On July 27, 1996, a pipe bomb in a backpack was placed in Centennial Olympic Park, which was the "town square" for the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games. Security guard, Richard Jewell, discovered the bomb, alerted authorities, and began clearing the area. Thirteen minutes later the bomb went off, killing Alice Hawthorne and injuring over a hundred others.
This was five years before 9/11, and America didn't yet understand terrorism and how to react to its perpetrators. The FBI leaked a lone bomber criminal profile and the investigation shifted to Jewell. Rather than being honored for his lifesaving actions, he was portrayed as a failed law enforcement officer and "badge-wearing zealot". It was presumed that he planted the bomb so he could find it and be the hero.
The media lynch mob was merciless.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution led the parade, comparing Jewell to serial killer Wayne Williams, and highlighting his supposed "bizarre employment history and aberrant personality".
Jay Leno labeled him the "Una-doofus", while others called him "Una-bubba".
The New York Post offered these profound insights, "He was a fat, failed former sheriff's deputy who spent most of his working days as a school crossing guard and yearned to go further." and "Everybody here should be glad they finally got this guy..."
The worst was Tom Brokaw of NBC News. He used his network bully pulpit (emphasis on bully) to authoritatively state, "The speculation is that the FBI is close to making its case. They probably have enough to arrest him now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well..."
There was no presumption of innocence, no journalistic integrity, just a rush to judgment by a bunch of sanctimonious blowhards trying to one-up each other with their moral outrage. Sound familiar?
Well, of course, they got it wrong. Eric Robert Rudolph, who later bombed a gay nightclub and two abortion clinics, was convicted of the bombing. Jewell was completely exonerated. Attorney General Janet Reno apologized for the FBI leak. Monetary settlements for libel were reached with CNN, The New York Post, and NBC. Richard Jewell died at the age of 44, a broken man, before his case against the Atlanta Journal Constitution could be resolved.
"While the government can tell you that I am an innocent man, the government's letter cannot give me back my good name or my reputation."