The Cautionary Tale of Richard Jewell: How a Hero Became a Media Victim

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Richard Jewell holds up the original Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that first identified him as the target of the FBI investigation. Courtesy of Dana Jewell

In 2019 we are used to a 24/7 news cycle driven by social media, cable news, relentless leaks of confidential information and widespread conspiracy theories.

But a lot of that was still novel in 1996, when Richard Jewell was wrongly accused of planting a bomb at the Atlanta Summer Olympics. Spotlighted in a new book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle (Abrams Press) by Kevin Salwen and Kent Alexander, and in Clint Eastwood's movie Richard Jewell, Jewell's story is a cautionary tale of rush to judgment.

Jewell was the security guard who spotted an unattended bag containing a pipe bomb in Centennial Park in the early hours of July 27, 1996. The bomb detonated before it could be removed, killing two and injuring 111. If not for Jewell, those numbers would have been much higher.

Jewell was initially hailed as a hero, but days later he was identified as the FBI's prime suspect and became the focus of a furious media feeding frenzy. He was wasn't cleared until October. The real bomber was charged two years later.

Kevin Salwen calls Jewell "Patient One in the whole rush-to-judgment social media problem that we're now in." Salwen ran area coverage for The Wall Street Journal during the Atlanta Games. Co-author Kent Alexander was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia at the time and spent hundreds of hours with the FBI. He also wrote and delivered the letter eventually clearing Jewell of wrongdoing. Researching The Suspect over the course of five years, the two conducted 187 interviews and reviewed more than 90,000 pages of documents. They were also brought in as consultants on the movie, which was released this month. The film has been heavily criticized for depicting Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reporter Kathy Scruggs trading sex for information with an FBI contact.

Salwen and Alexander issued a statement calling Scruggs, who died in 2001, "first and foremost, an outstanding police reporter." They add: "Scruggs secured her Jewell scoop from a law enforcement source. We have been asked repeatedly whether we found evidence that Scruggs traded sex for the story. We did not." They go on to "urge everyone to see this excellent film which conveys the story of Jewell, the unsung hero, in a compelling, dramatic and entertaining manner."

As Salwen and Alexander explain, Jewell was someone easy to caricature. He was an "overweight guy in his early 30s living in his mother's apartment with a streak of overzealousness," says Alexander. "He was the unfair target first of FBI profiling and then later the media." Jay Leno called him the "Una-doofus." The New York Post called him a "fat, failed former sheriff's deputy." The Suspect describes the libel lawsuits Jewell later brought which settled out of court as well as his 11-year-long case against the AJC, which was the first news outlet to name him as a suspect. Jewell, who died in 2007, ultimately lost the suit.

Salwen and Alexander's research brings to light for the first time the damning profile used by the FBI. Alexander tells Newsweek that the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit's profiling became "the driving force in the investigation." He says, "It was an actual profile, not so much of the generic bomber, but of Richard Jewell himself, which I guess was a little unusual. It wasn't until we stepped back and everybody started really looking at the totality of the reports that it became clearer and clearer that there's a lot of circumstantial evidence, there are things that Richard Jewell did and said that were really suspect, but that at the end of the day he was no bomber at all; in fact he was truly the hero."

The Suspect also describes the improper way Jewell was informed of his Miranda rights and uncovers the source of the initial FBI leak to Scruggs.

More than 20 years later, what can we learn from Jewell's nightmare? As the authors of The Suspect implore, "value accuracy over speed" and punish officials who leak confidential information.

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The site of the explosion at Centennial Park in the aftermath. Don Logan/WireImage/Getty

Here's edited excerpts of Newsweek's interview with Salwen and Alexander:

Is profiling like what was used in the Jewell case still in use in law enforcement? Was it new then?

Alexander: Profiling wasn't new then, but it was maybe at the high water mark as a tool in the investigation. In this case, it was a tool that drove much of the investigation. In fact, the profiling has never been revealed before this book.

How can someone clear their name once they've been exonerated by law enforcement?

Salwen: It's harder and harder and harder for someone who is falsely accused to clear their name. In many ways, the public moves on, the media moves on, but the only remaining rubble in all of this is the accused. It becomes a very dangerous thing. It requires sort of a collective decision to kind of say, "Why don't we slow down for a minute and get it right, as opposed to getting it first?"

Does this have implications for the #MeToo movement?

Alexander: It has implications for many of the social issues that are right in our face. The reality is that we saw irresponsible and incorrect news out there on a very regular basis and in many ways what social media has done is it has allowed anybody to accuse anyone else, oftentimes behind the cloak of anonymity.

Is there anything we can do about the kind of leaks that happened in Jewell's case?

Alexander: There was no excuse for the law enforcement leaks. It wasn't endorsed or condoned by supervisors at the FBI. A takeaway lesson is to start prosecuting people for leaking. Criminally.

Salwen: I also think that if you look at the way Kathy Scruggs sourced the first story and the way that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cautiously decided when to run it, you can have a very interesting discussion within our society about whether they should have run that story. The reality is that Richard Jewell was the lead suspect by the FBI at that point. And then there is the question that you can have inside every single newsroom: "Is it irresponsible to name the guy and write the story that is true?" There are always grays that attract me in a story, and I think that is one of the really interesting grays.

What is the relevance of Jewell's story today?

Alexander: Everybody needs to get back to valuing accuracy over speed and being the first to get the story. There's a real human toll at the end, and law enforcement and media each need to bear that in mind.

Salwen: Richard Jewell is a hero, and the work that he did saved scores of lives and he deserves to be looked at as something other than the former suspect. If we had slowed down to try to understand the story as opposed to try to sprint through it, for our own convenience and for others, we would have recognized that.