Last week, almost 10 years to the day that he saved untold lives when he discovered a bomb hidden under a bench in Centennial Park, Richard Jewell finally got an official "thank you." Gov. Sonny Perdue gave Jewell a commendation for his actions and praised his heroism.
The shame is that it took so long -- and that it didn't come from the entity that hurt him the most.
My first awareness of Richard Jewell came two days after the bombing, when I went to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to watch an Olympic baseball game with my friend, Bryant Steele. He was a media spokesman for AT&T who had hired a security firm for the AT&T pavilion where the bomb happened to go off. Because Jewell worked for that firm, Bryant had become the point person for all the media requests to interview the guy credited with limiting the bomb's death toll. Bryant was a little surprised that Jewell's name didn't register with me, but he shouldn't have been. Jewell had been interviewed by several national newspapers, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had missed the story about its hometown hero.
Bryant gave me all the details of what had happened. He talked about Jewell, how polite and humble he was and how hesitant he was to do the interviews with USA Today and several other papers. Bryant said he'd decided to call the AJC and offer them an interview with Jewell, as a courtesy to the local paper. Bryant was shuffled off to an intern, and the AJC waited two days, until the morning of July 30, to publish a short feature.
By that afternoon, everything had changed.
An eye-grabbing headline in a special edition declared that Jewell was now the FBI's prime suspect in the bombing. Another headline proclaimed: "Bomb suspect had sought limelight, press interviews." The story that identified Jewell as the suspect, written by Kathy Scruggs and Ron Martz, stated in the second paragraph that Jewell fit the profile of the lone bomber, a police wannabe seeking to become a hero. "Jewell has become a celebrity in the wake of the bombing," the story said. "He ... has approached newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, seeking publicity for his actions."
Well, no. That was my friend Bryant who did that. As a favor to the AJC to help them not get scooped by every other paper in the country.
Not long after that, I was assigned to cover the story for Atlanta magazine. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Jewell couldn't have planted the bomb. He was supposed to have left his post, gone to a pay phone to call 911 to alert police to the bomb, then scurried back to Centennial Park to "discover" it. There was just one problem: The 911 call was placed at 12:58 a.m.; at 12:57 a.m., Jewell had already discovered the bomb and was standing with his supervisor as they radioed for a bomb squad. It took me one telephone call to Jewell's supervisor, a police chief in Blue Springs, Ark., to make this discovery.
After he was cleared by the FBI, Jewell sued several news organizations and settled out of court with most of them. But even now, 10 years after the bombing, his lawsuit against the AJC continues to wind its way through the courts.
Jewell appears to have little chance of winning; the courts say he is a "public figure," which makes it very difficult for a person to win a libel suit. And the AJC has steadfastly maintained it did no wrong. But the FBI got it wrong and so did the AJC. It's one thing to accurately report what the FBI is investigating. It's another to invent a fact -- that Jewell was seeking publicity -- to support a theory, and then to not fess up when you find out you were wrong.
Of course, the FBI eventually held a news conference and gave Jewell a proper apology. Which is more than he ever got from the AJC.
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