Magazine article American Journalism Review

Just Say No: Richard Jewell-Style Feeding Frenzies Aren't Inevitable

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Just Say No: Richard Jewell-Style Feeding Frenzies Aren't Inevitable

Article excerpt

ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON when I was the newly ensconced AME/news of the Milwaukee Journal, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea for revamping the front page of the Sunday paper. I don't remember the specifics, but clearly they represented a radical departure, at least judging by all of the sotto voce grumbling and foot-dragging I was encountering on the news and copy desks.

No one was quite saying so explicitly, but it was clear that the consensus was that this was something they really didn't want to do.

Somewhere between impatience and exasperation, I asked what the problem was. No one said anything. So I asked if there was something morally wrong with my plan. They said no. I asked if they thought it might put the paper's financial future at risk. No one seemed to think so.

So what was up with all the passive-aggressive behavior?

"It's just," someone finally said, "that we've never done it before."

In a field where the mission is to cover news-as in new change tends to be a gradual thing. Tradition, custom, habit-all are dearly beloved in the newspaper business.

And there is no tradition as sacred as responding quickly to breaking events. That's what we do. When there's a big development in a major story, we're on it like white on rice. The adrenaline flows; the excitement is palpable. We mobilize the troops, draw up battle plans, rip up page one.

And most of the time that's a good thing.

So it's hardly a surprise that when law enforcement officials indicated-albeit it off the record-that they had a suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, The Media leapt into action (see "Going to Extremes," page 38).

The result: lots of airtime and heavy page one play. Instant "psychological" profiles purporting to show that security guard Richard A. Jewell was afflicted with something called a "hero complex." The inevitable round-the-clock media stakeout.

All of which left the clear impression that the horrible crime at the Olympics had been solved, that authorities had quickly gotten their man.

Yet as days passed and no charges were brought against Jewell, nagging doubts arose. Was it really responsible and fair to give the full-court press treatment at this stage? What if Jewell wasn't the guy?

Clearly the media were far ahead of the cops. While law enforcement had scored a massive PR coup by steering the media to Jewell, it soon became clear they were nowhere near ready to make an arrest. But the media treated Jewell as if he had been charged, tried and convicted.

But what was the alternative? Once the Atlanta Journal broke the story and CNN jumped all over it, the story was "out there." What good would it do for a paper or radio or TV station to handle the Jewell story with restraint? Wouldn't it just look silly? …

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