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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Persecuted Till Proven Innocent

August 30, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Democrats spent the last four days preaching family unity on television. So there was a certain symmetry to Barbara Jewell choosing this week to go before the cameras herself and fight for her son, Richard.

She raised him. It took a village, so to speak, to destroy him.

"The American people," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut told conventioneers Wednesday night, "are fed up with relentless assaults on people's reputations. This has to stop, and stop now."

Of course, it was GOP attacks on President Clinton and his family that angered Dodd, not the smearing of Barbara Jewell's son.

You can bet that none of the giddy optimists at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was thinking of the seemingly folksy southerner who now wears the media's muddy footprints on his chubby body, a 33-year-old convicted on TV of a terrible crime for which he's never been officially charged. Um, sorry about the slight mix-up, but it's not our fault.

Memo to Richard Jewell from the oppressed, misunderstood, we-can't-help-it-if-we're-shallow- and-thoughtless-and-destructively-knee-jerk media:

It's just a shame what the bad old FBI forced us to do to you against our will.

That is the revisionist line now resonating from television, right, as it undergoes the usual perfunctory self-analysis following another of its gluttonous feedings? Just as many of its worst predators briefly turned introspective following the O.J. Simpson criminal case, without discernible impact on their future behavior.

Jewell is the security guard who was initially praised for pointing out the bomb in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park just prior to its explosion on July 27, only to be named a suspect and simultaneously investigated by the FBI and set upon by media like ants swarming a beetle.

Earlier this week, Jewell's attorneys arranged for TV appearances by his mother to beg President Clinton to intercede with the FBI. "If the FBI does not intend to charge my son, please tell us," she pleaded, emotionally. "Please tell the world. Mr. President, please clear my son's name."

Nice move, nice family values. But what did they think, that Clinton would exonerate Jewell in his acceptance speech? Actually, Jewell's lawyers were using the media to press authorities to absolve their client, just as those same authorities earlier may have been using the media when they leaked Jewell's name, possibly to press him to confess.

*

In any case, the current debate by some of the media in light of Jewell's limbo status--now wondering aloud if it was proper to report that he was the FBI's chief suspect--misses the point and conveniently lets TV off the hook. They either genuinely don't get it, or choose not to get it.

Of course the media should have mentioned Jewell being a prime suspect, given the prominence of the bombing, which caused two deaths and injured scores. It couldn't be avoided. But many zoomed way over the top.

What they shouldn't have done--and TV was the main offender, following a massive article citing Jewell in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution--was to presume Jewell guilty and hound him, grill him, stake out his apartment, trample his privacy and generally ruin his life. "He is now a prisoner in my home," his mother said.

Acting on primal instinct, the media did all of this on their own once they had his name, sniffing out and tearing apart fresh meat without any nudging from the Justice Department. The most tenacious offenders were CNN, MSNBC and NBC News, whose star anchor, Tom Brokaw, stated flat-out, shortly after Jewell's name surfaced, that the FBI had enough evidence to arrest him, and probably enough to convict him.

Equally culpable were those Los Angeles stations that not only reported Jewell fitting the so-called profile of the bomber but also dug into his background as if he were in jail. They questioned his past and present acquaintances and employers, and wildly speculated about him having a "hero complex," deploying the occasional disclaimer but in effect accusing him of being a glory-seeker who planted the bomb so that he later could "discover" it and be credited with saving lives.

To date, that has turned out to be fantasy, an unsubstantiated scenario recklessly beamed across the airwaves, perhaps forever tainting Jewell.

Should the FBI publicly apologize to him? That remains to be seen, but some of the media surely should. As Dodd said from the podium in another context, this kind of behavior has to stop, and stop now.

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The Jewell episode is one of those voracious media-driven monsters that grew larger and larger while feeding on itself. How could it happen? Actually, it's been happening for a long time, this being just the latest example of the blurring line between mainstream media and tabloids, and of how the latter increasingly drives the former in an age of intense media competition.

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