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Richard Jewell was a victim of ‘fake news’

Over two decades ago, the security guard hero’s life was ruined by an agenda-driven media

December 15, 2019

5:09 PM

15 December 2019

5:09 PM

Few things enrage journalists more than when President Trump accuses the media of creating ‘fake news’ or calls them the ‘enemy of the people’.

Reporters and pundits understandably take it as a threat — not only to themselves but also to the First Amendment and the bedrock notion that a free press is necessary for a free society. Some have interpreted Trump’s remarks as emerging fascism or even wondered if they could end up in jail for criticizing this administration (though the media curiously didn’t make as much of a stink when President Obama was trampling reporters’ constitutional rights).

Yet to date, no journalists have been locked up. No fascist measures have been taken against the press.

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But Trump’s anti-media comments have never really been a challenge to journalists’ existence or their important role. That’s just how they usually take them. 

The president’s irritation has always appeared to be that he believes too many aren’t doing their jobs properly. That instead of merely pursuing truth and keeping the public informed, the press is agenda-driven, developing and promoting false narratives of their own making.

That is exactly what happened to Richard Jewell.

In the Clint Eastwood-directed Richard Jewell, the film’s namesake is a hero who saved many lives during the 1996 bombing of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta’s Centennial Park. After a few days of praise, the FBI makes Jewell their top suspect based on nothing more than the fact that he fit one of their criminal profiles.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story with their front-page headline, ‘FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb’ and the rest of the media followed their lead. In a matter of days, Jewell had been virtually convicted in the court of public opinion thanks to an avalanche of national stories that screamed guilt to readers and viewers.

Yet, Jewell was completely innocent. He deserved a medal, not a jail sentence and certainly not 24/7 media harassment.

Should the AJC or any other outlet have reported that Jewell was an FBI suspect? Of course. It was news and therefore, newsworthy.

But for the media to invest completely in only what the FBI was saying at the time instead of also questioning the authorities was a mistake. The failure of journalists to ask probing questions created a national story that simply wasn’t true and that did significant damage to Jewell and his family. 

His 1996 controversy is a prime example of what any reasonable observer might call ‘fake news’.

Fake news can take many forms.

Right up until Robert Mueller released his much anticipated report on alleged collusion between Donald Trump and Russia during the 2016 presidential election, most of the mainstream media was invested in the president being found guilty of something, even if it wasn’t clear what that might be.

When that didn’t happen, most of what CNN, MSNBC and other mainstream and left-leaning outlets had been reporting for a few years certainly seemed like fake news. MSNBC and CNN’s ratings took a significant hit. ‘There was no market for skepticism about it,’ said an anonymous MSNBC employee in the wake of the Mueller report. ‘As a business model, they see the ratings, and we were getting rewarded for this every day.’

Like the media in 1996 relying on the FBI in the Jewell case, the American press throughout much of ‘Russiagate’ listened primarily to government officials who were already opposed to the president. 

Glenn Greenwald was one of the few progressive journalists who never bought into the zeitgeist. ‘Not only did MSNBC and CNN use those people as their sources, they hired them as their news analysts,’ Greenwald said of those news outlets CIA sources. 

‘So if you turn on CNN or MSNBC, it was basically state TV,’ Greenwald said. ‘It was CIA TV.’

Greenwald suggested after the Mueller report was released that MSNBC should ‘go before the cameras and hang their head in shame, and apologize for lying to people for three straight years exploiting their fears to great profit.’

In 2008, former CNN reporter Jessica Yellin revealed that her former bosses seeking profits over real news is part the reason the media failed to ask the right questions in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003.

Yellin said that the corporate heads of her network did not want negative stories about Iraq, thus preventing reporters from challenging the George W. Bush administration.

‘The press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president’s high approval ratings,’ Yellin admitted over a decade ago.
’And my own experience at the White House was that the higher the president’s approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives… to put on positive stories about the president.’

Yellin said news executives, ‘would push me in different directions. They would turn down stories that were more critical, and try to put on pieces that were more positive.’

There were so many questions that should have been asked before the Iraq War debacle. 

They weren’t.

Press freedom must always be protected. This doesn’t mean the media is forever shielded from criticism about what they do with that freedom. Fake news should be called out.

A press that runs stories slandering innocent individuals, creates ideologically-driven and factually dubious charges against the president or neglects to effectively question the government in the lead up to a war, is not doing its job.

One might even call them an ‘enemy of the people’ precisely because they keep failing the people.

Just like they did Richard Jewell.

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