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The Role Of Media And Law Enforcement Is Explored In Book About Atlanta Olympic Bombing

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Kevin Salwen The Suspect
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On July 27, 1996 during the Atlanta Olympic games, a bomb was found by a security guard. The film about Richard Jewell is in theaters now and a book has simultaneously been released. One of the book’s co-authors will speak Thursday  at the US Ski and Snowboard Center of Excellence.

This KPCW interview with the author gives perspective on how the story shapes media, law enforcement and Olympic culture.

Co-author Kevin Salwen says he and the US Attorney Kent Alexander who was assigned to the case, started research on the book, The Suspect, about five years ago. The Clint Eastwood film is based on the book and a Vanity Fair article that explores Richard Jewell, who found the bomb in the Olympic Centennial Park, alerted authorities to evacuate and shortly after, was wrongly accused of planting the bomb. Salwen says their book explores how this event ruined a person’s.

“You know, we did 187 formal interviews, we read through 90,000 pages of documents. What we wanted was to figure out how this case that ruined Richard Jewell's life went so horribly wrong and it was such an impactful moment in Olympic’s history. I mean if you think about the two big security events in the history of the Olympic games. It was Munich in 1972 and it was the Richard Jewell Atlanta bombing case in 1996.”

Salwen says they wanted to write the book because the summer Olympic games in Atlanta was the largest international peace time gathering of nearly 200 countries, 10,000 athletes and 15,000 journalists. On the 8th day of the games, the bomb goes off in Centennial Park which had been built as an Olympic gathering place. The story talks about how, if not for the work of Richard Jewell, many more injuries and deaths would have occurred. The hero, Jewell is paraded around for several days on all the media outlets while simultaneously is investigated by the FBI and other law enforcement. The public perception of the event is also convoluted and inaccurate 25 years later. Salwen says it’s a social media story from a time when social media didn’t exist.

“What Kent and I found repeatedly was, people would say, oh yeah Richard Jewell, he was that guy who bombed the Olympics games. Or, yeah, he was that poor guy who got set up for that…how long did he spend in jail?  Well, Richard Jewell was never arrested, he was never charged. He was simply tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.”

Salwen worked for the Wall Street Journal during that period. He says the media and law enforcement, and the power they wield, are ideas they explore in his book.

“One of the interesting things for me as I was writing The Suspect was all of the grey areas. These are two institutions that we actually want to be strong in our society, law enforcement and the media. But when they go off the rail that's when things go horribly wrong.”

Salwen says the news consuming public plays a role in the complicity of sharing inaccurate information because people are desperate to have answers.

“If you had this news story that Richard Jewell was the lead suspect, would you run it in your newspaper? It was true he was the lead suspect for the FBI, but should you put that on the air or in the news? And I think those are interesting questions for people to sort of ponder on their own as they read along.”

Salwen points out that some media reports including late night TV, cemented public opinion that Jewell was guilty of planting the bomb when the truth was only that he was a suspect.

Salwen says there were a few media outlets speaking out about the way Jewell was being tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. The Arizona Republic and Sean Hannity, who hosted a radio show in Atlanta at the time, cast doubt on the process.

“Most of the media and most of the news consuming public was so desperate to move on with the Olympic games that they wanted this thing tied up in a neat little bow and Richard Jewell was the person on the other end of that, and it was a tragic situation for him obviously.”

That’s Kevin Salwen, co-author of  The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, The FBI, The Media and Richard Jewell.

 
 
 
  
 

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