I am one of the reasons he didn’t.
Jewell might have been the first victim of the 24-hour cable news cycle. He went from hero to villain in less than three days. Jewell was working security in Centennial Olympic Park when he discovered a backpack containing a bomb and alerted law enforcement. The bomb exploded, and soon, so did his life, after the FBI decided he was the suspect and the media piled on.
If Jewell was the first, it would only get worse. Cable news accelerated the pace, but social media made the rush to judgment instantaneous — as quick as machine trading on Wall Street, but without any circuit-breakers.
I had barely gone to sleep around 1:30 a.m. on the night of Saturday, July 27, 1996, when the phone rang.
Our assignment desk said there had been an explosion during a concert in Centennial Olympic Park, across the street from our offices at CNN Center. By the time I made it downtown, it was clear from sources and witnesses that this had been a bomb. The streets nearby were filled with panic, ambulances and carnage.
The blast killed one woman and injured 111; a cameraman died of a heart attack as he rushed to cover the explosion. These days, we would call it an IED. In those more innocent times, the murder weapon was called a pipe bomb, and it had been carried into the park in a military-style backpack, then left by a bench.
During a news conference in those early hours, someone from the Georgia State Patrol mentioned that a security guard named Richard had spotted the backpack and alerted law enforcement. He seemed to be the hero of the story. I turned to a guest booker and asked her to track him down.
By that evening, we had our man. Less than 24 hours after the bombing, Jewell and his mother arrived at CNN. He was flustered. Traffic in the area had been heavy, and they had to rush the last several blocks. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), then House speaker, and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) were in our newsroom. Both wanted to shake his hand and thank the hero. Even before he sat down on the set, Jewell was distracted by the attention.
The interview I had pushed for set off the chain of events that led to what Jewell later described as “88 days of hell.”
A former employer of Jewell’s, the president of a college in north Georgia, was watching and called the FBI. He wanted the bureau to know that Jewell had worked for him and that he had been forced to resign. Agents in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va., were also paying attention. They wondered why Jewell looked uncomfortable and his eyes shifted around — he seemed suspicious. They may not have considered that this was Jewell’s first TV interview and that it was being done remotely; he was hearing questions from an anchor in Washington through an earpiece. They were too busy thinking about Jimmy Wade Pearson. During the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Pearson was a police officer who claimed to have found a bomb on a bus carrying luggage for Turkish athletes. Pearson later admitted planting the device so he could be the hero of his own story.
Jewell had been a sheriff’s deputy before working security at the college, and he’d moved to Atlanta hoping to boost his career. His stint in law enforcement had not been without controversy. If you were an FBI profiler, you could make it all seem sinister.
A colleague and I interviewed him again the next night for a special report. After we turned off the cameras, Jewell casually mentioned that he would not be surprised, based on his training, if he was considered a suspect. That’s just the way it worked, he implied: Until you found the culprit, everyone in proximity, especially the guy who discovered the bomb, was in the frame.
With the world’s media already gathered in Atlanta — 20,000 of us, by some counts — the FBI was under intense pressure to solve the case quickly. FBI Director Louis Freeh became personally involved. Agents were chasing down dozens of leads, trying to figure out who had been near the bench and who had made a 911 call from a public phone several blocks away a few minutes earlier. “There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes,” said the caller, who didn’t realize that the warning would never be relayed.
The FBI called Jewell to the Atlanta field office on Tuesday afternoon, pretending they were making a training tape. He was the hero, so they wanted his help. No need to bring a lawyer. They were going to lead him in, lead him on and then spring their trap. As they were trying to trick him into a confession, Freeh called Atlanta and told the agents in the room to read Jewell his rights. The agents made the situation worse by pretending that giving him his Miranda rights was part of the training tape.
Law enforcement sources were already telling journalists that Jewell was under investigation. Even before he made it to the FBI for his interview, several of us were meeting in the office of CNN’s president, Tom Johnson, to discuss how we would report the news. Should we call him a “suspect” or use the more cautious term “person of interest”? That’s when Johnson got a call from an editor of the Atlanta Journal saying the paper was about to put out a special edition naming Jewell as the bombing suspect.
Then things went off the rails.
Instead of going with the more neutral language we favored, Johnson had the anchors on set hold up the front page of the Journal and read the headlines. By the time Jewell’s lawyer heard the news reports and managed to get through the FBI switchboard to his client, telling him to get out of the field office, the collective weight of law enforcement and the media had begun turning Jewell from a hero to a villain. Our wall-to-wall coverage was underway: We became the FBI’s megaphone. There was no nuance in those first 48 hours.
This was 1996, the dawn of the Internet age, so the process took some time. The Atlanta paper reported it, we ran it over and over as breaking news, and those thousands of reporters covering the Olympics had their lead. By the next day, Jewell was notorious worldwide. (Now, with social media, a reputation can be destroyed in nanoseconds.)
I’m still a journalist, and I still love to break news, but I get queasy anytime I see a “breaking news” banner on screen. It used to be reserved for events like 9/11. Now, it’s often less than a morsel of news, chewed over by endless panels of underqualified and over-opinionated pundits who replace reporting with pontification. Time gets filled, reputations get ruined — and no one bothers to check if the story is true.
Think how much worse it would have been for Jewell in 2019.
We later did a story that same week showing that under the FBI’s timeline of the bombing, Jewell couldn’t have made the warning call to 911. By then, though, it didn’t matter. The media was camped out in front of the Jewells’ apartment. Every time he went somewhere, he was followed by an absurd caravan of FBI agents and cameras. It was relentless, and it was wrong.
Richard Jewell was not the Olympic Park bomber.
Despite the innuendo and FBI leaks that he was their man, Jewell was never charged. The U.S. attorney even took the unusual step of writing a letter that fall saying Jewell wasn’t a suspect.
Eventually, there were more bombings using similar devices, outside a gay nightclub and at abortion clinics in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala. A police officer was killed, a nurse maimed. The real culprit was finally identified more than a year later; he was a Christian terrorist who hated the “New World Order,” abortion and the Olympics. But as soon as Eric Robert Rudolph was named, he disappeared into the mountains of North Carolina. He was caught dumpster-diving five years later.
The happiest I saw Jewell was April 13, 2005, the day Rudolph pleaded guilty in federal court in Atlanta to the Olympics bombing. Jewell was smiling before the hearing, looking fit in the company of his wife. He’d never gotten proper recognition for his heroism after those first few days. But his lawyers negotiated settlements from NBC, CNN, the New York Post and Piedmont College, whose president had called the FBI. He got nothing from the Atlanta newspaper, which argued that its reporting, like ours, had been correct at the time — and that Jewell was a public figure, thanks to the interviews he had done for us at CNN, and therefore faced a tougher standard in suing for defamation.
I didn’t say sorry when I saw Jewell that April day. We simply exchanged greetings. I saw him again a year later, at a training exercise for local law officers. He was back on the job as a sheriff’s deputy and friendly, although he went cold when he saw an FBI agent in attendance. A couple of days later, I sat at the computer and started my letter of apology, got frustrated and hit save. A year after that, Jewell died at 44, after months of failing health; my letter remained unfinished and unsent.
So how do I make sense of it all these years later, when I have an Emmy on my shelf for CNN’s coverage from those first 24 hours?
We in the media got it wrong, even though our reporting was right. There’s the paradox: Jewell really was the FBI’s main suspect. Yes, the FBI has a lot to answer for, but this is about our responsibility. Suppose that CNN had been more nuanced and called Jewell a person of interest; our repetitive and relentless coverage would still have made it look like the authorities thought he was the culprit.
In my own reporting, I’ve learned to be more skeptical of sources, especially when they claim to speak for government — especially at its highest levels. My stories these days don’t go to air without relentless fact-checking, and my scripts have more footnotes than any term paper I did in college.
But the lesson is, that isn’t always enough. It’s also how you report it and how everyone else is reporting it, too. Someone else’s guilty plea and several court settlements didn’t give Jewell his good name back. Maybe the film finally will.
And next time? I will own up to my responsibility. I will finish that letter. It’s never too late to apologize.