July 25, 2011
July 30, 1996, edition of The Atlanta Journal. (Newseum collection)

July 30, 1996, edition of The Atlanta Journal. (Newseum collection)

15 Years Ago in News History: An Olympic Mistake

Sometime after midnight on July 27, 1996, during the Summer Olympics, a security guard noticed a suspicious knapsack underneath a bench at Atlanta's Centennial Park and alerted authorities.

The guard, Richard Jewell, along with other security personnel, quickly evacuated the area. At approximately 1:20 a.m., a bomb inside the knapsack exploded. One person was killed, and more than 100 people were wounded. Jewell was hailed a bona fide hero.

His hero status was short-lived. Three days later, the Atlanta Journal broke the story that the FBI suspected Jewell was the bomber:

Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police "wannabe" who seeks to become a hero. Jewell has become a celebrity in the wake of the bombing. … He also has approached newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, seeking publicity for his actions.

A media storm ensued. The house Jewell shared with his mother was searched. Photographers and TV cameras followed him. Jewell's legal limbo lasted 88 days, and he was never charged with the bombing. His case came to symbolize a frenzied media spinning out of control.

The real bomber was later identified as Eric Rudolph, whose subsequent bombings of an abortion clinic and a nightclub linked him to the Centennial Park bombing. Rudolph hid in the wilderness for six years before he was captured in 2003.

After he was cleared, Jewell sued a number of news organizations for libelous reporting. Most settled out of court. But Jewell's long battle with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which refused to admit culpability, outlasted him. Jewell died in 2007 at age 44.

In July 2011, a Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Jewell's case against the newspaper. That ruling will likely stand if the Georgia State Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear it.

An exhibit on media accuracy, which includes Jewell's story, is on display in the Newseum's News History Gallery.

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