Media Heroes, Media Villains, Media as Villain

The media make heroes. For instance, the firefighters of New York City, who have been deified en masse, in some cases without ever having been within a mile of Ground Zero.

And the media make villains. For instance, Richard Jewell, former security guard of Atlanta, who has not only been vilified, but who has in the past few days had his vilification upheld in a shameful decision by the Georgia Supreme Court.

In 1996, during the summer Olympics, Jewell found a knapsack in an Atlanta park that looked suspicious to him. He called for help, and he and others saw to it that the park was evacuated. Not fast enough, though; a bomb inside the knapsack exploded, resulting in the deaths of two people and injuries to more than a hundred others.

At first, the media made Jewell a hero. Then the FBI began to suspect him of planting the bomb himself, and Jewell became a villain so quickly that, if the process had been an Olympic event, he would have set a world record.

Leading the assault on Jewell was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, yet I do not blame the paper for its reporting, which was, after all, based on information provided by federal law enforcers. True, the paper went a little overboard at times; for instance, the first paragraph of one of its stories says that "FBI agents searched the apartment today of a security guard who is suspected of planting a pipe bomb..." and then in the third paragraph states, "The security guard has not been arrested and is not charged with any crime..."

And the paper was a little too quick to point out that Jewell "fits the profile of the bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer..."

But, for the most part, the Journal-Constitution’s stories were accurate.

One of its columns, however, was not. It was savage, unjust, inexcusable. Dave Kindred, its author, compared Jewell to Wayne Williams, a man convicted of two murders in Atlanta several years earlier. He did so with no facts, no evidence, not so much as a shred of journalistic integrity. He should have apologized. He did not. He should have been fired. Instead, it was Jewell who lost his job, and among the news organizations against which he later filed suit was Kindred’s spineless employer.

Earlier this week, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in the Journal-Constitution’s favor. It decided not to consider Jewell’s appeal of two earlier decisions of the Georgia Court of Appeals. The first declared Jewell a public figure at the time of his media excoriation, and thus not entitled to the same libel protections as a private citizen. The second allowed reporters to keep their sources of information about Jewell confidential.

Let’s take them in order.

Was Richard Jewell a public figure in the summer of ’96? Of course he was, but the media made him one by interviewing him for his heroism in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, and then conspired with the FBI to keep him in front of the cameras as a suspect. Jewell did not seek fame; it was forced upon him by the very two organizations that later used that fame as an excuse for their irresponsible behavior toward him. This kind of thing is supposed to happen on the other side of the looking glass, not in America.

It should be the stuff of Joseph Heller fiction, not Georgia Supreme Court fact.

Should reporters have been allowed to keep their sources of information confidential? Of course not! Those sources trashed Richard Jewell’s reputation. They broke his spirit. They gave him nightmares, and then turned them into daytime reality. They made it next-to-impossible for him to find a job for several years, and peace of mind, if it ever comes, will take even longer. And yet the court ruled that the people responsible for these crimes against decency are entitled to continue their wallow in the coziness of anonymity. It is as if the court had decided that snipers should be allowed the ongoing protection of their camouflage.

What the FBI did to Richard Jewell was shameful. What Dave Kindred did with the FBI’s suspicions was vile. What the Georgia Supreme Court did in defense of the FBI and Kindred was intolerable. The cops, the press, the court: three august American institutions, one obscene American episode.

By the way, the FBI has never apologized, either.

Richard Jewell is presently working as a small-town police officer in Georgia. He seems to like the duties and enjoy the place. But I wish that, at least for the next week or so, he were somewhere else. I wish he were in Salt Lake City, with a gun on his hip and his eyes vigilant and his senses on full alert.

And I wish that the companies making those oh-so-trendy FDNY baseball caps for the Sept. 11 groupie crowd would bring out a new line, however limited, with RJ above the visor.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .