For anybody who remembers the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing; or who is interested in the way law enforcement and the news media work during a crisis; or who simply likes the films of director Clint Eastwood, the new movie “Richard Jewell” ought to be worth a look.
The publicity about the movie now includes an objection from the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He disputes the film’s depiction of the newspaper’s decision-making process in reporting the bombing, as well as the portrayal of a female reporter who, it’s implied, traded sex with an FBI agent for a tip about the story.
Eastwood responded that the newspaper probably is trying to rationalize its actions after the July 1996 bombing in Centennial Park, which killed one person and injured 111 others.
The Oscar-winning director said the news media sometimes rushes to get out stories because of pressure to be the first to report it. His exact words were, “They pull the trigger before they’re dialed in,” and that sounds about right for the guy who made his movie reputation playing Dirty Harry but is now chiding others for a rush to judgment.
Eastwood is absolutely correct about the competitive pressure to report things first. And while the Atlanta newspaper’s original story that said the FBI was investigating Jewell as the bombing suspect was accurate, the reporters failed to specify that they got their information from law enforcement sources.
It’s easy to blame the media, but the fact is that law enforcement, specifically the FBI, had the wrong guy when it focused on Jewell. He originally was one of the heroes, having spotted an abandoned backpack late at night and helping to move people away from it during the 20 minutes before the bomb inside of it exploded.
It did not take long before evidence told investigators Jewell could not have planted the bomb, but the damage was already done. Reporters had besieged his apartment for a long time, and he wound up settling a bunch of libel lawsuits against various companies. (The Atlanta paper did not settle and won its case.)
This movie has no happy ending. Jewell died at age 44 in 2007. The reporter died of a prescription drug overdose in 2001. And competitive pressures for both law enforcement and the media are stronger than ever.