Just Say No
Richard Jewell-style feeding frenzies aren't inevitable.
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (firstname.lastname@example.org) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.
One Saturday after&oon when I was the newly ensconced AME/news of the Milwaukee Journal, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea for revamping the front page of the Sunday paper. I don't remember the specifics, but clearly they represented a radical departure, at least judging by all of the sotto voce grumbling and foot-dragging I was encountering on the news and copy desks.
No one was quite saying so explicitly, but it was clear that the consensus was that this was something they really didn't want to do.
ýomewhere between impatience and exasperation, I asked what the problem was. No one said anything. So I asked if there was something morally wrong with my plan. They said no. I asked if they thought it might put the paper's financial future at risk. No one seemed to think so.
9o what was up with all the passive-aggressive behavior?
"It's just," someone finally said, "that we've never done it before."
In a field where the mission is to cover news – as in new – change tends to be a gradual thing. Tradition, custom, habit – all are dearly beloved in the newspaper business.
And there is no tradition as sacred as responding quickly to breaking events. That's what we do. When there's a big development in a major story, we're on it like white on rice. The adrenaline flows; the excitement is palpable. We mobilize the troops, draw up battle plans, rip up page one.
And most of the time that's a good thing.
So it's hardly a surprise that when law enforcement officials indicated – albeit it off the record – that they had a suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, The Media leapt into action (see "Going to Extremes," page 38).
The result: lots of airtime and heavy page one play. Instant "psychological" profiles purporting to show that security guard Richard A. Jewell was afflicted with something called a "hero complex." The inevitable round-the-clock media stakeout.
All of which left the clear impression that the horrible crime at the Olympics had been solved, that authorities had quickly gotten their man.
Yet as days passed and no charges were brought against Jewell, nagging doubts arose. Was it really responsible and fair to give the full-court press treatment at this stage? What if Jewell wasn't the guy?
Clearly the media were far ahead of the cops. While law enforcement had scored a massive PR coup by steering the media to Jewell, it soon became clear they were nowhere near ready to make an arrest. But the media treated Jewell as if he had been charged, tried and convicted.
But what was the alternative? Once the Atlanta Journal broke the story and CNN jumped all over it, the story was "out there." What good would it do for a paper or radio or TV station to handle the Jewell story with restraint? Wouldn't it just look silly? Wouldn't its audience think it was hopelessly out of touch?
For one thing, polling data and anecdotal evidence alike suggest Americans are turned off by this kind of overkill.
But more important, sometimes you have to do the right thing because it is the right thing. Because what was the "news"? Anonymous suggestions that there was a suspect. Evidence that he had been questioned and was being watched. Nothing more.
So don't pretend it didn't happen. Put the fact that Jewell is considered a suspect in the paper or on the air, but with the play it deserves. Tuck it inside, or mention it down in the body of an overall story about the bombing.
What ultimately happens to Jewell doesn't really change the equation. When the frenzy was at full throttle, no one had any idea whether he would be charged with the heinous crime.
Caution and restraint in the midst of a high-interest story seem counterintuitive. After all, few things in journalism are as exciting as the chase. And eager audiences thirst for news. But it's precisely at times like this when someone needs to stand in the path of the locomotive. Just think of all those inaccurate stories in the early days of the O.J. Simpson extravaganza. Don't think a lot of reporters wouldn't like to take them back.
In fact, one paper managed to keep things in perspective. On July 31, the day after the Journal reported that Jewell was a suspect, there was no splashy page one story in the New York Times. Instead, the paper ran a 12-paragraph story on B-6 (with a page one refer) focusing on the saturation television attention devoted to the Atlanta paper's report.
The upside of this not particularly uplifting interlude is that it is a great opportunity for the media to take a step back, examine the way they work and perhaps change some of their knee-jerk behavior. In some cases, and this is certainly one of them, we'd all be better off with more judgment and less rush.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Let's stipulate that both the Democratic and Republican conventions were slickly produced infomercials. Let's stipulate that the actual news value of these events was minimal, and has been for a generation. Let's stipulate that the networks were completely outfoxed by the pols.
But packaged or not, conventions remain a wonderful slice of Americana, complete with hokey roll calls, odd costumes, confetti and balloons. And they are a great setting to see politicians well-known and little-known up close and personal.
Shrinking audience or no, they ought to be on the air (and not just on cable and public television). And let's keep the filtering and the punditry to a minimum. Give people a chance to watch. There's plenty of time to analyze everything to death between the final gavel and Election Day. l###