Jewell ‘Caught In The Middle’
Reviewed by Carolyn Schurr Levin
Journalists sometimes get it wrong. When they do, there are clarifications and corrections, new or revised newsroom policies, and a lot of hand wringing. There may also be lawsuits. That was the case when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) named security guard Richard Jewell as the suspect who placed the bomb in Centennial Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Many other news outlets followed the AJC in naming Jewell as “the suspect.” Jewell was not, in fact, the perpetrator of the crime. But the FBI had identified him as a suspect, and the media willingly and enthusiastically picked up on the storyline. After being cleared of any wrongdoing, Jewell sued the media outlets, settling with some (NBC paid $595,000, CNN paid $350,000) and engaging in protracted litigation with others, including a 15-year court battle with the AJC.
For many years, I have used Richard Jewell’s prodigious litigation to teach about republication liability in libel cases (one who repeats a defamatory falsehood can be held liable to the same extent as the original speaker). In doing so, though, I did not address, or in fact think much about, the human impact of the error – on the wrongfully named individual, on the journalists, or on the source. In “The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle,” authors Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen provide a powerful, in-depth and highly personal account of what happens to a human being when the FBI and subsequently the news media erroneously name him as a suspect in a high profile crime. As Salwen said during a recent phone interview, “whether you are in the FBI, or the media, or the news consuming public,” this book reminds you that “there is a human being on the other side.”
The authors are intimately familiar with the crime, the search for a suspect, and the subsequent sequence of events. Alexander was the federal prosecutor who worked with the FBI to find the Olympic bomber and later wrote the letter clearing Jewell. Salwen was a Wall Street Journal reporter and editor who ran the paper’s southeastern section during the 1996 Olympic Games. Together Alexander and Salwen have crafted a narrative not only about Jewell’s life before and after the crime, but also about the FBI agent who made the case against Jewell and the AJC reporter who publicly named him as the prime suspect, both erroneously.
Why are Alexander and Salwen telling Jewell’s story now, nearly 25 years after the Olympic bombing? “Perhaps revisiting the tale of Richard Jewell will encourage the current media to pause longer and presume innocence before rushing to suggest guilt,” they write. “Perhaps law enforcement will use the Jewell case as a rallying cry to treat leaks of individuals’ names as criminal acts, not just inevitabilities. And perhaps all of us in the news-consuming public will reconsider our expectation of immediacy and ponder the benefits of returning to an era when accuracy was prized over speed.” After reading “The Suspect,” I couldn’t agree more with the authors about this book’s relevance, even so many years after the crime. In fact, I came away with the strong feeling that every journalism student should be required to read this book, if for no other reason than to make them fully aware of the wide ranging and potentially devastating impact of the stories that they tell, and to cause them to pause, double check and triple check those stories.
The 1996 Olympic Games brought 197 nations, two million visitors and 15,000 journalists to Atlanta. It was a big story for all of those journalists, but especially for the AJC, which put a massive team in place, seeking to be “the go-to media outlet for Atlanta-area readers and, in turn, visitors from around the world in 1996.” The reporter at the center of the Jewell story, Kathy Scruggs, who dreamed of “becoming a star police reporter,” worked hard and spent years cultivating law enforcement sources, but was also a divisive force in the newsroom. She is emblematic of police reporters in so many newsrooms, Salwen said.
On July 26, Jewell, who was working as a security guard at the Olympics, spotted an olive-green knapsack in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, containing the largest bomb of its kind in FBI history. The bomb detonated minutes later, killing two people and wounding 111 others. Jewell became a hero for saving many other lives. Touted as a hero, he readily agreed to interviews, even drawing an extensive map of the explosion scene. Media outlets went into overdrive, with CNN.com, MSNBC.com and USAToday.com updating their websites within an hour of the bombing, the authors write. For the AJC, “[t]he pressure of having 15,000 journalists in the AJC’s backyard weighed like the moisture in Atlanta’s summer air.”
The FBI also went into overdrive in an effort to locate the perpetrator of the crime. Soon after the crime, the FBI targeted Jewell, who “fit the profile of the lone bomber, the hero bomber.” Before AJC’s Scruggs named Jewell in print, she did try to confirm the information she had received from her FBI source. Although she was able to confirm Jewell’s name with another source at the Atlanta Police Department, and, as Salwen put it, “there was no doubt that Richard Jewell was the lead suspect,” the FBI hadn’t said anything publicly about Jewell and there had been no charges or arrests. Knowing “the public insisted on speed,” the AJC decided to run the story anyway (this was, as Salwen puts it, “a social media story set in a pre-social media era”). The AJC headline read: “FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb.” CNN followed with “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a special edition, today identified a security guard named Richard Jewell as the prime suspect in the Atlanta bombing.” With that, Jewell’s life changed forever.
Media outlets all over the country reiterated the “news” that Jewell was “the suspect.” Many of those outlets were “relentless,” according to the authors. The New York Post headline asked if he was “Saint or Savage?” Despite the thousands of journalists in Atlanta for the Olympics, “few did much original reporting,” the authors state. The Olympic games continued, but Jewell “had to close himself off at home,” surveilled by the FBI and hounded by the media. The three broadcast networks and CNN had even pooled resources to rent an apartment in the complex next to Jewell’s for $1,000 a day, the authors write.
Most disturbingly, only “a few publications, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, remained cautious, carefully stepping around any presumption of guilt.” The Arizona Republic “editorialized on the media’s behavior,” writing that “Jewell is the latest victim of media competition running wild in the age of instant information. . . Would it be too much to wait for the results of the investigation?”
As we now know, the results of that investigation found that there was no connection between Jewell and the bomb. Jewell was never arrested, was never charged with a crime, and was in fact innocent. The actual perpetrator of the crime, Eric Rudolph, was found in 2003 and confessed.
On Saturday, October 26, 1996, three months after the AJC named Jewell as “the suspect,” the FBI delivered to Jewell a “clearance letter,” stating that he was “not considered a target of the federal criminal investigation into the bombing on July 27, 1996.” The lawsuits soon began. Jewell filed suits against CNN, NBC, the New York Post, Time magazine, AJC and others.
Can months of inaccurate coverage ever be undone? Jewell attempted to rebuild his life. He got a new job as a police officer in Luthersville, Georgia, got married, bought a farm in middle Georgia, and was named by People magazine as one of “The 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year.” Oprah Winfrey told Jewell, “we owe you a big apology for making the judgement in our minds before we heard the facts.”
But, Jewell had serious health problems, exacerbated by stress, and died of a heart attack at the age of 44. Scruggs, the AJC reporter, spent years “trying to handle the pressure” of defending her work during depositions in the lawsuit that Jewell brought. She died at the age of 42 in 2001. Her source, whose FBI career “had dissolved in a muddle of internal investigations,” died at the age of 57 in 2003. It was not only Jewell’s life that had been seriously impacted by the false charges, but also the lives of the journalist and the FBI agent.
Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Richard Jewell,” which opened on Dec. 13, is based on “The Suspect.” Authors Alexander and Salwen had roles as consultants to the producing team. The film, seemingly like everything else related to the 1996 Olympic bombing, has drawn its own controversies. Some commentators tried to portray it as, what the New York Times termed, “a veiled pro-Trump polemic” which goes after Trump foes, the FBI and the press. The AJC threatened legal action against Warner Bros. for the way its journalists, particularly Scruggs, are portrayed in the film.
Irrespective of the latest controversy, with the movie and with Alexander and Salwen’s new book, both released in late 2019, and a series planned for Spectrum TV, it is clear that the events of July 26, 1996 continue to intrigue us. Although Jewell, the journalist and the FBI agent are no longer alive, “The Suspect” is nonetheless an important story about the personal consequences of “getting it wrong.” This book will enlighten student journalists about the importance of pausing, digging deeper, and using their best efforts to “get it right.” Or, as Salwen put it, “remembering there is a human being on the other side of the story.” Perhaps, the authors hope, it will lead us back to a place where accuracy is just as valued as immediacy.
Carolyn Schurr Levin, a media and First Amendment attorney, is Of Counsel at the media law firm of Miller Korzenik Sommers Rayman LLP. She was the Vice President and General Counsel of Newsday, Vice President and General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media, and Media Law Adviser for the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. She has taught media law at Baruch College, Stony Brook University, Long Island University, and Pace University. From 2010-2019, she was the faculty adviser for the Pioneer, the student newspaper at Long Island University, during which time the Pioneer won 28 awards.