How The Media Ruined An Innocent Man’s Life After The 1996 Olympics Bombing

Richard Jewell
Richard Jewell testifying to the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI had tried to humiliate him.

After a bomb went off during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other media outlets zeroed in on one suspect: security guard Richard Jewell. He was ultimately cleared, but only after the media and the FBI turned him into a national pariah.

Jewell’s story is important to remember in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, when everybody is eager to find out who’s responsible.

The bomb that went off in July 1996 in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park killed one person and injured 111 others. It could have done a lot more damage if it weren’t for Jewell, though.

Jewell spotted the bomb in the first place when he was working security in the park. He alerted police right away and helped them clear most of the people out of the area before it went off.

As a high school student in surburban Atlanta, I remember thinking the bomb could have been much, much worse. The Olympic city had averted a true disaster thanks to Jewell.

Three days after the bombing, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an article called “FBI Suspects Hero Guard May Have Planted Bomb,” according to a PBS history of the case.

Jewell “fits the profile of a lone bomber” the AJC reported after the FBI conducted a “very public search” of Jewell’s apartment, according to 60 Minutes.

CNN then read the entire AJC article on the air, PBS reported. Many news organisations began to scrutinize Jewell, interviewing experts who agreed he fit the psychological profile of a lone bomber.

Articles also speculated that his frustrations with his erratic career in law enforcement might have made him plant the bomb so he’d get national attention.

Jewell holed up at his mother’s house, where she said the media “descended like vultures on prey” and totally robbed them of privacy, according to PBS. Two victims of the bombing even filed civil lawsuits against Jewell, according to a Vanity Fair profile of him.

He was never charged with a crime, though. Authorities officially cleared him as a suspect 90 days after the bombing, and Eric Rudolph later confessed to the crime. Jewell later said he felt like he could never really put the allegations past him, The New York Times reported.

The media is a lot different from how it was back in 1996 when the press demonized Jewell. There’s even more of an echo chamber now, when news is updated virtually every minute and information is constantly re-reported.

News outlets today will hopefully scrutinize news about the Boston Marathon suspect before they re-tweet or re-blog it. These reports could ruin an innocent person’s life.