Media Put Under Scrutiny Over Ethics in Jewell Story
Now that the satellite trucks are gone from Richard Jewell’s street and the microphones are packed off to some newer emergency than this summer’s Olympic bombing, a crucial question remains for the media: How do you unmake a villain?
Jewell, a 33-year-old security guard, spent nearly three months as an international pariah after the Atlanta Journal came out with an extra edition July 30 naming him as the “focus” of the FBI’s bombing investigation. Now that the Justice Department has sent him a letter saying that he is not a suspect, Jewell and his lawyers say they plan to sue the FBI and some representatives of the media--including the Atlanta papers and Tom Brokaw of NBC.
And although representatives of both news organizations have denied that they have done anything that warrants a court action, media critics have already begun to debate the ethics involved in the 88-day media siege of Jewell’s apartment.
“The Jewell story is a cautionary tale for those of us who care about the power of the media,” said Nancy Hicks Maynard, chairwoman of the Media Studies Center in New York. “The press’ highest calling is to protect individuals from official misconduct by raising questions and writing stories,” she said. “In this case, we became agents of that abuse of power.”
Marvin Kalb, the director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said: “I think that what the Atlanta Journal and CNN did was perfectly normal journalism. The Atlanta Journal had a source. It was a huge story . . . against the backdrop of international terrorism . . . I’d have done the same thing.”
But in the process of covering that big story, the media “apparently hung an innocent man out to dry,” said Paul McMasters, a 1st Amendment expert at the Freedom Forum in Virginia.
Some have suggested that the media consider going back to earlier times when many news organizations refused to print the names of any suspect until charges were filed by law enforcement agencies.
Deborah Norville, anchor of King World’s “Inside Edition,” said that when she started reporting, suspects were named in stories only after they had been arrested. Elaine Shannon, Time magazine’s law-enforcement correspondent, said she is troubled by how easy a man being investigated suddenly turns into the FBI’s “prime suspect.”
But she says that journalists would have “fried” the FBI if they had not investigated Jewell, given the questions about him that were being raised at the time.
“It’s a very familiar scene in journalism. Something very dramatic has happened in a setting that has world attention and everybody--law enforcement, journalists, the home offices of journalists and the public--are all clamoring for something definitive. They want an answer,” said Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley.
“But that’s why disciplined journalists were born. That’s why editors were born--to prevent this kind of thing from going beyond the facts,” he said.
Such debate will not only be part of journalism seminars, but it could also be part of an extended court battle, if the security guard’s lawyers pursue their legal plans.
Lin Wood, one of Jewell’s attorneys, said he would sue the Atlanta papers, not for naming Jewell as a suspect--which was true--but for “slanted stories.” The first story that got widespread notice said, in part that “Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police ‘wannabe’ who seeks to become a hero.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution released a statement Monday saying that its coverage “has been both accurate and appropriate.”
NBC’s Brokaw has come under criticism from the Jewell legal team for a news broadcast that said, “the speculation is that the FBI is close to ‘making the case’ in their language. They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still some holes in this case.”
Brokaw responded on CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes” several weeks ago that he had “very high-ranking federal law-enforcement officials in Washington and in Atlanta” who confirmed his story.
Brokaw added that in the report he was summarizing the speculation from the FBI and that later in the same segment he concluded by saying “please, understand absolutely that he is only the focus of this investigation. He’s not even a suspect yet.”
One of Jewell’s problems with pursuing legal action is that shortly before he became a suspect, he did a number of interviews with CNN, NBC and other news organizations in which he was portrayed as the hero who first spotted the bomb. Thus, the news organizations will argue that he is a public figure, which means it is much more difficult for him to prove that he has been libeled.