Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Richard Jewell

Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely suspected of being the Olynpic Park bomber at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, died at the age of 44. His case was an object lesson in the vicious pack mentality of modern American journalism and the need of law enforcement personnel to cover their asses in a high-profile case. At least, it should have been.

Jewell fit the pattern of a certain type of criminal-the cop wannabe who plays hero. There was no physical evidence or eyewitness testimony linking him to bombing. There couldn't have been. He didn't do it. Some dipshit rightwing militia nut did.

But what with the pressure from higher-ups all over the world, federal and local investigators HOPED Jewell was the perp, as he was right there in front of him. Optimism is no crime, but leaking optimism to reporters should be.

The Herald, thank God, sent newsside reporters down to cover the bombing investigation while yours truly went back to the track meet. But I recall strolling into the main press center food court and seeing my distinguished colleague Woody Paige banging out a column on the case on his laptop. I inquired as to the investigation's progress.

"My source in the FBI says he (Jewell) looks good for it," Woody said, and I'm sure Denver Post sunscribers read the next day.

"Looks good for it" is a phrase with many meanings in copworld. It's a far cry from "we got him nailed." In this case, 'looks good" meant "we got nothing else."

The investigation of Jewell petered out. He sued a number of news organizations, collected what one hopes was a large sum, and faded into the woodwork. In only a little over five years, the real bomber got caught, convicted, and sentenced. The wheels of justice grind, etc., etc.

Today Jewell died. And the headline on his passing on (one of the news organizations from which Jewell collected damages) did not read "victim of miscarriage of justice dies," or "Man dogged by false accusations and media hysteria dies," no, CNN had a snappier hed.

"One-time Olympic bombing suspect dies." Suspect. Not "mistaken suspect." CNN felt it necessary to use a pejorative to describe someone whose only sin was getting in front of the malicious stupidity of others-including themselves.

I worked in journalism for 30 years, and most of the time, I'm proud of I did. Every so often, however, there's a moment where I'm profoundly ashamed that's how I spent my life. Richard Jewell's case created one. His death created another.


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