“Dear Richard,” the letter began, “I owe you an apology.”
Writing an apology is not something journalists are used to doing. But with the release of “Richard Jewell,” Clint Eastwood’s new movie about the aftermath of the 1996 bombing in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, those of us who reported the story are doing a fresh round of soul-searching.
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.
I had barely gone to sleep around 1:30 a.m. on the night of Saturday, July 27, 1996, when the phone rang. There had been an explosion during a concert in Centennial Olympic Park. By the time I made it downtown, it was clear 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. A pipe bomb 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.
Less than 24 hours after the bombing, Jewell and his mother arrived at CNN. He was flustered. 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 seemed suspicious. They were thinking about Jimmy Wade Pearson, a police officer during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 who claimed to have found a bomb on a bus and 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.
With the world’s media already gathered in Atlanta, the FBI was under intense pressure to solve the case quickly. FBI Director Louis Freeh became personally involved. Agents were 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.
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.
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.
By the next day, Jewell was notorious worldwide.
Today, with social media, the speed with which faulty information can spread is much worse. 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. Time gets filled, reputations get ruined — and no one bothers to check if the story is true.
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.
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. 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.
The happiest I saw Jewell was April 13, 2005, the day the real bomber pleaded guilty in federal court in Atlanta. 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 Journal-Constitution, 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.
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. Someone else’s guilty plea and several court settlements didn’t give Jewell his good name back. Maybe the film finally will.
Henry Schuster was an investigative producer for CNN during the Olympics bombing. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.