and become a hero.
Later the same day, the idea that Jewell was criminally involved was passed along to FBI officials in Washington during a conference call with the Atlanta field office. A participant in the call mentioned that a security guard at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles had planted a bomb on a bus so that he could discover it later and be a hero. FBI headquarters agreed it was logical to conduct a preliminary investigation of Jewell's background. But most of the discussion during the regularly scheduled call dealt with other suspects.
That evening, the FBI learned Jewell had been arrested in 1990 for impersonating a police officer and had had employment problems while serving as a deputy sheriff in Habersham County, Georgia. Agents from the FBI's profiling and behavioral assessment unit in Quantico, Va., reviewed videotapes of the young guard's television interviews.
By the next morning, July 29, FBI headquarters was advised that the profiling unit agents "concurred with Atlanta's assessment that Jewell fit the profile of a person who might create an incident so he could emerge as a hero." In a more-detailed written analysis faxed to Washington and Atlanta two hours after the preliminary report, the profiling team said Jewell's "account of the bombing seemed vague on important points and that he seemed uncomfortable discussing the victims."
The analysts noted Jewell, in a televised interview, had expressed a desire to become a law enforcement agent, and they suggested he may have believed that making himself a hero at the Olympic Games would help him land a job in the field. They said his statement that he hoped to get such a position in Atlanta after the Games was highly inappropriate in the context of a lethal bombing and could indicate a possible motive for planting the explosives.
This account of the profiling unit's conclusions as well as the call from Cleere, Jewell being the first to notice the backpack and his possible access to a bomb-making "cookbook" is part of the summary of the FBI's early steps in the investigation done by the Justice Department's internal watchdog unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility.
By the end of the day on July 29, Jewell had become the FBI's "principal (though not the only) suspect in the CENTBOM investigation," the summary said. The Justice Department's internal reconstruction says that at this point the Bureau planned to interview Jewell again in the near future, "but it was not considered urgent." Later that night, the FBI hid a listening device on a state law enforcement agent and acquaintance of Jewell's who was having dinner with him. The next morning, the FBI decided that it would conduct a "non-confrontational interview" with Jewell and would try to conduct a "confrontational" interview the following day.
Reporter Pursues Hints of Change
Scruggs, 38, had been at the Journal-Constitution for ten years, nearly all of the time covering law enforcement. Trying to detail the new direction, she met with the source after work. The source told her investigators were beginning to look at the security guard in a new light, as a possible suspect. According to Thomas M. Oliver, assistant managing editor for Olympics and one of Scruggs's bosses, the source told Scruggs that Jewell fit a pattern of a wannabe cop with troubled experience in law enforcement. Scruggs would recall that her source used the word "profile," but eighteen months later Oliver did not recall whether the word used was "profile" or something else.
The source extracted a promise from Scruggs that she would do nothing with the information without his permission; premature disclosure might ruin the investigation, he said. Scruggs says she agreed but added a qualifier of her own: She would no longer honor the commitment and hold back the information if she got independent corroboration. She says the source agreed.
After meeting with her source, Scruggs went back to the office. "I have good news and bad news," Scruggs would tell an editor. "I know who they are looking at, and we can't use it."
Scruggs also had heard that Jewell's former employer had called law enforcement officials to, as she termed it later, "turn him in."
Rochelle Bozman, the assistant editor overseeing Olympic security stories, wanted to inform some other reporters that Jewell was a suspect. Scruggs objected, worried that one of the reporters, who was trying to get an interview with Jewell, might tip the security guard off. "I was not in any way going to endanger an investigation," Scruggs would say later.
But the paper did dispatch Maria Elena Fernandez to Habersham County, Georgia, to check into Jewell's troubled record as a campus policeman at Piedmont College and, earlier, as a deputy sheriff. The paper also sent reporter Christy Oglesby, who covered Dekalb County police, to obtain a police report on Jewell being charged with impersonating a police officer and eventually pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
Oliver, the ranking editor for Olympic coverage, said Scruggs described Jewell as the investigators' prime suspect. Oliver said he told Scruggs, "[S]he and we would have to confirm that through other sources."
"The story that she was describing that the authorities were now focusing and suspecting Richard Jewell as the Olympic Park bomber was an enormously important story," Oliver recalled, "and needed more than one source before I would feel comfortable in publishing it."
Coming to work to start her night shift the next day, Tuesday, July 30, Scruggs was beeped by another source, whom she has identified as a member of the Atlanta Police Department. He, too, told her investigators were looking at Jewell as a suspect. She asked how her source knew that, and he replied it was being talked about inside the department and "everybody knows it." Scruggs says she was not surprised that the information about Jewell's new status was spreading.
"When something like this happens," she said in the interview for the unpublished Journal-Constitution account, "a lot of different people get involved.... It is not the secret that they think it is because an FBI [agent] may be friends with an Atlanta police [officer], and they will talk to them, and you see, it becomes fodder for law enforcement."
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh later expanded on the point. "We identified approximately 10 agencies outside of the FBI who had individuals who were knowledgeable about his identity before it was released-over 500 investigators, prosecutors," Freeh said. "Each of those people and each of those agencies has separate chains of command, so the secondary universe is much bigger."
Scruggs would later recall that she eventually had at least three sources who had told her that investigators thought Jewell fit the profile of a lone bomber.
With the knowledge that Jewell was being talked about as a suspect throughout the Atlanta Police Department, Scruggs felt she was no longer constrained by her pledge to withhold the information. Her first source had agreed she could use it if she obtained independent corroboration. Accordingly, she advised her editors that they needed to report the new development. Another reporter on the paper who was covering Olympic security, Ron Martz, had already been working his federal law enforcement sources for information on the bombing and managing editor Walter recalled he had "some encouragement" that Scruggs was "on the right track." Martz helped Scruggs construct the story.
Scruggs and Martz based part of their story on their instincts. They were experienced journalists with good law enforcement sources. Those sources, moreover—at least four of them, gave essentially the same information. This was also a sensational and unexpected turn in a story that was being pursued by every major news organization in the country. In circumstances such as these, papers can feel enormous internal pressure to "own" the story—to be first with important developments, especially when the story is in your own backyard.
Managing Editor Walter recalled later: "To (score a) beat (on) this was no different than anything else on the Olympics, which was we had determined that we wanted to be the paper of record on the Olympics, to be the best at what we were doing. And so it is just natural that on one of the hot stories of the Olympics, you want to be there first. It doesn't mean carelessness, and it doesn't mean that competition is all. It just, it just is realistic.
"...So how as journalists can we not want to, if it is true that they are investigating, how can we not want to be the ones to tell the public this shocking turn? You would be crazy to have to say, well, no, it doesn't matter to me if they find out some other way. No, we want to be the ones to tell you because we are the paper of record," Walter commented in an interview for the unpublished AJC story.
Rochelle Bozman, an assistant news editor working on Olympic security, acknowledged the paper wanted to get the Jewell story in the paper, but added: "If I had a choice between being first with a possibility of being wrong or being last, I would be last every time... There was no one who felt that there was any question that it was true, that he was the suspect."
In addition to law enforcement sources who would not let their names be used or their agencies identified, Scruggs and Martz felt they had some other corroborating pieces of information. These sources may have provided important information to Scruggs and Martz earlier in this investigation, leading the reporters to consider them reliable. But the information available when writing this case does not make that clear one way or the other.
Fernandez and Oglesby were checking Jewell's law enforcement background, and the paper had dispatched a 22-year-old intern named Christina Headrick to stake out the apartment complex where he lived. There for several hours, she saw men in plain clothes watching the apartment, some using binoculars, whom she accurately deduced were law enforcement officials. She told the paper he appeared to be under surveillance. It was not until after the story was out, though, that Headrick confirmed that the men were FBI agents.
Headrick knocked at the apartment door, She says Jewell refused to open the door and told her to come back when his mother returned. Headrick thought Jewell sounded scared.
In addition to Headrick's effort, Martz says, he made several telephone calls to Jewell's apartment, but the phone rang unanswered, and there was no opportunity to leave a message. No one told Jewell that paper was about to report that he was the focus of a federal investigation.
Writing the Story
The phrasing was not so simple. Martz had been told that Jewell was not the only one under scrutiny. He was "a prime suspect" but "there were still other individuals that they (law enforcement officers) were looking at as possible suspects," Martz would recall. Scruggs, too, understood that Jewell was "a suspect." As the story went through the editing process, Scruggs, Martz and Managing Editor John Walter talked about what word to use, Scruggs would say later. Should they call Jewell a "suspect," "focus" or "target?"
While others were under suspicion, Martz, based on law enforcement source information, believed Jewell was the lead suspect. Walter decided the story should use the word "focus," Scruggs would recall. He would later explain that choice by saying it kept the paper from crossing the hurdle of defining how key a suspect Jewell was.
The lead of the finished story read:
In Scruggs's mind, the wording gave Jewell the benefit of the doubt. The word focus was "a less damning word, a less strong word," than suspect.
Scruggs' second sentence in the lead said Jewell also "fits the profile of the lone bomber."
This term profile can be confusing. It really has more than one meaning. There is the kind of profile that has been popularized in movies and TV, or like the one developed for environmental terrorist Ted Kaczynski. In these, officials take the details of a specific crime, piece together the evidence and write a specific profile for the case of what the suspect is likely to be to like.
The other use of the term profile is more general. It refers to the general characteristics of the kind of people who in past cases have been known to commit similar crimes, as in the profiles U.S. Customs agents use in attempting to spot and search drug curriers at airports and other points of entry.
Although the AJC lawyers insist the story was describing the 2nd type of profile, it is not clear to the authors whether Scruggs and Martz knew precisely what kind of profile was being referred to by their sources in the bombing case.
Martz has said he knew there was a profile, but he didn't know who had compiled it and assumed it was the FBI. Scruggs's sources pointed in the same direction. She knew there was some sort of profile. And both reporters believed this was a key factor in the thinking of law enforcement officials now, and needed to be high up in the story.
The third key element in the story was the belief that Jewell had been approaching news organizations trying to make himself into a celebrity. Jewell had appeared on several news programs including CNN's Talk Back Live, NBC's Today Show and NBC News as well as in several print publications including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and USA Today. In these interviews he weighed in on issues such as the sufficiency of training for Olympic Park security guards, the adequacy of the preparation for possible bombing, whether the bombing had been responded to properly and whether it was safe for citizens to return to the park.
In their initial draft, Scruggs and Martz wrote, "Jewell has become a celebrity in the wake of the bombing, making an appearance on the Today Show." As the story was being edited, Burt Roughton, a reporter in charge of non-sports Olympic news, added another sentence after that. "He (Jewell), also has approached newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, seeking publicity for his actions."
"Voice of God" Approach
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a policy against using anonymous sources. It requires the approval of the managing editor to waive the prohibition.
The reasoning behind the ban—and the reason that most news organizations consider the use of anonymous sources a sensitive matter—is that anonymity makes it more difficult for readers or viewers to evaluate for themselves the sources' reliability and possible biases than if the sources were identified.
Walter decided that Scruggs should use what the paper calls the "Voice of God" approach when it came to attributing the information. The Voice of God approach means that the paper would not attribute the story to any sources. Rather it would take the responsibility on itself, implying that not only has the paper learned these things, but vouches for their accuracy.
Walter would explain later that he didn't think attributing the story to unnamed sources "was fair." The reason, he said, is that "once you start introducing sources, then you can have those sources do anything you want. They can speculate wildly. And so I felt safe, I felt better without that word in there." In other words, if the paper took the responsibility itself, because it had multiple sources and was confident it was right, it was more authoritative than if it hung it on some anonymous source who might or might not be someone with real authority.
The fact that suspicion about Jewell had become so widespread among law enforcement sources also made the journalists at the paper comfortable on some other fronts. Neither Walter, nor Scruggs nor Martz would recall having any real worry they were being used to "sweat out" a suspect, that is, put the pressure of public notice on him to get a confession. Scruggs and Martz had used these sources before and trusted them. Nothing about this story had the feel of a coordinated leak.
As Scruggs finished roughing out her story, Managing Editor Walter still wanted some more verification and asked Martz to get it. Martz moved to a quiet section of the newsroom and called a federal law enforcement source, who the reporter says had not given him information on the probe into Jewell prior to this call. After reading him the story verbatim, including the headline, Martz asked if there was anything inaccurate in the account. The source, described by some Journal-Constitution staffers as a federal law enforcement source and by others as an FBI source, responded that he was not "familiar" with Jewell's background in Habersham County, but that otherwise the story contained nothing inaccurate.
Martz says he then asked if there was anything in it that would hinder the investigation in any way, and "the source indicated to me that there were other media outlets that were getting ready to go with basically the same story that afternoon, and the source said that basically, but not in so many words, that it is out already. At this point it is not going to hurt us." The source also expressed concern that the headline "was perhaps a bit strong," but said there were qualifiers that he was not prepared to judge. It is not entirely clear from the documents what those qualifiers were.
The headline read, "FBI suspects 'hero' guard may have planted bomb." While the story avoided the word suspect as a noun, the headline used it as a verb.
With Martz's confirmation, the Journal-Constitution led the paper with a story naming Jewell as the focus in a replated edition on Tuesday, July 30, with a banner headline:
The body of the story that followed said:
To get the story out quickly, the paper broke into its afternoon press run and remade, or, as termed in the printing trade, "replated," the front page.
Martz was not the only one who had been told other news organizations were preparing to report Jewell's transformation from hero to suspect. The FBI had been planning to conduct a non-confrontational interview with Jewell some time on July 30, to be followed the next day by a confrontational interview and possibly a polygraph test.
But the interview was moved up to earlier that day, according to the Justice Department, when "throughout the morning the Atlanta (FBI) Division learned that information concerning Jewell as a suspect may have been leaked to the media. The Atlanta Division was concerned because they did not want Jewell to know at the time he was interviewed that he was a possible suspect because that would undermine the non-confrontational approach.
"Jewell was not just a possible suspect; he was also a potentially valuable witness," the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility said. "Jewell could have been silenced by the allegations in the media. Knowing that, the FBI decided that Jewell should be interviewed as soon as possible."
When two agents arrived at the parking lot of Jewell's mother's apartment where he was staying, they noticed a local television news crew and quickly pulled away to check with superiors. Almost three hours passed before the agents were instructed to try to contact Jewell, despite the media presence. By the time they returned, the Journal-Constitution's replated extra had hit the streets, and the apartment complex was "swarming with media teams," the Justice Department report said. When the agents talked to Jewell, he agreed voluntarily to be interviewed at the FBI offices downtown. He drove his own truck to the session, saying he was afraid that reporters jamming the parking lot would think he was in custody if he rode with the agents.
The questioning downtown was cut short by Jewell's friend and initial attorney, G. Watson Bryant Jr., who incidentally and according to press reports, learned of Jewell as a suspect from the newspaper. But he was not able to stop the interview before the FBI agent committed what the Justice Department later described as "a major error of judgment." He administered Miranda warnings to Jewell, saying he was doing so only because the Bureau was making a training video on what he called "first responders" to scenes of calamities. The ruse endangered the investigation, the Justice Department said, because a judge might well have ruled later that Jewell's waiver of his rights against self-incrimination was not voluntary, knowing and intelligent, as required by law. In that event, any incriminating statements he might have made would have been inadmissible as evidence, along with anything else the statements had lead investigators to discover.
The replated edition of the paper also included a story on an inside page by Kent B. Walker, who, as one of two interns assigned to the Olympics, had interviewed Jewell sometime earlier. The story was headlined "Bomb suspect had sought limelight, press interviews." It contrasted what it said was Jewell's expectation that he was going to shake President Clinton's hand because of his action at the park with the conclusion that the chances of anyone shaking his hand were in fact remote, now that he was suspected of planting the fatal bomb himself.
"Investigators now say that he may be a hero wannabe who planted the bomb so he could discover it later," the story said.
The Role of Television
An executive by training but a journalist by instinct, CNN President Tom Johnson, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, had immediately taken charge of the network's newsgathering on the bombing. He deployed as many of his staff as he could to bring eyewitnesses into the CNN building for debriefings, often before police interviewed them, and to find amateur videos of the explosion. "One thing I learned switching from print to television is the value of amateur video," Johnson told Tom Goldstein, the future dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, in a 1996 reconstruction of the story.
On the same day the bomb went off, Johnson directed Henry Schuster, an experienced CNN producer, and Art Harris, a CNN investigative reporter, to "find out who did it."
When the Journal-Constitution ran its story naming Jewell as the focus, Schuster and Harris were telling Johnson that they were honing in on Jewell as the suspect. Working the web of local, state and national sources they had developed while doing months of advance research on Olympic security, Harris and Schuster had identified inconsistencies in Jewell's story and were convinced he was a suspect. "We knew law enforcement was putting him under a microscope," Harris would tell Goldstein. "This was one of the most sourced things we have ever done," said Schuster. "This was not a simple leak."
As the debate whether to go with a story went on at CNN's headquarters, which overlook Centennial Park, Johnson took a call from a Journal-Constitution editor, alerting him that the paper's replated extra was being published. A CNN staffer was sent to get a copy of the paper, and Johnson called a source in Washington. "My source sold me, 'This is the guy,' and I never found my source to be wrong."
CNN went with the story, first reading the 10-paragraph story from the Journal-Constitution. The CNN President made that decision. "I take total responsibility, I made the call to run the story," he told Goldstein.
Within an hour, CNN had apparently confirmed most of what the paper had published and was now running a story attributed to its own sources. Johnson believed, and still does, that CNN had covered "every conceivable base." But Earl Casey, CNN's senior vice president for domestic newsgathering, said he did not think CNN was quite prepared to go with the story until the newspaper's story was published. He made this comment on an ABC "Nightline" special Aug. 22, 1996, while also noting that CNN had separate confirmation of the turn in the investigation.
With the CNN disclosure, the story was now global, or "out there," in the parlance of the 24-hour-a-day news culture.
Meanwhile, one other TV network had a sense of home field over the bombing story. NBC was carrying the Olympics, and most of its news personalities were in Atlanta for the event.
NBC's reporting was, as Goldstein has put it, "all over the place." Shortly after Jewell was named as the focus, Tom Brokaw said in a news broadcast: "The speculation is that the FBI is close to 'making the case' in their language. They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still some holes in this case."
By that first Tuesday night, July 30, Brokaw was not talking about "the speculation." Instead, he reported that Jewell was "on the short list of suspects." By the next morning, NBC correspondent Pete Williams on the "Today Show" elevated him to the "top of their list right now." But Katie Couric seemed to back-pedal slightly in her language, saying that some things about Jewell "might fit the profile" of the bomber. That night, Wednesday, Brokaw said that Jewell was "still the central focus." Correspondent Fred Francis suggested, "[I]f the FBI has a case against Richard Jewell, it is moving very, very cautiously after a lot of fanfare." But then Pete Williams, a former Pentagon press spokesman highly regarded for his sources in the FBI and Justice, said that "it was possible that an arrest could come as early as tomorrow."
Brokaw would later say on CBS's "60 Minutes" that he had "very high-ranking federal law enforcement officials in Washington and in Atlanta" who had confirmed the story. He also noted that the report included the qualification: "Please, understand absolutely that he is only the focus of this investigation. He's not even a suspect yet." This despite the language used in other broadcasts to the contrary.
The day after Jewell's name surfaced, CNN's "Crossfire" show, in a program ostensibly exploring the question of whether Jewell might be another victim of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, engaged in its own form of bashing. Bill Press, challenging the suggestion that Jewell did not have to be named in the early reports, said: "Just hours before we found out he's a suspect, he was basking in all the media glow, going to every radio station, every TV station that would have him and basically painting himself as a hero and a Boy Scout and enjoying the attention. Now, the fact that this guy, whom we're all admiring and worshipping, then is named a suspect; are you telling me that is not a story?"
On the same program two days after Jewell had been named as the focus of the probe, CNN's Press said: "We're accused of destroying the reputation of Mr. Jewell. I read today that Mr. Jewell has been arrested in the past for—he's charged with—impersonating a police officer. He was called an over-zealous enforcer of the law, made arrests way outside his jurisdiction. He wrecked a police car racing another police officer down a mountain. His former employer, the county sheriff, said: 'Can't say too much good about him.'"
Turning to Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia, a guest on the program, he commented, "He did a pretty good job of destroying his own reputation, first, didn't he, Larry?"
To which Sabato replied, "You know, Bill, that's a great example of what happens when some poor soul, and I'm going to assume he's innocent until it's proven otherwise, some poor soul wanders into the media spotlight, because that's what happens. I remember the fellow who deflected the gun from President Ford out in California in 1975 and he saved the president's life and within 48 hours, a newspaper had revealed to his family, who didn't know, that he was gay."
Day Two, July 31, 1996
The story contained Jewell's denial when asked by reporters whether he had planted the deadly bomb: "No, sir. I didn't." The story also quoted his attorney as claiming the FBI told him Jewell was not a suspect or target of the probe. The FBI would not confirm the statement. Jewell was quoted further as telling reporters: "I'm sure they're investigating everyone who was in the area. To be honest, hearing that from y'all, I don't know whether that's fact or fiction."
The article reported Jewell's difficulties at Piedmont College, whose president had called authorities after watching Jewell on CNN. As a member of the campus security force, Jewell had been considered erratic and somewhat excitable, the paper quoted Cleere as saying, and had quit when he was asked to move back to part-time work from full-time employment.
Jewell had also run into difficulties on earlier jobs with the Habersham county sheriff's office, the paper said. He had begun work there as a jailer. Later, the paper reported, he had been charged with impersonating a police officer and, while serving as a patrol deputy, he had gotten into trouble for colliding with a squad car.
Inside that same paper, additional stories ran under such headlines as:
The Kindred Column
Kindred would later say that he had not intended to liken Jewell to Williams in the Aug. 1 column, and he did not believe he had done so. He also said he was not concerned about listing the address of Jewell's mother's apartment in the column. "The detail... I like details," he explained.
As a matter of journalistic style, the column by Kindred, a former sportswriter for the Washington Post, belongs to a genre of urban color writing in which detail is piled on detail to create a mood or feel for a scene. It is not news reporting, nor is it meant to be. Kindred described his column as a "city column."
In this case, though, some within the Journal-Constitution itself—including four copy editors who later would say that they had raised questions at the time—have been critical of what Kindred wrote about Jewell. Nowhere did Kindred directly equate Jewell with Williams; indeed, the columnist noted that the FBI had "come up empty" before. Nonetheless, the Kindred column did link a suspect not arrested or charged, let alone convicted, and a man serving a life sentence for the cold-blooded murders of two children.
Copy editor Sharon Bailey, who had primary responsibility for handling the column, would later say that she had spotted "material in it I thought was problematic... I thought it was possible that we could be sued over some of this material." When she expressed her concerns to George Edmonson, assistant managing editor for news, Bailey said he said he would take a look at it. But Edmonson, who said he didn't think there was a problem with the Kindred column and would run it again, says he relayed the concern to Managing Editor John Walter in a telephone call. But Walter said he did not recall that telephone conversation.
Another copy editor, Anita Harkins, said she tried to discuss her concern about the column's fairness with night editor James Mallory. She said his response was "something along the lines of, 'Well, it's a Dave Kindred column,'" and that he was distracted by color problems on the front page. Mallory says he has no memory of this happening and that "if a copy editor would have came [sic] to me as said, we should kill a column, I would have remembered that."
A third copy editor, Patricia Koester, was sitting across from Harkins and remembers calling up the column on her computer at Harkins' request. She said she told her colleague, "I think this column is libelous and we need to kill it." Her reasons: "The references to Wayne Williams and the missing and murdered children's case and the fact that the person being talked about wasn't charged."
On the same day the Kindred column ran, the paper did a separate story headlined "Reports say agents backing off." It noted that two television networks had "suggested" in their reporting that federal agents' suspicions of Jewell might be diminishing. On the same page was a story sketching out Jewell's law enforcement work at Piedmont College and as a Habersham county deputy sheriff. The headline: "Police work 'was his life': Some in the North Georgia town say Jewell 'was on a power kick.'" There were three other related stories on the page:
Throughout the investigation the AJC covered other non-Jewell stories related to the bombing and the Olympics. The July 30th paper included these short stories:
"Magazines switch covers after bombing," p.30S: about three major newsweeklies that changed their cover to reflect the bombing at the Olympic park.
"Celebration resumes: Olympic Park Open Again," p.1A: described the reopening of the park and the spirit of visitors.
"Entrepreneurs near park reopen stalls to eager crowds," p.33S: about vendors reopening their booths once the main streets were reopened to public traffic.
And on July 31st:
"Crimes committed by guards plague security industry," p.11A: about the black shadow that Richard Jewell has cast over the hiring of the Olympic security guards and past problems of guards committing crimes.
"'We still love this park,'" p.1S: described how people still had faith in the Olympic venues.
On Aug. 2, the main news story on the bombing that day ran beneath this headline:
The Aftermath, August 3, 1996 and Beyond
On Aug. 10—ten days after naming him as the focus of the FBI probe—the paper reported Jewell's criminal defense lawyer arguing it was physically impossible for his client to have made the 911 call, given his known whereabouts at the time of the Olympic Park blast. In a story headlined, "Timing Indicates Jewell Didn't Make Bomb Threat," the AJC reported that "The telephoned bomb threat to Centennial Olympic Park on July 27 apparently came about one minute after security guard Richard Jewell pointed out the bomb to police. If the times of the two incidents are correct, it means Jewell could not have made a 911 call alerting police to the bomb." The story later suggested that AJC staffers themselves had timed how long it would take a person to cross the distance between the location 911 call and where Jewell was at the time of the explosion. "...A brisk walk from the phone to the site of the sound and light tower took about four minutes and 45 seconds."
Jewell's lawyer went on to argue in the story that these facts suggested that Jewell could thus only have been involved if he had an accomplice. But, he argued, "the theory of a person setting off a bomb to become a hero doesn't work if you have an accomplice." The story said federal officials would not say whether they believed two people were involved in the bombing or whether the 911 call and the bombing were unrelated. An FBI spokesman would say only: "We're still looking at a number of suspects."
One important facet of this new information was a statement in the story that "federal investigators apparently have known about the timing of the two calls since shortly after the blast."
It is unclear what the AJC meant by "shortly after the blast," but it is certainly possible that this was less than three days. That would mean that by July 30, the day the AJC first named Jewell as a suspect, law enforcement investigators already had reason to question whether Jewell could have been the bomber.
On August 10, the paper ran two bomb-related stories that focused on issues other than the bomber's identity. One explored the question of why a backup 911 system was not used when transmission of the call to authorities on the scene was delayed. Another reported that explosive experts thought investigators had learned exactly how the bomb was constructed. It said the device had been made of three galvanized steel pipes, but only one went off-a failure that was attributed to incorrect fusing or an inexperienced bomb maker counting on a chain reaction, which the experts said did not happen with pipe bombs.
The story on how the Olympic Park bomb had been built and triggered made another point as well. In the second and third to last paragraphs it explains:
Then on August 20, the Journal-Constitution reported that Jewell had passed a polygraph examination in which he denied any involvement in the bombing. A retired FBI polygraph expert, Richard Rackleff, who was paid by Jewell's attorneys, had conducted the examination. "He didn't do it," Rackleff was quoted as saying. "There's not any doubt in my mind. He had no knowledge about the bomb.... The tests show he absolutely was not involved."
The story quoted the head of Atlanta's federal public defender's office as vouching for Rackleff's qualifications and integrity; the next day's editions of the paper tempered those assurances by noting that Rackleff had previously "cleared" an admitted child molester and a man convicted of hiring a business associate to kill his wife.
A few days later, on August 23, the paper reported an ABC News poll that found a large majority of Americans believed Jewell had been treated unfairly by the media. Part of a Ted Koppel special entitled "The Bizarre Case of Richard Jewell," the poll showed 69 percent of respondents agreed that the media treated Jewell unfairly, 25 percent thought he had been treated fairly and the remaining 6 percent had no opinion. The poll found people to be more evenly divided on the question of who was responsible for damaging Jewell's reputation: 41 percent blamed the media, 32 percent law enforcement and 25 percent holding both responsible.
Not long after that, Barbara Jewell attended a news conference called by her son's attorneys and urged President Clinton to intervene and exonerate him. "My son has no life … He is a prisoner in my home," the Journal-Constitution quoted her as saying before breaking down in tears and leaving the podium. Three days later it was reported that the White House declined comment and Attorney General Janet Reno refused to exonerate Jewell or apologize to his mother, though the Attorney General did add, "I understand how she must feel."
In its pursuit to find the bomber, the FBI kept Richard Jewell as a suspect. As late as September U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander asserted in a written submission that the affidavits supporting the Jewell search warrants should remain sealed because he "remains a suspect."
By October 8, Alexander offered different reasons. He urged the judge to keep sealed search warrant affidavits on the grounds that the affidavits would disclose a road map of the government's investigation to the bomber or other potential bombers. "This person or persons can strike again," Alexander said, adding that public identification of witnesses cited in the Jewell affidavits may prevent others from coming forward.
On October 26, Alexander informed Jewell he was no longer a "target" of the investigation.
Ron Ostrow joined the Los Angeles Times in 1962 as a business and financial reporter based in L.A. then in 1966 he moved to their Washington bureau where he covered the Justice Department, law enforcement and investigations until his retirement in 1998. During that tenure he also spent a few years covering the U.S. Supreme Court. Ostrow now freelances for the Times as well as National Public Radio and teaches a course on Washington reporting at the University of Southern Calif. He is the co-author of three books including Taking Care of the Law, with former Atty. Gen. Griffin B. Bell; William Morrow & Co., 1982.