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Feb 3 / King Kaufman

ESPN’s Richard Jewell documentary: The cost of attribution failure

The ESPN “30 for 30″ short “Judging Jewell” is an absolute must-watch for anyone even remotely involved with media. If you do nothing else this week to further your career in sports media, sit down and spend 21 minutes with this devastating documentary.

You want to see the real-life consequences of simply failing to properly attribute facts and assertions? Watch the sad, infuriating story of Richard Jewell.

Jewell was a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Stationed near a light tower at Centennial Olympic Park during a late-night concert, he spotted a stray backpack, alerted law enforcement and helped evacuate the area. A bomb in the backpack exploded, killing two and injuring 111.

Jewell’s quick thinking may have saved more than 100 lives, according to his attorney, Lin Wood. He was hailed as a hero at first, but a few days after the explosion, suspicion fell on Jewell, who was quickly convicted in the court of public opinion, thanks in large part to the media’s portrayal of him as “fitting the profile” of a lone bomber and an overzealous security guard.

As Henry Schuster, a CNN producer at the time, says in “Judging Jewell,” once suspicion fell on Jewell, everything he did made him look guilty, starting with having to navigate a huge scrum of international media every time he left the apartment he shared with his mother—a living situation that the media also seized on as illustrative of the 33-year-old Jewell being a loser. He had simply moved in with his mom temporarily when he moved to Atlanta to take the security-guard gig at the Olympics, the documentary says.

After three months of intense law-enforcement and media scrutiny, Jewell was cleared. In 2005, Eric Rudolph confessed to the Olympic bombing, among other terrorist acts. He’s serving life without parole.

“Judging Jewell” shows how the media can allow itself to be manipulated by those with an agenda, in this case law enforcement. And how the media can in turn manipulate public opinion. Here’s CNN’s Schuster, attorney Wood and Atlanta Journal-Constitution Senior Managing Editor Bert Roughton:

Schuster:What you had was just this incredible pressure from the very top.
Wood: The park was going to open on Tuesday night. The FBI was under a lot of pressure to tell the world “We got our man” while the world was still watching.
Roughton: The quicker there was some kind of resolution to who was behind the bombing, the better for the security community, the better for the Olympic organizers.

Schuster continues: “The pressure for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is immense. There’s no way they are going to be beaten on this. If they can’t be the first ones on this, than why are they there? And so the AJC comes out with this special edition” identifying Jewell as a subject in the bombing. “And then it got ugly.”

It got ugly in a variety of ways, but listen to how central the AJC’s attribution failure was to the problem:

Wood: The story published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution grossly misrepresented certain facts. It starts off by saying, “Richard Jewell fits the profile of the lone bomber.” Doesn’t attribute that to anyone.
Roughton: What we reported in the paper completely reflects the point of view of the FBI at that time. Had we attributed that statement to the FBI, I would have felt much more comfortable with it, but we didn’t. It sounded like, to a reader, that this is something the newspaper is reporting because it knows it to be true, as opposed to reflecting what the FBI was saying. But I think the way that it was phrased in the story is unfortunate.

Calling it “unfortunate” is an understatement of Olympian proportions, but Roughton mostly doesn’t go easy on himself and his paper. Still, imagine how easy it must have been for the AJC and other outlets to go along with what seemed to be shaping up as a cut-and-dried case.

“People embraced the story because it fit a very comfortable narrative. A lone Southern, you know, overweight guy wanting to somehow prove himself to the world,” Roughton continues. “I can’t tell you that I’m comfortable sitting here today telling you that we fully played the skeptic we should have.”

When we go on and on about verification and attribution at Bleacher Report, it’s not a matter of following rules for their own sake. As members of the media, our actions can have far-reaching, real-world effects. Lives can be altered, even ruined.

“This is a guy who should have been throwing out baseballs at major league games,” says Schuster, the CNN producer, “walking into rooms and people should have been standing up and cheering. How do you ever get that back? I don’t think he ever did.”

Jewell died of natural causes in 2007. As “Judging Jewell” does, I’ll give him the last word, from the press conference he held upon being cleared of suspicion in late 1996.

“In their mad rush to fulfill their own personal agendas, the FBI and the media almost destroyed me and my mother,” he said. “I thank God it is now ended and that you now know what I have known all along. I am an innocent man.”

  • Kelly Scaletta

    What does it say about the blog that when I watched this before reading the blog, I was thinking, “What would King say?” I completely agree.