Jerry Moore: Jewell story didn’t make the media shine

Jerry Moore

Perhaps as much as anyone else, Richard Jewell understood that the news is not always good. And by “news,” I’m not referring to the topic of stories published in papers and broadcast on television and radio.

By “news,” I mean the news business, the industry of journalism. Jewell, who died three weeks ago, was the target of “bad news” in the summer of 1996.

During that year’s Olympic Games in Atlanta, Jewell was working as a security guard. One night he discovered a suspicious package in Centennial Park, alerted authorities and helped evacuate people from the area before the device exploded.

For a few days Jewell basked in the glow of being heralded as a hero. But then some reporters got hold of a “lone bomber” profile that the FBI was using in investigating him as a potential suspect, and that was all the mass media needed to go nuts with the story.

Jewell was identified by news organizations as a possible suspect in the bombing, which killed one person and injured more than 100 others. Journalists expounded on the “lone bomber” theory and went out of their way to ensure Jewell fit the profile to a T.

I recall watching “Nightline” on ABC and being stunned at how eager the show was to make the connection between Jewell and the bombing, despite a lack of any evidence or criminal charges. But as long as the backdrop for the suspicion was this profile, pure speculation wasn’t improper.

The problem with this mindset is that a criminal profile didn’t set the bomb, a person did. And that person was not Richard Jewell. Eric Rudolph — who somehow came to believe that murdering people was an effective way to pressure the government into respecting life — later pleaded guilty to the Centennial Park and other bombings.

Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko took full advantage of the widespread rumoring about the Atlanta bombing and raked Jewell over the coals. In demonstrating that he had become a journalistic hack operating under the influence of laziness, Royko described Jewell as “a pudgy nobody, a face in the crowd, who apparently likes working in rent-a-cop jobs where he can wear a uniform and a badge and has some authority.”

The latter part of Royko’s caricature could well apply to anyone who works as a security guard, despite that such individuals provide an incredibly valuable service. But the first part of his description was what truly fascinated me.

In calling him “a pudgy nobody,” Royko was declaring that Jewell had no value as a person. This, of course, lent credence to the hypothesis that this nobody committed a horrific act in an attempt to make himself a somebody.

Who in the hell was Mike Royko to call anyone’s life meaningless? Even after Jewell was ruled out as a suspect, Royko refused to concede he was wrong on the issue.

In a follow-up column, Royko suggested that Jewell should be thankful that all the unwarranted attention had spiced up his trivial existence. What utter hubris!

This is what concerns me the most about the news industry, a sense of entitlement to report conclusions that haven’t been reached. Reporters don’t usually go overboard like they did with Jewell, but the potential is always there.

I was very uneasy with the picture of Jewell as a domestic terrorist being drawn by the media. But I was even more alarmed that no journalist seemed willing to question the prevailing wisdom in hopes of shielding an innocent person from undo accusations.

This is one of the roles of the news business. The industry failed in this instance, however, resulting in grave consequences.

My fear is that journalists haven’t learned much from this sad chapter and will repeat the same mistakes. The only unresolved issue is who will be served up as the next victim of such media arrogance. God help that person when the “bad news” rolls over them.

Jerry Moore is a news editor with GateHouse Media Suburban Newspapers. He can be reached at jmoore@libertysuburban.com.