Fisher Investments Presents: NBA and China; 'Mandate of Heaven'; Editorial Restraint

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Good morning, it’s Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. Twenty-three years ago, a hard-charging New York Times correspondent was chafing at the direction he was getting from his editors while covering a fast-moving story that had shocked the world and cast a pall over the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

The journalist’s name was Kevin Sack. The story he wanted to cover more aggressively was detonation of a pipe bomb in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. One woman was killed in that July 27, 1996 terrorist attack. A news cameraman died of a heart attack while covering the bombing. Scores of people were maimed.

This dastardly crime would turn out to be the first of four bombings by a domestic terrorist named Eric Rudolph. His list of victims could have been -- would have been -- much more extensive if not for the alert reaction of a security guard named Richard Jewel. He shooed bystanders out of the park, thereby forestalling much greater human suffering.

But in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, and long before Rudolph was known to law enforcement, the story turned. Ham-handed (and loose-lipped) FBI agents, coupled with a heedless Atlanta newspaper, flipped the narrative. Richard Jewel wasn’t a hero, they suggested publicly. He was the bomber. This proved to be untrue -- nonsense, really -- and

Kevin Sack, a native Southerner who lived in Atlanta and was personally angered by the terrorist attack, was saved by a cautious editor. It’s a lesson with great relevance for our times, a subject we’ll revisit in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

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Rubio to Trump: Punch Back on China’s NBA Boycott. Susan Crabtree has the details.

Democrats Need a Hard-Nosed Strategy to Counter the GOP. Jessica Tarlov and Antjuan Seawright argue that it’s time for their party to mirror the one thing Democrats agree that Republicans do well: stick together.

If Trump Loses His “Mandate of Heaven,” Will It Go to Pence? Myra Adams considers the president’s standing with Christians, whose support may be endangered.

The Giuliani-Ukraine Notes Few Have Seen. In RealClearInvestigations, Eric Felten reports on an allegation that the Ukrainian president warned a prosecutor against investigating Burisma “as it was not in the interest of Joe and/or Hunter Biden.”

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What If Yellowstone’s Supervolcano Erupted? RealClearScience Editor Ross Pomeroy describes the bleak aftermath, as detailed in a new book.

* * *

“I have perhaps never been so furious with an editor,” Kevin Sack explained six years ago this week while revisiting the Atlanta bombing and the rush to blame an innocent man.

It was late afternoon on July 30, 1996, and as a national correspondent in the New York Times’ Atlanta bureau, Sack had spent hours frantically trying to confirm the spectacular Atlanta Journal scoop: namely, that Richard A. Jewell, a security guard initially portrayed as a heroic first responder, was actually the focus of the FBI’s search for the bomber.

“As I was sweating my deadline, compiling everything I had learned about Mr. Jewell, word was conveyed that the paper’s executive editor at the time, Joseph Lelyveld, had decreed that we would not join the news media herd in reporting that Mr. Jewell was the leading suspect. Nor would we in any way suggest that Mr. Jewell’s actions or personality merited suspicion, as The Journal had in publishing, without attribution, that he ‘fits the profile of the lone bomber.’”

So Sack and his newspaper played it straight, producing a 642-word story that ran inside the paper. It used Richard Jewell’s name, but in a reluctant and measured way; mostly, the Times focused on the media circus.

Sack recalls being utterly dispirited when he saw his account in print. As the flimsy theory fingering Jewell evaporated in the face of the evidence, the reporter instead would look back on his paper’s approach with some measure of pride. Mainly, though, he was grateful for his editor’s wisdom.

“In retrospect, of course, the rabbinical wisdom shown by Mr. Lelyveld that afternoon, in the face of intense competitive pressure, provided one of the greatest journalistic lessons of my career,” Sack noted. “While The Times has demonstrated over the years that it is not immune to misjudgment … we stood out in the coverage of the Jewell story for our restraint. Mr. Lelyveld’s call saved the paper, and me, from embarrassment and perhaps from the litigation that Mr. Jewell later pursued against several news organizations. There but for the grace of Joe went I.”

But no one’s career lasts forever. Joseph Lelyveld stepped away from the editor’s chair in the spring of 2001. Months later, another domestic terrorist struck this country. This time, the attack wasn’t a pipe bomb. It came in the form of deadly anthrax spores, sent through the U.S. Postal Service.

But Joe Lelyveld’s judiciousness left the building when he did: In the anthrax attack, it was the New York Times that led the rush to (erroneous) judgment. The new Richard Jewell was an unfortunate foil named Steven Hatfill.

The Times’ ignoble performance in this case might be considered a historical footnote, except for a couple of factors. The first is the key role played by James Comey and Robert Mueller in the amateurish investigation that led to the sliming of Hatfill. The second is the indispensable part played by the media, which never quite seems to learn the lessons of Centennial Olympic Park in the summer of 1996. 

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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