I posted last week about the movie “Richard Jewell,” hated by the news media, and posted yesterday about CNN’s undisclosed settlement with a Covington, Ky., high school student who sued CNN for defamation.
With more than three decades (or parts of five decades) in this line of work, I know more than most where the media does its job less than adequately. And I think I’ve figured out why my line of work is below politicians and used car salesmen as portrayed the movie “Used Cars” in the public’s eye, not merely for things like this:
Proving how to be your own worst enemy is the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Bill Torpy:
In the newspaper business, they say nothing beats shoe leather reporting. That means getting out there on the scene. Knocking on doors. Pulling documents from the courthouse. Getting reluctant people in the know to talk.
A classic case of such shoe leather was my AJC colleague Bill Rankin’s four-minute-and-45-second walk in August 1996 from a row of pay phones in downtown Atlanta to Centennial Olympic Park. In that hike, Rankin traced the path from where a bomb threat was called in to 911 to the site of the deadly explosion that occurred in the early morning hours of July 27, 1996.
Rankin’s reporting, his five-block walk, and his basic understanding of physics — that a person can’t be in two places at once — ended with him writing a front-page story headlined, “Timing indicates Jewell didn’t make bomb threat.”
It was the first public break in the case that went Richard Jewell’s way. And it gave Jewell’s defense team an opening to fight back against federal authorities who were investigating the security guard as the possible Olympic Park bomber.
Jewell’s story is well known and tragic, a cautionary tale for both law enforcement and the media. Jewell was famously made infamous by this newspaper after we reported that he, the man who found the pipe-bomb-filled backpack at the crowded park, was being investigated as the one who planted it. The feds believed he fit “the profile of a lone bomber” and was a wannabe cop who longed to be a hero.
The story set off a media feeding frenzy that placed Jewell in a crucible where in the space of a few weeks, he went from unknown guy to modest hero to suspected villain to wronged man. He died in 2007 at age 44.
Now there’s a new movie, “Richard Jewell,” directed by Clint Eastwood that takes to task both the feds and the media. This newspaper in particular has been much criticized for breaking the story that the FBI was investigating Jewell, and for not revealing its sources. After 15 years in court, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution prevailed because it printed the truth, as ugly and as messy as it all was.
Eastwood’s movie has been disparaged by some for portraying AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs as a stop-at-nothing journalist who’ll even have sex with a source to get a story. The movie, however, does a great job of portraying Jewell as a salt-of-the-earth fellow who just wanted to do his job. It is wonderful to see him get his due.
The newspaper? We’re the bad guys who will roll over anyone for an exclusive. The movie is heavy-handed on that end, and I sort of get it. Movies based on the truth usually synthesize characters and invent scenes for dramatic effect. It’s playing to the cheap seats. Nuance and fact get in the way of a two-hour celluloid romp.
But the thing that’s really irksome (apart from the portrayal of Scruggs) is that the movie goes all out to stick to its cartoonish notion that this newspaper went all out to stick it to Jewell. Any sense that we can be fair, forget it. It doesn’t work with the script.
In the movie, it is defense attorney Watson Bryant who walks from the park to the phone booth, looks at his watch and says, “He couldn’t have done it,” realizing that Jewell would’ve had to make the nearly five-minute walk in one minute. It’s a turning point in the film that changes the momentum of the case in favor of Jewell.
One thing is true. It was a turning point for Jewell. But it was brought about by an AJC reporter, not a defense lawyer. I know, I know. We’re the bad guys in bed with the feds. It runs counter to Eastwood’s preconceived ideas to show the paper breaking stories that help prove Jewell’s innocence.
Here’s how it really went down. Rankin, who’s about as square a fellow as you’d ever want to meet, was assigned to the AJC’s ongoing coverage of the park bombing after the Olympics ended. He had wondered about the timing of the 911 call and the timing of when Jewell found the backpack. As Rankin started his assignment, he says he got a mailer from his pastor, Larry Burgess, who then headed Clairmont Hills Baptist Church. Burgess talked about how Jewell couldn’t have done anything like that.
“I’m always skeptical,” Rankin recalled. “But this was the first account from someone I know who had talked to him (Jewell). It had a profound effect.”
In fact, Jewell’s mother, Bobi, watched kids at Sunday school, including Rankin’s.
A couple of days into his stint, on Thursday, Aug. 8, authorities released documents saying the 911 call was made at 12:58 a.m. at a pay phone at Baker and Spring streets. “There is a bomb in Centennial Park, you have 30 minutes,” said the caller.
The pipe bombs in the knapsack exploded at 1:20 a.m.
So, Rankin needed the other piece of the puzzle: Where was Jewell at that time?
He knew that GBI Agent Tom Davis, who was stationed in the area, had said that Jewell pointed out the suspicious green knapsack near a sound tower during a concert.
Rankin was hoping Davis would talk. So on Friday, Aug. 9, he called. And called. And called. Rankin avoided the official channels — calling the GBI spokesman — because he figured he’d get brushed off with a “no comment.”
Finally, on the seventh or eighth call, Davis picked up.
“It was clear he knew exactly what I wanted. He knew how important it was,” Rankin recalled. “It was like he wanted to tell me. I suppose he knew Jewell didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Davis told Rankin he called the bomb squad right after Jewell pointed out the knapsack. “The log says that call was made at three minutes to 1,” Davis told him. That’s 12:57 a.m. Remember, the 911 call five blocks away came at 12:58 a.m.
Rankin asked Davis if he had waited several minutes before making the call. “No way,” the GBI agent said.
“I hung up the phone and said, ‘Holy crap,’” Rankin recalled.
He then did the walk from the phones to the park. It was a brisk walk on uncrowded streets, certainly far less jammed than they were during the night of the bombing.
Rankin’s story was a life preserver to a drowning man.
“The next morning the Jewell camp was thrilled. They finally had a truly positive news break,” according to a new book, “The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle,” written by former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander and journalist Kevin Salwen.
According to the book, Jewell’s criminal defense lawyer Jack Martin (who was cut out of the movie) decided to “use the AJC story to create good theater and flip the narrative. On August 13, he summoned the media to the bomb site. Then, in a perfect made-for-TV moment, Martin led the journalists to the bank of pay phones outside the Days Inn, while dramatically timing the walk. …”
“News organizations finally had a galvanizing event that portrayed Jewell as the possible victim.”
I called Martin on Thursday. Rankin’s story “was the first big break for us,” he said. “That was the first definitive fact that would have reflected the investigators were onto the wrong man.”
Early on, investigators knew the timing meant that Jewell couldn’t have been at both places at once and that he wasn’t a “lone bomber.” They then trotted out a theory that he had an accomplice. But the tide had turned for Richard Jewell. The public started to believe he wasn’t the terrorist. A couple of months later, Alexander delivered a letter to Martin clearing Jewell of anything to do with the crime.
Years later, Eric Rudolph was arrested for a string of deadly bombings, including the one at Centennial Olympic Park. He is serving life imprisonment.
Rankin, who was taking care of his 100-year-old mom when I spoke with him, remains extremely proud of his Jewell story. He has been The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s lead legal affairs reporter for decades, writing 4,674 stories over 30 years. He takes on both prosecutors and defenders, not to mention judges, investigators and all others who play a part in this thing called justice. He tells it straight, and goes wherever the story leads. He once had to flee his home under guard after getting death threats from a prisoner’s family. It’s a tough business sometimes. But it’s in his DNA: His father was a longtime editor at the paper.
“This is a story where the pressure was intense,” Rankin said. “We didn’t want to get beat. But we wanted to be fair.”
He continued, “You don’t get to write stories like that very often.”
He’s so glad he did. Almost as glad as Richard Jewell’s team.
All of which might be persuasive were it not for this:
The newspaper congratulating itself is the same newspaper that turned Jewell into a terrorist by reporting that the FBI suspected Jewell was the bomber. That front page was posted on Torpy’s column, which makes you wonder if Torpy reads his own newspaper. The AJC also congratulated itself on winning a lawsuit, which means that the AJC accurately reported an inaccuracy that destroyed Jewell’s life. And neither winning a lawsuit nor Rankin’s later story eliminated that front page. Just as you can’t unring a bell, you can’t unreport something you reported that was wrong.
When the Atlanta Journal broke the story late that following Tuesday afternoon, it set off an avalanche of attention. Under the hypothetical FBI scenario, Jewell had planted the knapsack and then rushed to a bank of pay phones a couple of blocks away from Centennial Olympic Park and placed a 911 call to warn police of the bomb. He then raced back to the light and sound tower, “discovered” the bomb and heroically moved people out of harm’s way.
The media quickly all but pronounced him guilty.
“Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber,” wrote Kathy Scruggs and Ron Martz in the second paragraph of a story in an “Extra” edition of The Atlanta Journal on July 30, 1996. “This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police ‘wanna-be’ who seeks to become a hero.
“Jewell has become a celebrity in the wake of the bombing, making an appearance this morning at the reopened park with Katie Couric on the Today show. He also has approached newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, seeking publicity for his actions.”
NBC’s Tom Brokaw told viewers, “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.” …
AJC columnist Dave Kindred, in his second column on Jewell in two days,compared the scene to the time law enforcement officers sought evidence against Wayne Williams, the man convicted of two murders in Atlanta’s missing children case when “federal agents came to this town to deal with another suspect who lived with his mother. Like this one, that suspect was drawn to the blue lights and sirens of police work. Like this one, he became famous in the aftermath of murder.”
Kindred later offered a spirited defense of his column, saying he was comparing scenes, not characters. «The column was a comparison of the media frenzy more than it was a comparison of Richard Jewell and Wayne Williams,” he says. “Also, I quoted a neighbor in the column, saying Jewell is a good fellow,and I said the FBI has done this before and come up empty.”
Meanwhile, Jewell’s past was quickly put under a microscope; Jewell was villainized and vilified. Even Jay Leno joked about him on The Tonight Show, calling him the “Una-doofus.”
Then, as the weeks passed with no arrest, a debate ignited within the journalistic community. Had everyone overreacted? Had the FBI used them to put pressure on their main suspect in the hope of breaking him into a confession? Should they have more vigorously challenged the FBI to produce evidence before trumpeting Jewell’s name and his past? Many thought the answers were all yes.
“I think the media’s performance has been downright embarrassing,” says Howard Kurtz, a media critic for The Washington Post. “Every news organization in the country has contributed to ruining this guy’s life without the faintest idea of whether he’s guilty or innocent.”
At particular issue was the original Atlanta Journal article printed in the “Extra” edition, with the big, bold headline on Page 1, FBI SUSPECTS ‘HERO’ GUARD MAY HAVE PLANTED BOMB. The article contained no attribution and quoted no sources, leaving the reader to wonder whether the claims came from a legitimate law enforcement official or from a proclamation of God.
“I find it appalling, quite frankly, at how quickly everybody leapt to finger this guy,” says David Shaw, the media writer at the Los Angeles Times. “To write about it in the context of a larger story about the explosion, down in the sixth or eighth paragraph —that’s one thing. But to bring out a special edition and start leading your newscast and putting out Page 1 stories on it — that’s over the top.”
Earl Casey, CNN’s domestic managing editor, defends the overall coverage. CNN quickly followed the AJC in naming Jewell as a suspect, and Casey says remembering the context of the event is important. A TWA jet had just crashed near Long Island, and a bomb was suspected. There was an extreme fear of terrorism at the Olympic Games. The international media was gathered in Atlanta. Then the bomb exploded in the park intended as the center of the Olympic celebration.
And by that point Jewell was already famous. “Had this been some anonymous bloke, would his name have emerged? Maybe not,” says Casey. “Maybe the stories that day would have read that law enforcement are considering a security guard without the identity. But I think it’s difficult for journalists at a distance or on the academic level to really make value judgments on this thing. They’re often right in theory,but when you get down to the application, something in that theory falls apart.”
Well, if reporters can’t make value judgments, their bosses are supposed to. And didn’t in this case. (Which should also prove that reporters should be skeptical of law enforcement as well, yet they usually are unless they’re pushing their own agendas of blanket condemnations of law enforcement.)
Vanity Fair wrote about the movie’s script writer Billy Ray:
Marie Brenner, who wrote the Vanity Fair feature on which the film is based, hopes that Richard Jewell might impact audiences the way the story affected her in 1996. “Reporting what happened to Richard Jewell and his mother profoundly changed me as a reporter and caused me to rethink many of the assumptions and quick judgments we can all unwittingly make under deadline pressure without attempting to find out a larger truth that lurks behind breaking news,” Brenner told Vanity Fair. …
“This movie is about a hero whose life was completely destroyed by myths created by the FBI and the media, specifically the AJC,” Ray told Deadline. “The AJC hung Richard Jewell, in public…. They editorialized wildly and printed assumptions as facts. They compared him to noted mass murderer Wayne Williams. And this was after he had saved hundreds of lives. Now a movie comes along 23 years later, a perfect chance for the AJC to atone for what they did to Richard and to admit to their misdeeds. And what do they decide to do? They launch a distraction campaign. They deflect and distort…opting to challenge one assertion in the movie rather than accepting their own role in destroying the life of a good man. The movie isn’t about Kathy Scruggs; it’s about the heroism and hounding of Richard Jewell, and what rushed reporting can do to an innocent man. And by the way, I will stand by every word and assertion in the script.”
Said Brenner, “I was appalled by the reflexive snobberies and obliviousness of consequences that the AJC never addressed. The most important rule of reporting is never to reveal a suspect’s name without corroborating evidence. They had none—and neither did the FBI. I am sorry, but it is not enough to say, “law enforcement thinks.” And they didn’t even say that.” Citing the paper that reported there was no evidence against Jewell, Brenner said, “The New York Times and its editor Joe Lelyveld knew better.”
[Former AJC editor Mike] King acknowledged that the Richard Jewell case “was a turning point in a lot of newspaper discussions about where to draw the line when on identifying suspects. … And I think those are good lessons to share with a movie-going audience, that there are people who are the subject of newspaper stories and of government investigations who look as guilty as Richard appeared to look in those initial stories but who ultimately are totally innocent and whose reputations are dragged through the mud for all the wrong reasons.”
Well, congratulations to the news media who learned lessons. Jewell suffered a premature death as a result of this, but hey, sacrifices have to be made. (Apparently something got messed up when I got hired in this line of work since I have a conscience.)
And there’s this postscript that proves that part about maybe some in the media should be compared to weasels:
And even though the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is engaged in a full-blown battle with Warner Bros., King said that a group of his colleagues from the newspaper have plans to see the movie, covertly, on Saturday: “They don’t want to give Clint the benefit of movie ticket sales, so they’ve cut a deal with movie theaters to buy tickets for another movie.”