By: Dorothy Giobbe
ATLANTA SECURITY GUARD Richard Jewell is still a suspect in the Olympic Centennial Park bombing ? at least officially.
Despite a painstaking search of all areas save his bodily orifices, the FBI has not produced any evidence that links him to the deadly July 27 explosion.
Jewell may yet be implicated in the crime. He believes, however, that even if the FBI clears him, the cluster-bomb media coverage this summer has doomed his security guard career. Recent news of Jewell has trickled off to bi-weekly bleats generated mostly by his lawyers.
Jewell’s legal team is demanding records from the FBI, and is threatening to sue members of the media for libel. High on their list is the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, which first named Jewell as a suspect based on information leaked by an FBI source.
“As night follows day, the Atlanta Journal Constitution will be sued. There is no doubt about it,” vowed G. Watson Bryant, one of Jewell’s Atlanta attorneys.
“They said he fit the profile of a lone bomber and that he sought publicity,” Bryant said. “Those are two big lies.”
Outside the legal arena, Jewell’s situation raises questions about how far the press should go to report on criminal suspects who haven’t been formally charged. Further, some media depictions of Jewell ? from hero security guard to pathetic sociopath ? strike many as grossly unfair.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics ? voted on and passed at the September SPJ convention ? recommends that the press “be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.”
SPJ Ethics Committee chairman Jay Black of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg said that the code is intended to serve as “guiding principles as people sift and sort through the tough calls.”
Does Black think that the spirit of the code was followed in the Jewell situation?
“Not terribly well,” he said. “I think it’s problematic. It doesn’t seem to me that they were judicious. . . . But we are not all of one mind on this.”
Editors at the Journal and Constitution aren’t giving interviews, but the newspaper has issued a general statement about its coverage of Jewell.
“This is an important story that we’ve pursued aggressively from the start, and we are still reporting it,” the statement reads. “Our initial story accurately reported that the focus of the investigation had turned to a particular individual.
“Since that story, we have published many more, quoting Mr. Jewell, his attorneys, and investigators, on the developments in the case. It’s premature to hold a post-mortem when the story is still unfolding,” the statement concludes.
In the trenches
Darrell Christian, managing editor for the Associated Press, said that the news cooperative generally does not go with sources that identify suspects where no charges have been brought.
“Without pointing fingers, most of the blame, if there is any blame, would be pointed at the law enforcement sources,” Christian said. “The media didn’t invent Richard Jewell as a suspect.”
The bombing, Christian said, involved “special circumstances,” having to do with the magnitude of the act. AP’s initial report cited the Journal and Constitution story as its basis for naming Jewell. “By the time we went with it, it had already been on CNN,” Christian said. “To have ignored it at that point would have been sticking our heads in the sand.”
After its first report, AP verified the information with its own law enforcement sources, Christian added.
“This obviously became a stampede, and I’m not sure under those circumstances that there was any way to avoid it,” Christian added. “There was a bombing at the Olympics, and the FBI was saying that they had a suspect.”
Second time around
If cleared, Jewell certainly isn’t the first innocent person to be identified as a criminal suspect. In 1990, Enterprise, Ala., resident Wayne O’Ferrell was named by the FBI as a suspect in a fatal mail bombing.
As the FBI conducted their investigation of
O’Ferrell, hordes of media trucks camped outside O’Ferrell’s house for weeks. Even though no charges against him were ever filed, O’Ferrell says his health, family and business were damaged by the investigation. He is suing the FBI for $20 million.
William Brown, vice president for news at the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser recalled coverage of O’Ferrell.
“It became such a public spectacle in a fairly small town. It wasn’t a quiet investigation ? the FBI made it a public event. There was no way not to cover it, because it wasn’t like an FBI source telling a reporter that they were looking at someone. Whether the FBI did [O’Farrell] a disservice, I think, seems apparent in hindsight.”
When Jewell was named as a suspect in the Olympic bombing, Brown said the newspaper ran a wire service report that cited the Journal and Constitution story.
“If the same story had happened in Montgomery, there probably would have been more agonizing and soul-searching. But [with Jewell] you’re not going to be getting a jury here, and no one knows him,” Brown said. “I wish we could say that there was a lot of soul-searching and agonizing, but that was not the case.”
Brown added that there isn’t one test that can be uniformly applied in all situations.
“As long as we have a free press, there always will be a multiplicity of decisions as to what is the right thing to do,” he said.
“The realities of modern media make it more difficult for you to set your standards and absolutely stick with them. Philosophically, that’s not a great excuse for editors to violate their standards, but concretely, I think that can become the case,” Brown said.
Jewell’s attorney, Watson, is firm about his view of press ethics.
“You should attribute the source where the information comes from, give it the play it deserves and be accurate,” he said. “There should also be a respect for privacy. The fact that Richard Jewell was a suspect was grossly exaggerated, sensationalized and yellow journalism.”
Bryant ? who says he has received letters addressed to Jewell as the “UnaBubba” and to Jewell’s mother as the “UnaMomma” ? said that his client is linked inextricably to the picture of a bombing suspect.
“The clearance of Richard Jewell will not get as much play as the vilification Richard Jewell got,” Bryant said.
“I know it’s a judgment call and I believe in the First Amendment, but I think that when you give it the kind of play that it got, you need to have some kind of balancing test. Richard Jewell has been destroyed in this process.”
?(Photographers, television crews and reporters set up outside the apartment of Richard Jewell, following publication of his name as the suspect in theJuly bombing at Olympic Centennial Park.) [Caption & Photo]
?(Richard Jewell, a 33-year-old security guard, who two-and-a-half month after the FBI leaked his name as a suspect in the Atlanta Olympic Centennial Park bombing, has still not been charged or cleared) [Photo & Caption]
?(Barbara Jewell, mother of olympic bomb suspect Richard Jewell, breaks down in tears Aug. 26 during a press conference after appealing to President Clinton to have the FBI end its prolong investigation of her son.) [Caption]
?(An FBI agent carries out plastic evidence bags after the July 31 search of Richard Jewell’s apartment.) [Caption]