In my media writing class this week, we covered the basics of libel and defamation, which inevitably led me to break out the cautionary tale that was the coverage of Richard Jewell. I still haven’t seen the Clint Eastwood movie that brought the security guard back into the journalism lexicon, but I still show the “30 for 30” episode to my reporting class each year.
The Jewell saga is a good one to remind journalists that “everyone knows” isn’t good enough to turn a supposition into a fact.
Here’s a look back at the important things that get lost in the mess of the film and why the whole situation still deserves attention in our journalism courses
5 important things that get lost in the mess that is the “Richard Jewell” movie
After reading Tracy Everbach’s excellent review of, “Richard Jewell,” the Clint Eastwood film that looks at the 1996 Olympic Centennial Park Bombing, it became clear that the film missed the opportunity to provide a new generation with important lessons.
In the wake of the movie’s release, multiple groups have dialed in on the film’s key failures. The discussion of how Kathy Scruggs, and by implication female journalists, was portrayed has people upset with the trope that women trade sex for tips in journalism. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spoken out about the Scruggs issue, as well as how the movie fails to show that the journalism the paper did that helped turn the tide in Jewell’s favor.
I have long used the Richard Jewell story as an example of what can happen when “EVERYBODY KNOWS!” becomes, “Um… Whoops…” in journalism.
I show, and will continue to show, the ESPN 30 for 30 Short “Judging Jewell,”as it covers the case from all angles, including having representation from the AJC. It’s about 30 minutes and it’s worth the time. So is the “60 Minutes” piece on Jewell from 2002:
I have not seen the “Richard Jewell” movie yet, so I can’t say what it actually did or did not do. What I can say is that the film’s approach has enough people upset about the issues listed above (and a few others) that several key things got lost along the way:
It wasn’t one reporter or one publication that created this clustermess: The focus on Kathy Scruggs and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution makes the media coverage feel like a game of one-on-one between Scruggs and Jewell. It wasn’t even close to that.
The Olympics were in town and you had participants from 197 countries present. That put thousands of journalists in that area at the time of the bombing, thus leading to a giant pack of TV and print reporters chasing one big question: “Who did it?”
Pictures and video taken outside Jewell’s mother’s apartment had photographers, videographers, reporters and more swarming the area as Jewell went to work the day after the attack. As the FBI showed up to interview him, and later to search the apartment, the media was all over the place with all sorts of equipment. (In one interview, Jewell said there were at least five satellite trucks in the apartment’s parking lot.)
(Scruggs wasn’t even the only reporter from the AJC to be on the story. In a review of the news coverage that came out after the infamous, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb,” story, I found nearly a dozen names of journalists attached to stories about the attack.)
People everywhere seemed to be piling on. Entertainers and tabloids called Jewell, “Una-Doofus” and “Una-Bubba,” a reference to the recently captured Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. This was a global story.
To pin any one thing on any one journalist or one publication is more than a stretch. As Henry Schuster, a former producer at CNN, noted, “This thing just goes nuclear.”
Attributions matter, so use them: The courts that heard Jewell’s cases against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed statements made in several articles in which Jewell was identified as the key suspect in the bombing. In a 2011 Appeals Court Ruling in favor of the AJC’s reporting, the court noted:
On July 31, in an article entitled “`Hero’ denies planting bomb,” the AJC reported that, “[i]nvestigators now say… they believe [Jewell] placed the 911 call himself.” Likewise, in the same August 4 article referenced in Division (III)(A), the AJC stated that “[i]nvestigators have said they believe Jewell … phoned in a warning to 911.”
Again, we cannot agree with Jewell that the challenged statements are actionable. Although the July 31 article repeats the opinion of investigators who reportedly believed that Jewell may have placed the 911 call, it includes within its text the factual premise of that reported opinion.
In other words, the reporter properly attributed the information to an official source, who was acting in an official capacity, thus giving the paper protection against a claim of libel. (This concept is often referred to as “qualified privilege.”) Several other sections of the court’s ruling note similar attributions protecting several of the paper’s other stories.
This is one of the many reasons why I often write “SAYS WHO?” on statements my students make in their stories and why I’m a major pain in the keester about attributing information to a source. It can keep you out of a hell of a lot of trouble.
You are a reporter, not God: The one story I kept looking for was the original piece Scruggs and fellow reporter Kent E. Walker published in that July 30 “Extra” edition of the paper that declared, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb.” I noticed it wasn’t mentioned in the appeals and it wasn’t in the archives I had access to. Jewell stated in multiple interviews that this was the piece that really started the entire whirlwind of controversy about him.
After paying for access to the AJC’s archives, I found it and I could better understand why he thought so. If attributions are like armor and shields against an attack, this story was butt-naked. Consider the first three sentences:
The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.
Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police “wannabe” who seeks to become a hero.
This whole opening gives me hives, and I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one afraid of it. CNN actually read the paper’s piece live on air, making absolutely certain to be clear they were just telling people what the AJC reported.
Who made up this “profile?” How was it conceived? How many other people might “fit” that profile? Who says Jewell is “frustrated?” A “wannabe?” Not a single sentence here is attributed to anyone, least of all an official source acting in an official capacity. Also, by not having ANY attribution, the story reads as if the paper itself is saying the guy is not only the focus of the investigation but he fits the profile of a bomber.
Journalists only get away with those kinds of statements when they are of the “water is wet” variety, so when the AJC states this, it’s like, “Water is wet, the sky is blue and Richard Jewell, a man who ‘found’ a bomb, fits the pattern of the kind of guy who would plant one.”
In a case study of the AJC’s coverage, the author notes that the managing editor, John Walter, made the decision not to attribute the information:
Walter decided that Scruggs should use what the paper calls the “voice of God” approach when it came to attributing the information. The voice of God approach means that the paper would not attribute the story to unnamed sources. Rather it would take the responsibility on itself, implying that not only has the paper learned these things, but vouches for their accuracy.
As Walter explained later, he didn’t think attributing the story to unnamed sources “was fair.” The reason, he said, is that “once you start introducing sources, then you can have those sources do anything you want. They can speculate wildly. And so I felt safe, I felt better without that word in there.” In other words, if the paper took the responsibility itself, because it had multiple sources and was confident it was right, it was more authoritative than if it hung it on some anonymous source who might or might not be someone with real authority.
A couple things:
- I have always found the “Voice of God” approach to be stupid as hell, as it essentially says, “Look, just take my word for it. I’m a journalist and I know stuff.” It removes possible protections you might have and it really does put the media outlet at risk for anything that might go wrong.
- I reread Walter’s explanation a dozen times and found it to have the same internal logic as saying, “I smelled gas in a dark room and I didn’t feel safe not knowing where it was, so I felt it was important to light a match and see what I could find.” It reminded me of the way in which our student newspaper editors at Ball State would say stuff like, “Oh that photo/graphic/story is way to bloody/naked/unproven to run in the print paper. Just stick it online.”
- You’re not God. You’re a journalist. Act like it.
Again, this wasn’t just the AJC who decided to play God when it came to laying out information. NBC, which ended up settling out of court with Jewell, ran several pieces in which Tom Brokaw took on the “Voice of God,” including one particular exchange he had with Bob Costas, live on air:
“The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case, in their language. They probably have enough to arrest him right now. Probably enough to prosecute him but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There’s still some holes in this case.”
Brokaw explained to Mike Wallace in a 1996 “60 Minutes” interview his reason for making the statement he did on air. It sounded like a word salad that a drunk puked onto a passing bus:
Brokaw later in the interview said that he had multiple sources in high places in law enforcement telling him they were focusing on Jewell.
Fine. Then say THAT:
“I spoke with multiple law enforcement officials who said Jewell is the primary suspect in the bombing. They also told me they plan to arrest him if and when they get enough evidence together to convict him of the bombing.”
How hard is that to say?
In short, don’t let a sense of either self-importance or general knowledge get in the way of nailing down your facts. If you have a “water is wet” fact, tell it to me straight up. If it’s a “Vince Filak is a great professor” fact, you need an attribution on that thing because, God knows, a lot of folks are going ask, “Says WHO?”
A key court ruling about Jewell’s status made a huge difference: Lost in the argument about the accuracy of the reporting was the courts’ decision that Jewell was viewed as a limited-purpose public figure. The initial court ruling, as well as the 2001 appeals court decision, explained why this mattered:
The central issue presented by this appeal is whether Jewell, as the plaintiff in this defamation action, is a public or private figure, as those terms are used in defamation cases. This is a critically important issue, because in order for a “public figure” to recover in a suit for defamation, there must be proof by clear and convincing evidence of actual malice on the part of the defendant. Plaintiffs who are “private persons” must only prove that the defendant acted with ordinary negligence. Jewell contends the trial court erred in finding that he is a “public figure” for purposes of this defamation action. We disagree.
Had Jewell won this point, all he would have needed to show to win the case was that the AJC should have done a better job than it did during its reporting on him. His standing as a limited-purpose public figure meant he had to prove actual malice, which means that the paper knew what it was doing was wrong and did it anyway because the folks there wanted to mess with him.
Private citizens get a lot more protection than public figures in a lot of ways. For example, journalists have frequently reported on allegations that President Donald Trump cheated on his wife with a porn star and then paid her $130,000 to keep it quiet. As a public figure (and maybe the MOST public figure in the United States), this kind of stuff is fair game for journalists.
If I, as a private citizen, were to cheat on my wife like that today, the first time the media would be justified reporting on it would be in my obituary that would run the day after Amy found out about it, or in a story about her being charged with murder.
Regardless of who was right or wrong, the Jewell case is an important cautionary tale: The movie has a lot of stakeholders trying to shore up their positions: The producers, the AJC, other media outlets, the FBI, Jewell’s family/attorneys and more. When that happens, we tend to find ourselves arguing about what kind of bark is on the tree in front of us instead of seeing the entire forest.
The FBI was under pressure to get this situation resolved, but folks who dealt with the Jewell investigation knew that some agents cut corners they shouldn’t have. In several interviews, Former US Attorney for the Northern District Kent Alexander noted that the FBI tried to trick Jewell into admitting things he didn’t do under the pretense of creating a “first-responder video.” Alexander and journalist Kevin Salwen outline a lot of this in their book, “The Suspect.”
The AJC didn’t settle its case while other outlets quickly folded and paid off Jewell. The paper was convinced it reported the news in a legitimate and legally protected fashion and the courts agreed. However, the folks at the paper stated, in retrospect, that there were issues in how everything came together in the reporting. Former Senior Managing Editor Bert Roughton explained in his “Judging Jewell” interview that he still isn’t entirely comfortable with the way attributions were or weren’t used, as well as some of the choices the paper made in terms of phrasing.
Last month, Roughton wrote a first-person essay about the movie, the book and his own experiences and it really does leave journalists and journalism students with something to take with them every time they ply their trade:
For the rest of my career, however, the lessons of the Jewell story remained with me. The most important one is that journalists must never forget that we are writing about flesh-and-blood people whose lives may be changed forever.
We owe them our best work.