Thursday, August 30, 2007

Unringing a bell

You can't.

There's plenty on the too-early death of Centennial Park bombing hero Richard Jewell, who apparently succumbed to diabetes and renal failure this morning at 44. Why add to it?

Just to rant. The injustice done to Jewell has burned me for years.

Don't get me wrong. The FBI had to look into every potential suspect. It's irresponsible not to. It was their leak to the media of their suspicions that led to Jewell's villification. This article in Vanity Fair blames the media, which certainly lived to regret what it had done to Jewell. But what can a network or paper do with a leak? Ignore it? Say "We'll wait for confirmation"? I'd guess that such a decision rests on the authority wielded by the source. This was the FBI. If they say it and if they give it to the media, they must be pretty damn sure.

So if the FBI has to investigate this suspect, and the media has to be able to judge a leak worthy of publication, based on the quality of the source, then what's wrong with the picture?

I can't even pick which soapbox to get on, here. The media is trapped in profit-making, and profit comes from keeping the hot story alive even when it's in preliminary process. Even when an investigation is in the hypothesis, evidence-gathering stage. And the viewers/readers don't see it as prelimnary, but as The Truth unfolding before their zombified eyes.

Then again, a better education system could train our minds to see a process as being a process, and not a final answer. You could illustrate this in a classrrom with a simple damn coin toss -- toss it a hundred times and show that it will turn up heads or tails about 50-50. But that if you tried to decide which would turn up more often based only on the first ten tosses, you'd get a skewed result. Gather all the evidence before you judge, kids! The early evidence might just tell the opposite of the truth.

And politics. Damnable politics that pressures a federal agency to make it look like they know something we don't. Your government wants you to know that you're in good hands, folks. You silly masses might be fooled by this guy's heroics, but we know, like, psychology stuff, so he won't fool us. We'll protect you from his kind.

Profit, politics, and public emotion-based unthinking stupidity all came together to prevent the truth from getting heard. In a nice blog entry, ronnie recounts "a miscarriage of justice" of a whole different kind, yet not so much. It demonstrates the essential wrongness of the death penalty. You gotta wonder why there is a death penalty, and the only possible answer, to me, is emotion. The desire for a "justice" that really cannot bring justice about, that couches rage, fury, desire for revenge in the too-polite term "justice." If somebody killed my loved one wouldn't I want to see him fry? Sure. Your point? My point is that justice, for Stephen Truscott, Richard Jewell, or anyone else, can never be achieved while we have an emotion-based society that devalues thought and reason. It will insist on hot sensational news stories. It will insist on premature closure. It will insist on white-hot revenge instead of coolheaded reason. And while the job of the justice system is to detach from victim emotion and stay evidence-based and cold (Yes. Cold.), that system is selected and pressured to respond to emotion, and gradually becomes emotion-based.

The Jewell case shows how that bell is never unrung. Once cleared he never got back what he'd lost. That's how it works. He got money. He sued all over the place. Michael Moore gave him a cameo, Saturday Night Live gave him a walk-on. He had a little fun. But his hero status never returned.

Jewell had dreamed of a law enforcement career. He'd been turned down by the local police department, but you could say that some kind of Plan put him where he was needed. Because in his role as a private security guard at Olympic Park, he saved 50-100 lives that day in 1996 when Eric Rudolph set off a bomb. So the good news is that we can't unring that bell either. A lot of people are alive because of Richard Jewell.

So it's a life well-lived. Rest in peace.

1 comment:

Mike said...

The sad part is that the media didn't have to run with this so uncritically.

My son, who has been several kinds of emergency responder, threw up a caution flag as soon as Jewell's name was released. Sure, he's kind of a geeky wannabe type, he said, but -- and we're not talking about volunteers here -- who else are you going to get to work security for such a short period of time? The guys who are fully, obviously qualified are working as full-time cops or in allied fields.

The media jumped on this semi-pathetic guy without examining the other semi-pathetic guys who were probably also working in various capacities at the Olympics, because they were available, too.

There is a type of competitive, arrogant, aggressive journalist who does better at a Presidential news conference than on a story like this. It's tough for a lot of reporters to cover Joe Six-Pack stories because they have so little in common with Joe Six-Pack. The ones who know that do a pretty good job. The ones who think they know everything are the kind who served up Richard Jewell without understanding what they've blundered into.