News came today of the passing of Richard Jewell, comma, . . .
How would you complete the sentence?
Here’s how the obituaries should have started: “Richard Jewell, the security guard who spotted a homemade pipe bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, died of natural causes today at his home in Georgia. Jewell’s alertness — the bomb was concealed in an abandoned knapsack — and his level-headedness in evacuating the area around the bomb have been credited with saving at least 20 lives in the blast that killed one and injured 111.”
That’s what really happened that day in 1996, but of course that’s not the way the obituaries turned out. For as most of us remember, Jewell was the victim of despicable leaks and irresponsible media speculation that perhaps he planted the bomb in order to “discover” it and be a hero. As a result, in my sampling of the way major news outlets handled this story, Jewell the hero was subordinate to Jewell the victim or even Jewell the suspect. What a travesty.
The Washington Post went with Richard Jewell, comma, “a security guard portrayed as a hero, suspect and media victim of Atlanta‘s fatal Centennial Olympic Park bombing in 1996.” The headline states that Jewell was “Wrongly Linked to Olympic Bombing,” which takes some of the sting out of “suspect.” Still, the inclusion of “suspect” in the first sentence seems unfortunate to me, particularly because The Post buries any further reference to Jewell’s heroism — that is, what really happened — in paragraph 6.
Unfortunately, this rather unsatisfactory performance by The Post is sufficient to make it perhaps the least offensive of the news outlets I looked at. CNN may have earned honorable mention with its headline, “Vindicated Olympic Park Bombing Suspect Dies.” The “vindicated” is a nice touch, but “vindicated suspect” is a far cry from “hero.” In the text of the article, CNN goes with Richard Jewell, comma, “the security guard wrongly suspected and later cleared of setting off a deadly bomb at Atlanta, Georgia’s Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics.” What Jewell really did that day is in paragraph 8.
Fox starts the slide downward from there with its piece, headlined, “Richard Jewell, Wrongly Accused in Atlanta Olympics Bombing, Dead at 44.” Fox says Jewell was, comma, “the former security guard who was erroneously linked to the 1996 Olympic bombing.” Excuse me, but I don’t think there is anything erroneous about Jewell’s having been linked to the bombing; the error is that he was linked as suspect rather than as hero. And Fox’s lead-in actually repeats that error.
USA Today has the no-nonsense headline, “Richard Jewell found dead; natural causes cited.” So far, so good; it’s hard to argue with that. But the first sentence says Jewell was, comma, “the former security guard who was briefly a suspect in the 1996 Olympics bombing here and later cleared of wrongdoing.” Now that is touching. When my time comes, I sure hope someone will say of me that in my finest, most heroic hour, I was “cleared of wrongdoing.”
The New York Times hadn’t published any original content on Jewell’s death when last I checked, preferring instead to stick with AP’s piece. But the headline writers at The Times made the same unfortunate mistake Fox did with “wrongly linked.” (I take this as evidence for my hypothesis that sloppiness in the mainstream media is a bigger problem than outright bias.) Kudos to MSNBC, by the way, which also posted the AP story but whose headline writers had the wit to call Jewell an “Olympics bombing figure.” Bombing figure. Why bother sorting out the guilty from the heroic? They’re all figures in MSNBC’s book.
Part of the problem here may be the self-absorption of the news media. Perhaps they subordinate Jewell’s heroism to his victimization because the story of his victimization is one that concerns them. It is the media frenzy rather than the act of heroism that they all think of at the mention of Richard Jewell’s name. Maybe that explains this sorry failure to give the man his due upon his death.
But I think that’s not the whole story, because I suspect most of us think of Jewell the same way these journalists do. He was, and now forever will be, the guy who got the bum rap. If that’s accurate, then we ought to think very seriously about whether we adequately protect reputation in this country. In the electronic age, false allegations can damage someone’s reputation forever. It happened to Jewell, even though the real bomber was convicted, even though the government formally apologized to him, and even though Jewell was not just an innocent man but a bona fide hero. Imagine what the stories would have said if they had never caught Eric Rudolph and never apologized to Jewell.
Richard Jewell is no longer with us, but dozens of other Americans are, thanks to him. Isn’t that the story?
UPDATE: AP gave it another try this morning, and I think it is much better. It puts the heroism front and center. It doesn’t take away the sting of what the FBI and the media did to Jewell thereafter — probably nothing can take that away now — but at least it doesn’t sully the man’s memory all over again.