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Consequences of Running Wild With the News

September 25, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A message imparted by amnesiacs who deliver the news on television is that they don't learn from their mistakes. How could they when they don't admit even making them?

Take the case of Larry Fortensky, Elizabeth Taylor's estranged seventh husband, who became the lead story on some Los Angeles evening newscasts last month after police took him into custody for suspected illegal drug use. He got headlines, file footage, the works.

But authorities later declined to pursue drug charges against Fortensky, saying his drug test came back negative. No headlines or file footage this time, nothing to compete with a lingering mental image of Liz's latest doing drugs.

Long before this small episode, newscasters should have learned their lesson about smearing reputations through impulsive reporting that too quickly implies guilt. Um . . . what lesson? Nothing remembered, nothing admitted, nothing learned.

Take the case of Richard Jewell. Yes, him again, the former Atlanta security guard who's become a pain in the butt by refusing to go away and leave the media alone after some of them did him a favor by transforming this ungrateful former nobody into a celebrity and giving meaning and purpose to his life that they ruined. Didn't he even make it into the monologues of Leno and Letterman?

But does he appreciate it? No.

Instead he's now attacking the very media who were generous enough to grant him notoriety and make him an object of scorn and ridicule. Oh, the irony, that those doing God's work should be so unappreciated by someone who has not only benefited from their charity but also had the honor of having his life publicly dissected on behalf of press freedom and the people's right to know destructive rumors and wild speculation.

Doesn't he understand they were only doing their jobs when lynching him for the July 27 bombing at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, for which he initially was declared a hero for saving lives and then tenaciously investigated by the FBI but never charged? Why is Jewell so touchy?

Didn't the media say he was only allegedly obviously guilty beyond a doubt?

Well, that's the tenor of the debate, anyway.

On Sunday, Jewell and his lawyers used an interview on CBS with Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" to argue before the nation his case against the media and the FBI, which he says is still closely tailing him. One of those lawyers told Wallace that Jewell may sue the FBI, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and "anyone from A to Z who said anything false about" Jewell. In other words, anyone who portrayed him as a bomber.

That takes in the multitudes, including not only the Atlanta newspaper and Brokaw but also CNN and Los Angeles TV stations that, at the very least, depicted Jewell as a likely bomber a few days after the explosion that injured more than 100 and caused two deaths.

Jewell's mother estimated Sunday that 20 satellite trucks had filled the parking lot outside her apartment, where her son was staying last July. What prodded TV's herds to frenzied action was a massive Atlanta Journal headline ("FBI suspects 'hero' guard may have planted bomb") over a front-page story that, Wallace noted Sunday, said Jewell "fit the profile of a lone bomber, a frustrated police wannabe who wanted to become a hero" through planting a bomb that he then pretended to discover.

Several Los Angeles stations scooped up the "hero" theory and sped for the end zone, not only psychoanalyzing the FBI's suspect from afar but also rehashing the cases of past heinous criminals said to have had hero complexes, as if their histories were linked to Jewell.

The Journal, after all, had reported that Jewell had sought publicity by soliciting media interviews. But Wallace said that "60 Minutes" was told by a public relations man for AT&T, which had hired the security firm for which Jewell worked, that "it was the media, not Jewell, who requested those interviews" and that "it was his idea, not Jewell's, to give an interview to the Atlanta Journal."

Wallace read a statement from the Journal saying it stood "proudly behind our coverage" of the bombing case. And in an interview with Wallace, NBC's Brokaw stood just as proudly behind himself, saying this about comments he made in July about Jewell to Bob Costas, host for NBC's prime-time Olympics coverage:

"My job [was] to report what we were able to find out about what was a crisis in Atlanta, that they were focusing this investigation on this one man and, why, . . . if they were doing that, have they not arrested him? I reflected . . . what the theorizing was in the law enforcement community, and then I pointed out that this had been the speculation, and finished . . . by saying, 'Everyone, please understand absolutely, [Jewell] is only the focus of this investigation, he's not even a suspect yet.' "

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