A journalist apologizes to Richard Jewell for helping the FBI destroy his life

I highly recommend reading this piece in the Washington Post, I helped make Richard Jewell famous – and ruined his life in the process. It is written by Henry Schuster, a journalist who covered the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta for CNN, where Jewell (now the subject of a Clint Eastwood movie), a security guard at the event, was falsely accused by the FBI and the traditional media of being the bomber.

The 24-hour news cycle was a relatively new thing in American culture at the time, and Jewell found himself being smeared all day long for 88 days straight. Reading the piece, you are almost amazed that the guy did not commit suicide.

From the piece:

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.”

Schuster gets into how the FBI schemed behind the scenes to get Jewell to confess to a crime that he did not commit. The FBI became convinced that Jewell was the bomber through its relatively new Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico.

If you are familiar with the (mostly fictional) show Mindhunter on Netflix, you have a glimpse into how the BSU works. They rely on their own crackerjack impressions of psychological trends among serial killers and mass murderers to speculate on the type of person who might be responsible for a crime. This guy had a bad relationship with his mother, etc. The show Mindhunter is very loosely based on a book by the same title by the founder of the BSU, John Douglas.

The illustrious BSU arrived at the opinion that Jewell was the bomber because he appeared nervous being interviewed by CNN. Got that? Stage fright on live national television is sufficient cause to become the target of an FBI investigation. The actual bomber had called 911 to goad authorities about the presence of a bomb. But the FBI didn’t know that because they were too busy framing a heroic security guard instead. Mindhunter makes such good television though!

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.

If the FBI ever wants to talk to you and tells you outright that you really don’t need to bring a lawyer, you need the best fucking defense attorney money can buy:

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.

Even before they did this, FBI folks were racing to leak to their preferred media personalities that an innocent man was the bomber:

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.)

Per Schuster, the media had reservations about what the FBI was doing. But the FBI really was treating Jewell as a suspect with zero evidence. It is newsworthy that the FBI thought they had nabbed the bomber, but is it the press’ duty to challenge the FBI’s findings? I don’t know what the point of even having a free press is if the answer is no, but Schuster seems to think this is grey ethical territory.

Well, it turns out that the FBI did find the actual bomber, Eric Robert Randolph, after he tried to bomb a gay nightclub and an abortion clinic. An opportunity that he had for literally no other reason than the FBI was busy abusing the constitutional rights of an innocent man and the media was following them around the entire way.

Of course, the journalists and the FBI have only amped up this behavior in the social media age. It seems like the main lesson participants in the Richard Jewell scandal learned is that they could do all of this with zero professional consequences.

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