Pulling Back the Curtain: How we decided against IDing Richard Jewell

  • John Lampinen

    John Lampinen

 
 
Updated 12/2/2019 9:45 AM

On Dec. 13, the theaters will release, "Richard Jewell," the Clint Eastwood movie about the news media's rush to judgment that wrongly identified security guard Richard Jewell as the suspect in the 1996 Summer Olympic bombing.

Virtually every news organization in the United States identified Jewell as the suspect. The Daily Herald was an exception. There may have been others, but we're the only paper I'm aware of that chose not to print his name.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

I was the editor and I made the call. For our part and particularly mine, I wish I could attribute our decision solely to good instincts and strong convictions. Unfortunately, it also was because we'd been down that road before. And I'd made the wrong call then.

Three years earlier, the suburbs had been stunned by the murders at a Brown's Chicken restaurant in Palatine. Like the Olympic bombing, it was a shocking story of enormous media attention. Unlike the Olympic bombing, it happened in our backyard.

For months, we poured everything we had into coverage of the murders. Certainly, we did on that first long day. Every ounce of energy we had went into that reporting.

On that first evening, our reporters worked a tip identifying a suspect who had been taken into police custody. This was the guy, our police sources said; this was the guy.

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A quarter century later, it's hard to remember everything that went into the decision-making, but certainly, competitive pressure played a role.

We debated, but ultimately, I said, run with it.

Nothing ever came of that first Brown's Chicken "suspect." He was soon released and never charged with anything. A decade later, two people with no connection to him were charged and convicted.

Printing his name was the worst mistake in judgment of my career. To this day, I wish I could take it back, but of course, once it's on the page, there's no taking it out.

But I learned from that experience. Police sources, like everybody else, are human. They may pass along a name because they're trying to squeeze a suspect. Or they may simply be wrong.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In either case, given the stakes, we've got to have more than simple assurances.

Out of the Brown's Chicken case came a change in our policy: Except for rare exceptions, we identify suspects only after they have been charged or we know with certainty that they are about to be charged.

Given that policy, while the call on Richard Jewell involved some hand-wringing, in the end, it was fairly simple -- despite the enormous time pressures, despite seeing his name bandied about in broadcast reports everywhere.

There was no indication in any of our wire service coverage or from the news we heard on TV and radio that Jewell was about to be charged. And we were in no position 750 miles away to know that he would be.

No charges and no certainty that there would be charges meant the story would contain no name.

In making the call, we knew that as one newspaper in the middle of the country, we weren't as a practical matter going to protect Jewell's reputation.

But we also knew from painful experience that we had a duty to do right by him.

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