Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial masterpiece, “Richard Jewell,” revisits the story of the security guard at the 1996 Olympics who overnight went from international hero to notorious suspect, and eventually to sympathetic victim.
That summer, Jewell reported a bomb in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. It detonated, killing two people and wounding more than 100 others. Yet Jewell initially was hailed as a hero because his warning enabled authorities to move dozens more people out of the blast zone.
Almost immediately, however, the media learned the FBI considered Jewell a suspect - the theory was that Jewell placed the bomb and reported it to gain attention - and when the news broke, he suddenly became the villain.
For three months the media and the FBI relentlessly tore Jewell’s life apart. Ultimately, the FBI found nothing and cleared him. The real bomber, anti-abortion zealot Eric Rudolph, was captured years later.
In Eastwood’s retelling, the villains are the FBI and the media, specifically the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which broke the story of agents’ suspicions. I avoided reading reviews before seeing the movie, believing the liberal media would circle the wagons against Eastwood and trash his movie.
One reviewer I came across afterward, Vanity Fair’s Julie Miller, offered this assessment: “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s decision to publish the story ... was so journalistically problematic and personally devastating to Jewell (and his mother, Bobi) that the case continues to be taught as a cautionary tale in journalism schools.”
Yeah, I doubt whether that lesson is sinking in.
The power of “Richard Jewell” is Eastwood’s ability to convey that the Everyman - based on bad information or rotten intuition - could be ruined by the suffocating scrutiny of the media and law enforcement, neither of which is really accountable to anyone.
So, I’m skeptical of Miller’s point because in our social media-driven age the type of media speculation that absolutely and needlessly murdered Jewell’s reputation two decades ago is still with us - and someone loaded that tank with rocket fuel when Donald Trump became president.
It is this Jewell-style mindset that first convicts in the court of public opinion then meekly acknowledges, sometimes, the truth was something different.
We’ve seen it with the Covington Catholic High School students, the gullible acceptance of hate-crime hoaxes and more recently, thinly veiled accusations that cadets from Annapolis and West Point were “white power” advocates.
We’ve also seen it with overhyped negative stories about people in Trump’s orbit - like Anthony Scaramucci, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Trump’s children, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, to name a few - that have all been rebutted or somewhat walked back.
And as in Jewell’s case, the media and federal law enforcement have teamed up to torch people’s reputations.
Pre-Jewell, many of us can recall the controversial incidents at Ruby Ridge and Waco, wherein the media unquestioningly accepted federal law enforcement’s characterization of the unusual suspects as nuts, outcasts, losers.
In 2001, just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the FBI was hunting an anthrax-circulating killer. They named Steven Hatfill, a federal bioweapons researcher, as a person of interest. Once reporters sniffed his trail, Hatfill, like Jewell, was considered as good as guilty. But he, too, was later exonerated, and eventually received a $5.8 million settlement from the federal government for being wrongly identified.
The most prominent recent example involves Trump and Co. during the FBI’s probe of Russian collusion. Trump and his team were depicted as agents of the Kremlin because, according to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the FBI built its investigation on the bogus dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele - whose concocted work was uncritically accepted by news media that promoted it as gospel, and also ridiculously lionized anti-Trump hacks like James Comey and Peter Strzok.
Although these high-profile cases are problematic, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies do a great job keeping society safe most of the time. The media, especially at the local level, also does yeoman’s work to bring us the news, usually with severely limited resources.
But the off-the-rails adventures in fantasyland overshadow the good both groups do.
Returning to Miller’s point, the lesson the media should have pulled from Richard Jewell was to maintain healthy skepticism of government actors and remain open to all sides, including the eccentric, abnormal or quirky.
Yet we’re here 23 years later, and the miscues keep piling up. Perhaps a ticket to “Richard Jewell” can remind reporters the idea is to not link arms with government officials, but hold them at arm’s length.
Bill Thompson (email@example.com) is the editorial page editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.