July 27 morning — this one in Atlanta — when much more shocking news rocked the Olympic Games.
This morning, as Americans absorb news reports that star U.S. gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from the team competition in Tokyo, I'm thinking back to another hot July 27 morning -- this one in Atlanta -- when much more shocking news rocked the Olympic Games. Tweet
This morning, as Americans absorb news reports that star U.S. gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from the team competition in Tokyo, I’m thinking back to another hot July 27 morning — this one in Atlanta — when much more shocking news rocked the Olympic Games.
That fateful morning, an anonymous 911 call was received by an emergency operator in Atlanta. “There is a bomb in Centennial Park,” said the caller. “You have 30 minutes.” It turned out that authorities had 22 minutes: That’s when a 40-pound pipe bomb packed with screws and nails exploded. It killed Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old wife and mother who operated an ice cream parlor she named after her daughter Fallon, who was 14 at the time. They were in Atlanta because Fallon wanted to hear a music group performing there; Alice bought her tickets as a birthday present. Melih Uzunyol, 40, a Turkish cameraman, was in the city to cover the 1996 Olympics. He rushed toward the site of the bombing, but suffered a fatal heart attack. Scores of people were wounded.
The toll would have been much worse, save for an observant and quick-acting security guard who noticed a suspicious backpack in the park and guided people to safety just before it exploded. His name was Richard Allensworth Jewell, and he was immediately hailed as a hero.
Three days later, however, a story in the Atlanta Constitution turned Jewell’s world upside down. Citing unnamed law enforcement sources, the newspaper identified Jewell as “the focus” of the criminal investigation. This set off a frenzy of news coverage in which Jewell was portrayed as an overweight loser and law enforcement wannabe who intended to draw attention to himself.
This was untrue and unfair. It was a monstrous injustice, actually.
Although Richard Jewell’s name was ultimately cleared and the true bomber brought to justice years later, the episode is a lasting disgrace to the FBI, and to the news media. Both institutions should have learned important lessons in Atlanta about the danger of loose conjecture and sloppy investigative techniques — and why it is important to deal in facts, not conjecture. The operative phrase in that previous sentence is “should have.”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.