YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The media: often bitten, still not shy


TV's Beavises and Butt-heads are at it again. So why bother trying Eric Robert Rudolph? Waste of time and money.

You sense in the urgency of this week's TV coverage bouncing back and forth myopically between the Laci Peterson case and Rudolph that he is surely guilty of those bombings in Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta for which he is charged, most famously the blast in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

And piling on, Court TV tonight reruns its "Eric Rudolph: Man Most Wanted" special that "examines the forces that may have driven him to violence" that authorities charge included a 1998 fatal abortion clinic attack in Birmingham.

A reputed menacing zealot, Rudolph was a fugitive for years before his capture Saturday in the forested mountains of North Carolina. And some obsessive media types are staying up nights wondering if anyone helped Rudolph slip through the dragnet that had targeted him for five years.

He may be guilty. He probably is guilty. Bet the farm on this guy being guilty. Yet ...

Remember Richard Jewell?

Cable's rambunctious all-news channels don't, apparently, as they fit Rudolph with a noose like one they tightened around murder victim Laci Peterson's husband, Scott, before he hired an attorney able to spin media opinion to his advantage.

Although newscasters carefully note that Rudolph is an "alleged" bomber, another word fits their frantic coverage of him, the sheer weight of which amounts to a string-him-up-and-get-it-over-with indictment:


Erased from their memories, it seems, are lessons learned from the injurious debacle of their coverage of Jewell, the sad schlub and easy mark -- "unabubba," Jay Leno called him -- who got the business from a wide array of media after the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.

The 33-year-old security guard was anointed a hero after alerting police to a knapsack containing the bomb that exploded in the park. He was celebrated as a modest, gee-whiz savior whose action may have limited casualties.

How swiftly that changed, though, when a subsequent law-enforcement-based, front-page spread in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution labeled Jewell a suspect, driving hordes of TV commandos into another of their ravenous frenzies. The result? A steady torrent of speculative stories -- some suggesting Jewell had a hero's complex -- that left no doubt about him being the bomber.

In fact, if anyone had a hero's complex it was those members of the media who, swept up in their own pandemonium, leaped to conclusions based only on shards of circumstantial evidence. In fact, Jewell was never charged. As if he had been fingered in a lineup, however, 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 security guard at tiny Piedmont College in Georgia.

Law enforcement had manipulated the media, surely hoping that swarming coverage would smoke out Jewell and pressure him to come clean. About what, being naive about how savage many in the media can be when tossed fresh meat?

For three months, Jewell was unable to leave home without being followed not only by police and feds but also TV crews.

Although he was ultimately exonerated, the smear endured, and he launched a spate of suits against the media over their coverage, getting financial settlements from NBC, CNN and the New York Post. Still pending is another suit against the Atlanta paper.

Today Jewell is a police officer in a Georgia municipality that his attorney, L. Lin Wood, declined to identify when speaking Wednesday from his office in Atlanta.

"The capture and arrest of Eric Rudolph doesn't change anything for Richard," Wood said about the indelible taint of Jewell. "Only a conviction will do that." But he's skeptical of that happening.

"I have my doubts whether Rudolph will ever be put on trial for the Centennial Park bombing," Wood said, "because there are big differences between that bombing and the others [Rudolph is accused of setting off]."

The impact on Jewell is lasting, Wood said. "He has never been recognized for his heroic acts. There's been no presidential shaking of his hand. His legacy has been permanently altered from [that of] a clearly flattering and positive role to a negative role. And so massive and accusatory was the coverage that I'm sure that in some people's minds there's a lingering doubt [about his innocence]."

Wood's bitterness toward the media also remains, as it should. "The environment that we live in is such," he said, "that the media, if it did learn a lesson, I don't think it will adhere to that lesson. In a desire to get a scoop, to get ratings, that lesson gets tossed out the window."

Wood mentioned the incriminating coverage of murder suspect Scott Peterson as another recent example. "The media has literally almost created their own system of justice," he said. "The court of public opinion."

As more lessons get tossed.


Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at

Los Angeles Times Articles