Kevin Salwen had a question: How did Richard Jewell, a man who should be lauded as an American hero, become convicted in the court of public opinion and forever remembered as the primary suspect in the Atlanta Olympic bombings?
Salwen ’79, a former Wall Street Journal columnist and editor, and his co-author, former U.S. attorney Kent Alexander, spent more than five years digging into that question for their narrative nonfiction book, The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle (2019). The book became a source for the new Clint Eastwood film Richard Jewell, on which Salwen and Alexander also served as consultants.
The book chronicles the moments that led up to the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the reverberations that rocked Jewell — and his family — for the rest of his life. A former police officer, Jewell landed a gig on the Olympics security detail that summer. After midnight on July 27 he discovered a backpack containing three pipe bombs at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. He quickly helped to clear the area and establish a perimeter, saving dozens of lives. But the device detonated before the bomb squad could arrive, killing one person directly and injuring more than 100. Praised at first, Jewell quickly became the focus of the FBI investigation and was publicly named the primary suspect.
“This case was led by two of the most powerful forces on Earth: the FBI and the media,” says Salwen. “And I always wondered how this went so horribly wrong, that a man who should have a statue of himself in the center of Atlanta ends up being in the crosshairs of those two powerful forces.”
Salwen, who was running the Journal’s southeastern news operation in 1996, and his co-author, Alexander, had front-row seats to the investigation and subsequent rush to judgment.
“Kent [the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia] was the guy who was going to prosecute the bomber,” says Salwen. “He kept copious notes during the case just to keep it straight. He knew all the law enforcement stuff, and I knew all the journalism stuff — or we thought we did. In reality, each of us probably only knew less than half the story.”
Beginning in 2014, Salwen and Alexander started research for the book, reading through more than 90,000 pages of documents and conducting more than 180 formal interviews with everyone from FBI to media to family members, including Richard’s mother, Bobi, and his widow, Dana.
The co-authors caught up with Dana when she was in the midst of moving from the 20-plus acre farm she and Richard had bought late in his life. (He died in 2007.)
“We helped move a bunch of stuff,” Salwen recalls. “And she said, ‘Well, if you want to take all of the photographs that Richard took and give them back at some point, you can have those.’ That collection contained this stunning trove of images,” including Jewell’s view of Centennial Olympic Park and photos of Jewell with Will Ferrell from his appearance on Saturday Night Live. “To be able to see this man, who in many ways was caricatured and then forgotten by most of society, in all of these facets of his life was really illuminating.”
Salwen says he thinks his book vindicates Jewell — and Jewell’s family agrees. “I believe that the time you guys spent with me and the truth in the book has fulfilled my promise to Richard to ensure his story was told,” Dana Jewell wrote to Salwen and Alexander after reading the book. “I don’t have the words to tell you both how much I appreciate what you have accomplished with this book. Trust me, you did not disappoint.’”
Salwen, who helped cover two presidential administrations and wrote two columns during 19 years at the Wall Street Journal, says the Richard Jewell story offers important lessons for modern-day media — lessons that he’ll share during a Jan. 16 visit to Northwestern’s Evanston campus.
In an age of retweets and Facebook shares, Salwen says, it’s very easy to get the story wrong or pile on in a way that perpetuates an untruth. “The Richard Jewell story happened in a pre–social media environment, and yet it very much mimics a social media world,” he says. “We need to get back to a place where accuracy becomes more important than speed because we have lost our sense of the criticality of slowing down and getting the story right.”
“And if the standard you’re using for whether to run something or not run something is whether you’re libeling somebody, that standard isn’t high enough. That’s the lowest bar you can hit,” Salwen adds. “In this case, the story about Richard Jewell being the lead suspect was true. The question is, did everyone who was writing about that forget that there’s a human being on the other end of that story? And the human toll that that took on Richard Jewell — and his mother — was devastating.”