Innocent until proven a suspect

August 02, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

IT'S A SIMPLE question, and one that nobody seems to be asking: What if Richard Jewell, the suspected Olympic bomber, didn't do it?

The latest news from Atlanta is that Jewell is still on the street, still not in custody, still only a suspect, still only maybe at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The FBI is now cautioning against jumping to conclusions, even as it brought a SWAT team in with a warrant to search Jewell's apartment. It seems a little late for caution now -- now that Jewell has been labeled a "prime suspect" by every possible news outlet this side of House and Garden.

What if he is innocent?

If he is, he might be the only innocent party in this whole mess.

If you want to understand the workings of the modern American media, the Richard Jewell case is a perfect place to start. Faster than you can say "Larry King's suspenders," Jewell went from national hero to national villain.

And if it turns out he isn't the bomber, Jewell will soon be remembered in the same way we remember, say, Kato -- as a semi-comic figure, destined for the trash heap of history and/or the Geraldo show.

That's the plot line for the new American tragedy, as played out on CNN, "Nightline," the "Today" show and in newspapers across the land.

You see, the FBI is now saying that Jewell is one of a "number of suspects." In America, we may be innocent until proven guilty, but how innocent can you ever be again once your name has been flashed across the land as a would-be mad bomber?

Let's recap recent events.

Someone leaves a bomb-filled knapsack in Centennial Park in Atlanta. Jewell, a security guard, sees the suspicious knapsack, notifies a cop and helps clear the area. Meanwhile, the bomb explodes, people die, and a huge hole is blown through the center of the Olympics.

Since we love a hero, and the Olympics is where you can become a hero by choosing to compete with a sprained ankle, the guy who spotted the bag and did his job seems like the real thing.

Newspapers rush to profile him. He makes it to the "Today" show rTC where Katie Couric calls Jewell a hero and Jewell gets to do his "aw shucks, I'm no hero, ma'am" shtick, clearly loving the attention.

And then the cops leak the story that the FBI thinks Jewell might have planted the bomb.

On the same day of the "Today" interview, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts out an extra edition announcing that Jewell is the focus of the FBI investigation. CNN runs with the story, and so do all the networks. "Nightline" finds enough evidence, after about five minutes of Forrest Sawyer disclaimers, to devote a half hour to Jewell.

And every newspaper across the country follows suit, many, including this one, putting the story above the fold on Page 1.

Oh, it was a good story, too, an irresistible story. It was a story to flesh out, the story of a 33-year-old who lives with his mother in a $435-a-month apartment and can't keep a job. The highlight of his borderline career was the time he spent as a deputy sheriff, a job he lost after impersonating an officer in another county. His last job was as a security guard at a tiny college, where he was seen as "overzealous," meaning he thought every parking ticket merited a major investigation.

In other words, he fit a profile -- a policeman wannabe who just might have what they call the hero syndrome. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, a cop found a pipe bomb near the Turkish team. He might have been a hero, except he later admitted he planted the bomb.

As anyone who watches cop shows knows, the guy who finds the bomb is always a suspect.

That's what we knew. And that was enough. To name names. To tell his life story. To bring the cameras to Jewell's apartment as we watched the FBI do its work.

The media didn't invent the story. It was leaked. Either the cops were sloppy or the FBI was trying to get Jewell to crack.

And what should the media have done?

The New York Times tried to have it both ways. It ran a story the next day about the media frenzy, which allowed the Times to write the story without seeming to write the story. Most other papers didn't bother with such niceties.

In a typical crime case, newspapers do not run the names of suspects.

But this was not typical. This was world news. This was all the media from everywhere competing for the same story.

And the beauty of it is that the newspapers and TV networks were all protected. Nobody said Jewell did it; they said he was a suspect. There's no legal problem. There could, however, be an ethical problem.

You're probably thinking that journalistic ethics is an oxymoron. Those of us in the business don't believe that. We tell ourselves that we try to do the right thing.

As of now, Jewell remains a suspect. Maybe he is the bomber. Or maybe, just maybe, Jewell was, all too briefly, a hero. If he was a hero, we'll have to ask ourselves how we repaid him.

Pub Date: 8/02/96

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