By Michael Miner
Jewell’s Trial by Furor
The conscience of journalism has been honed to so sharp a reflex that a second-day story can now be–and often is–an analysis of the media trespasses of the first day. Consider the treatment of security guard Richard Jewell, tarred with the Olympics bombing by journalists who knew better even as they heaved the pitch.
On Tuesday afternoon of last week the Atlanta Journal-Constitution unfurled a special edition naming Jewell as the prime suspect in the fatal bombing in Centennial Olympic Park. Jewell hadn’t been arrested, let alone charged with anything, but by Wednesday morning he was infamous across the nation.
On Friday morning, her first opportunity to appraise this phenomenon, Tribune columnist Mary Schmich mused, “We’re just hapless riders strapped onto the mindless beast. We can’t control it and we can’t get off.”
But Schmich was behind the curve. The New York Times had covered the same ground a day earlier. “On Tuesday evening,” reported the Thursday Times, measuring the industry for its latest hair shirt, “[Jewell’s] face dominated television newscasts; yesterday morning his name was on the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast as a suspect in the bombing.
“In a dozen interviews yesterday with producers and editors at various news organizations, it became clear that their nearly unanimous decision to report unnamed law-enforcement officials’ suspicions about Mr. Jewell was in most cases accompanied by a vigorous wringing of hands.”
Such is the profession. Do what you must, then beat your breast about it.
An editor of the Journal-Constitution, which hadn’t even identified its sources, talked matter-of-factly to the Times about the paper’s motives. “The information was out there,” said assistant metropolitan editor Rochelle Bozman. “If the Atlanta Police Department knows about it, local TV stations know about it, and we’re going to be sitting here with egg on our faces. I was emphatic about not getting beat on this story.”
Among the other news organizations the New York Times inquired at was the Chicago Tribune, where an editor acknowledged “gnawing concerns” about the story. The Tribune managed to overcome these, splashing “Possible break in bombing” across page one with a full-color picture of Jewell.
The national editor of the Boston Globe explained that there was no point in not naming Jewell, as readers were certain to learn about him from radio, TV, or their home computers. “Should there be an absolute set of journalistic ethics that we all follow, and that did perhaps exist 15 years ago?” said this editor. “Yes. Does it exist now? No. Do I think that’s right? No. But that’s the way it is.”
Beware of anyone harking back to a time when things were better. Golden ages are the way we mortals delude ourselves that human nature is capable of much more than it’s showing at the moment.
The Times, curiously, did not examine its own coverage of Jewell. Perhaps running his name and picture back on page 13, with a front-page flag pointing to the story, struck the Times as an ethical balancing act so splendid it would be immodest to discuss it.
At any rate, the Times reported that “virtually all the major newspapers nationwide named Mr. Jewell.” The exception it identified was the Wall Street Journal, which ran one paragraph on the bombing in its world-news roundup. “It wasn’t an ethical issue,” said the Journal’s deputy managing editor. The bombing simply wasn’t a business story.
The Times overlooked a much more interesting exception. The Daily Herald in Chicago’s northwest suburbs not only held Jewell’s name out a day, but then published the memo managing editor John Lampinen had written his staff explaining why he’d decided to do so: “Can you imagine what it would be like to be Richard Jewell this morning if you are innocent?” he wrote. “So much information has been written about his psychological makeup that is bound to follow him forever. Can you imagine what that would be like?”
The memo was disarmingly honest. Lampinen knew full well it mattered not a whit to Jewell in Atlanta whether a suburban paper outside Chicago suppressed his name and hardly more to the Herald’s own readers, who were sure to be edified by other sources. What most concerned Lampinen wasn’t harm to Jewell but harm to the Herald’s dignity–and that was something he wasn’t sure his decision enhanced or diminished. “We felt last night that fairness to [Jewell] outweighed the other factors,” Lampinen told his staff. “This morning, I feel good about that in principle. But I also feel somewhat embarrassed. The paper looks rather silly this morning. As a practical matter, who are we trying to kid? It would be ludicrous to argue that our refusal to print his name and photo has served any greater good.”
Which is why, Lampinen’s memo concluded, “we’ll probably publish his name and photo Thursday [which they did]. With his name already a household word, there is a silent statement we can make to our industry, I suppose, but there is no longer any practical reason to withhold it.
The Herald ran a few. “In this case, I think virtue is its own reward,” responded religion columnist Janet Hallman. Associate editor Jim Slusher wrote, “I’m proud we made such a difficult, gutsy decision.” The one regret expressed by anybody on the staff–to judge from their published comments–was that Lampinen hadn’t stuck to his guns and continued to keep Jewell’s name out of the paper.
Why the Herald? Lampinen had his own idea of the right thing to do because three years ago, under deadline pressure and in circumstances similar to those facing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, his paper did the wrong thing. In January 1993 the Daily Herald published the name of the suspect swiftly rounded up in the Brown’s Chicken massacre in Palatine, the Herald’s backyard.
Martin Blake, 23, was arrested at gunpoint hours after the seven bodies were discovered. He fit the profile: recently fired from the restaurant, he was–presumably–disgruntled. By the time the police released him 48 hours later, having charged him with absolutely nothing, he’d become notorious. The Tribune’s James Warren commented in his column the next weekend, “Blake is the fellow arrested, charged, convicted, then hanged from atop the self-serve soda machine at Brown’s Chicken & Pasta restaurant in Palatine last week. Oh, he wasn’t? Watching Chicago television last Sunday, one assumed just that. We learned that former Brown’s employee Blake drives his car fast, was supposedly sued by ‘angry neighbors’ for driving on their lawn, had a head injury that might have made him kooky, has a former roommate who finds him weird, may have whacked his dogs with a wood mallet, was a ‘loner’ who disappeared during parties, seemed high on nutmeg, and struck one acquaintance as being a little like Jeffrey Dahmer.”
TV has a way of making newspapers’ worst decisions seem enlightened by comparison. For the record, the Tribune also published Blake’s name, something a spokesman for the paper put a high gloss on later by explaining, “We did name him as being held for questioning. We never named him as a suspect.” The Sun-Times held Blake’s name out a day, and the Daily Southtown Economist didn’t use it at all. “They bring in all sorts of people for questioning,” said editor Michael Kelley at the time.
This time around, the Southtown was like almost everyone else. “I guess we named [Jewell] because there’s no way not to,” Kelley told me. “Is that a double standard? I hope not. But everyone on earth knows Richard Jewell is being looked at as a suspect in this case. There’s no purpose in not publishing the name.”
In an interview with the Herald five months after the Palatine murders, Martin Blake complained that he couldn’t find a job or a girlfriend and that he felt like a marked man. He eventually sued the Palatine police department for false arrest and moved out of state. The suit’s still pending.
In the memo to his staff Lampinen recalled the Brown’s Chicken case. If you hadn’t gone with Blake’s name then, I asked Lampinen, would you have held back Jewell’s now? “I would like to think that maybe we’d have done it the same way anyway,” he said, “but when you go through something like that it makes you stop and think and deliberate.”
He went on: “Our primary motivation with Martin Blake, as a community newspaper, was that there was a sense of fear in the community–who’s out there doing this? And I think we were trying to respond to that–there is a suspect, police think they know who did it. But in retrospect, and wringing your hands over it, we could have essentially said the same thing without spilling out his name. If there is a valid reassurance to be given, [people] want the valid reassurance. But they don’t want us needlessly invading somebody’s privacy. I got home last night and Leno’s making fun of the guy. With the stain on his name, you kind of hope he did it. It would be kind of hard for him to come back from this.
“One of the dangers for us in the business, and I think we learned it in the Palatine case, is that it’s hard for us not being inside with the investigators. I imagine when you’re going through an investigation you’re going through highs and lows. That adrenaline gets passed along to us, and it’s hard for us to weigh. And I don’t think it’s unheard of for investigators to throw a name out to put some pressure on him.”
TV folk in Atlanta were soon reporting that Jewell’s acquaintances called him a “loner,” which might be what shocked acquaintances call anyone who’s just been accused of something awful they can’t imagine him doing. “There are some similarities that strike home to me,” said Lampinen, comparing Jewell to Blake. “Both cases from the outside, the media, look awfully delicious. There in Atlanta you have a guy who wants to be a cop, who has an ego–you can easily see how it all falls together. In Palatine you have a guy who used to work there, who got into an argument with the boss–you can see how it all falls together.”
When civilization flies apart everyone wants it to fall back together, and the sooner the better. The nature of journalists is to provide this comfort. Three years ago Lampinen tailored his Brown’s Chicken coverage to comfort his community: crime, suspect, motive. When the pipe bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park the community happened to be the entire nation. Days after the apparent TWA sabotage, nobody wanted to think that America was being swallowed whole by terrorism. The notion that a lone nut did the deed, for reasons that suited pop-psych theories about attention-starved nonentities, was most welcome.
You can be sure they understood this at the Journal-Constitution. Journalists mean well, even when we’re violating every ethic we hold dear.
Solipsism be our name. Ron Magers, reporting from Atlanta, “where much of the media attention continues to center on Richard Jewell.” Which is as good a reason as any to stick with the story.
Dick Ebersol is the president of NBC Sports. Revile no substitutes.
“The longest lines at the Olympics have been for… C. The John Tesh dunk tank.”
–Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times
“Mr. Tesh, the former host of ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and NBC’s anchor for the gymnastics competition, assumed a tone better suited to reporting on a nuclear test-ban conference.”
–Caryn James, New York Times
“Top Ten discarded Olympic broadcast ideas… 1. ‘Deep Thoughts with John Tesh.'”
–Michael Hirsley, Chicago Tribune
“Tape-delayed gymnastics competition with commentary known to be incorrect and misleading? It’s NBC’s call. No boxing, women’s softball or Dream Team blowouts in prime time? NBC can do what it wants. John Tesh? Ding (a G chord), dong (E), ding (C).”
–Dave Walker, Arizona Republic.
“And how about this quote from John Tesh: ‘I don’t treat gymnastics as if I were a sports broadcaster.’ Tell us something we don’t know, John. Hey, here’s another one from Tesh: ‘Olympic gymnastics is more like a TV movie than a sports event.’ This man is uncanny.”
–Jerry Greene, Orlando Sentinel
“To beat up on John Tesh this late in the game would be a little like continuing to taunt Michael Dukakis about 1988. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dukakis himself were among those who have already weighed in on what a horrid, himbo-like job Tesh has done as a gymnastics announcer.”
–Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune
“Speaking of Tesh, [divinity professor Bernard] McGinn’s most recent book is called The Antichrist: 2000 Years of the Human Fascination With Evil.”
–Steve Rosenbloom, Chicago Tribune
“The Olympics already have been ruined in so many ways. There’s John Tesh and those endless promotional tie-ins.”
–David Snyder, Crain’s Chicago Business
“Finally, the American team entered, ‘marching, as if to war,’ according to the wildly melodramatic John Tesh. Yuck. Can’t someone assign Tesh to Siberia?”
–Steve Zipay, Newsday
The Sun-Times is sending a four-man crew to San Diego next week to cover the Republican convention: political columnist Steve Neal, political reporter Scott Fornek, Springfield correspondent Dave McKinney, and sports columnist Rick Telander. An unlikely choice, Telander’s a good one: after drilling on the arcana of the Atlanta games, he knows how to mine news from the densest rocks.
The Tribune’s sending four people from its Los Angeles bureau alone, a couple dozen in all. A Sun-Times reporter I know is embarrassed by the imbalance. But unless something (to the horror of Robert Dole) actually happens in San Diego, four should do fine.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of John Lampinen, editor of the Daily Herald.