In the Frenzy of Investigation, Beware the First Suspect

Almost 24 hours after the bombings in Boston, we’re hearing few details about potential suspects. An intelligence official tells me that while the attack is clearly an act of terrorism, there was no hard information, as of last evening, about whether the perpetrator(s) is a foreigner or a homegrown terrorist–or perhaps someone inspired by a foreign group. The number of leads seems troublingly slim. 

This is precisely the moment in these kinds of investigations when vague, loosely sourced details of a “person of interest” begin to emerge, and when readers–and especially journalists–should be on guard. Consider the textbook example offered by the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the summer games in Atlanta, a bombing that, similar to the attacks in Boston, used a small explosive device placed low to the ground in a crowded public area. 

Within a few days of the explosion, federal law enforcement officers turned their attention to a security guard, Richard Jewell, who’d initially been hailed as a hero for alerting police to a suspicious package and then helping to evacuate people from the scene after the bomb went off. Then, like now, investigators were under extraordinary pressure to frame a high-profile act of domestic terrorism around a suspect. They offered up Jewell, and in off-the-record chats with reporters and through authorized leaks of details in the investigation, spun a story about a disgruntled, fame-seeking security guard who’d decided to kill innocent people in order to make himself famous. 

None of it was true. 

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution was the first to report, 72 hours after the explosion, that Jewell was a focus of the investigation. In credulous language that looked like it could have been dictated to the reporters by an FBI agent, the paper said Jewell “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 sure seemed to fit that profile; after all, the paper noted, he’d “become a celebrity in the wake of the bombing,” appearing on the “Today Show” and approaching newspapers, including the Journal-Constitution, “seeking publicity” for his actions at the scene.  

FBI agents bolstered this theory in part with their own interviews with Jewell’s “acquaintances,” which they shared with the newspaper. “FBI agents are reviewing hours of professional and amateur video tape to see if Jewell is spotted setting down the military-issue backpack that contained the bomb. Acquaintances have told agents that he owned a similar knapsack.”  

You can argue about which was worse: The journalists’ too-eager reporting, or officials’ propagation of half-baked speculation about Jewell. Neither group acquitted themselves admirably. And there were severe consequences for their rush to judgment. 

After the Journal-Constitution story ran, a media frenzy ensued, and Jewell found no peace. He was surrounded by reporters at his home. Jewell wouldn’t talk, but federal agents kept leaking details about what they were learning of Jewell from their now massive investigation. A vicious cycle was set in motion. Jewell was essentially tried in the press. 

As it turned out, the real Olympic bark bomber was Eric Rudolph, a serial bomber and terrorist. He was arrested in 2003, when he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for the Atlanta attack as well as the bombings of two abortion clinics and a lesbian bar.

Jewell was exonerated publicly. His story has been taught to journalism students as a cautionary tale. Jewell sued several media organizations, including the Journal-Constitution, for libel, which is extremely difficult to prove in court. Some settled. The suit with the Journal-Constitution was eventually dismissed in 1997. Jewell had died four months earlier. 

The broad lesson here isn’t that reporters shouldn’t believe their sources. It’s that they should remember the extraordinary pressure that law enforcement officers are under to make progress in a high-profile case such as this. And readers should remember that, too. This fast-paced environment is primed for mistakes and poor judgment, and it can induce otherwise upstanding people to commit deceptions. The same pattern repeated itself in the wake of the anthrax attacks, in 2002, when the government’s focus on a military scientist as the culprit turned out to be wildly misplaced. 

Today, press attention has turned towards a Saudi man who was reportedly injured in one of the two blasts in Boston, and whose apartment in Revere was searched last night by federal officers. Investigators are now indicating he may have been a frightened bystander, and isn’t considered a suspect. But other reports are laced with vague, suggestive language that, like the Jewell reporting, seems designed to make an argument, not to report facts. That is risky business. And it reminds me of an adage in investigative journalism: The first story is rarely the right one.