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Bomb-Suspect Reporting Sets an Ugly Record

August 01, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

There's speculation he had a hero's complex.

--KCBS-TV Channel 2 on Tuesday


Call it synchronized swimming in rumor and innuendo.

Whatever the title, it stinks. If anyone has a hero complex, it's those members of the media who, swept up in their own pandemonium, leaped to conclusions about Richard Jewell based at the time only on shards of circumstantial evidence. They're the ones prancing in the limelight.

Jewell is the 33-year-old security guard who was anointed a hero after alerting police to a knapsack containing the bomb that exploded in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park last Saturday, resulting in two deaths and 111 injuries. But a front-page story in Tuesday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution labeling Jewell a suspect drove hordes of TV commandos into another of their ravenous frenzies, producing a steady torrent of speculative stories whose virtual indictment of Jewell appeared to exceed anything authorities had in mind at that time.

Inevitably, the story assumed a life of its own, sucking in just about all of the media in varying degrees. (The Times ran a front-page story Wednesday about Jewell being a suspect.)

Yet the only agency that matters, the FBI, had not arrested or charged Jewell with anything or officially said that he was a suspect as of Wednesday afternoon, although it had questioned him, searched his apartment at length and apparently shared tidbits about him with some of the media.

Even if Jewell does turn out to be the bomber, though, it won't absolve TV's clowns of summer. It won't alter the fact that their coverage of the FBI's early nosing around has been mostly outrageous and irresponsible.

Here is some speculation about that coverage:

1. By privately leaking possibly damaging information, the FBI may have been using the media to put pressure on Jewell to make him crack. If so, the media have been manipulated into being an extension of law enforcement. That should not be their role.

2. All of this wild, scattershot reporting and stalking of Jewell, and the staking out of his Atlanta apartment by the media multitudes, puts crushing pressure on the FBI, swelling public expectations and the possibility that authorities will be driven to take some premature action that could jeopardize the bomb probe.

In any case, what we have here is a striking example of the worst of journalism in the '90s, another case of O.J.itis coursing through TV veins. Another case of how TV technology is not only a means to an end, but now often part of that end. Of how live TV, far from filling the traditional journalistic role of observer, now shapes, influences and potentially determines stories. Of how this technology has goosed and accelerated reporting, too often with negative results.

Olympic sprinters have nothing on the media assigned to cover them in Atlanta. Blurring speed now drives and defines nearly everything, from those initiating it (TV and radio) to those hoping to keep up (newspapers). We see video of the Centennial Park bomb exploding, the reporting unfurling as the incident unfurls, lines of separation no longer visible, all of it leading us to expect a resolution as speedy as the minute-by-minute coverage.

Here was CNN reporter Bonnie Anderson at 6 a.m. Wednesday on the fringe of the international media throng outside Jewell's apartment complex: "We'll keep you updated. The agents are inside right now." Anderson at 7 a.m.: "I believe we may have somebody coming out of the complex now." At 8 a.m.: "FBI agents have been in the apartment now for about two hours. Also within the last five minutes. . . ."

Almost simultaneously, correspondent George Lewis was reporting on NBC that investigators had removed some items from Jewell's apartment. Quickly now to Paul Crawley, NBC affiliate WXIA-TV's eye outside the complex. "Today's" Matt Lauer to Crawley: "George Lewis said they have brought some things out. Have you seen anything?"

Had he seen anything? What was this, a stakeout on "NYPD Blue"? "Homicide: Life on the Street"? Couldn't be. Their scripts are more believable.

What's being generated in Atlanta is almost surreal. It was only Tuesday morning that Jewell was on NBC's "Today" with an admiring Katie Couric, being celebrated as a modest, gee-whiz savior whose alert action Saturday may have limited the casualties. By nightfall, though, he had been recast as warped and demonic, a pudgy gargoyle lumbering along inside a smothering entourage of reporters, minicams and microphones, all searching his demeanor for hints of guilt to justify the accusatory tone of their stories.

As if Jewell had been fingered in a lineup, TV cameras were all over him, and networks and local stations tenaciously probed his background, questioning his Los Angeles employer and digging into his records from his days as a deputy sheriff and a security guard at tiny Piedmont College.

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