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Media Watch: Now’s a Good Time to Remember Richard Jewell

Largely because the Chandra Levy case involves the words “intern” and “sex,” the press has begun to make the inevitable comparisons between Rep. Gary Condit and former President Bill Clinton. But a more apt comparison for Condit may be Richard Jewell.

Jewell was the security guard at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics who alerted authorities to a suspicious knapsack, hurried people away from it, probably saved a number of lives – and then, for 88 days, found himself not only the prime suspect of the FBI investigation into the bombing but the subject of withering media scrutiny that all but tried and convicted him.

As seems to be happening with Condit, media coverage of Jewell took on a life of its own, all out of proportion to the facts and evidence of the case. Playing the role of judge, jury and psychologist, the press turned Jewell into a caricature of a “lone bomber,” a pudgy guy who lived with his mom and, according to unnamed sources, seemed zealous in performing his security duties and overly eager for a law enforcement career.

In Jewell’s case, the press strung together circumstantial scraps of information and shaped them to fit a narrative story line about the type of person the media presumed to be guilty.

“Jewell fits the profile of a lone bomber,” the Atlanta Journal and Constitution wrote days after the bombing. “This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police ‘wannabe’ who seeks to become a hero.” An intoxicated NBC News dragged the narrative even further, saying there was “probably enough to convict him.”

Jewell, of course, never was arrested, but that didn’t stop the press from hounding him, staking out his home, turning him into a prisoner of reckless innuendo, and treating him like a pathetic guest on the Jerry Springer show. As it turned out, Jewell’s sole connection with the bombing was purely circumstantial: he happened to be there doing his job.

Judging from police statements and available evidence, Condit’s connection with Levy’s disappearance seems to be similarly incidental: he was having an affair with her but appears removed from the actual circumstances of what happened to her. According to the police, he is not now and never has been a suspect. He dissembled about his affair with Levy to hide his marital infidelity, but with his indiscretion now public he has apparently come clean with – and satisfied – the police.

Yet these facts seem to matter little to the press these days, and the media feeding frenzy about Condit’s relationship with Levy has mushroomed far beyond his involvement in the case.

Reporters are staking out his Washington apartment, his California home, and both his Capitol Hill and district offices. He’s the new headline grabber, the hot subject on every political talk show, red meat for all the pious pundits who gain fame and fortune from these public scandals.

His personal life is open game for the tabloids and the serious press as well. An unproven and somewhat dubious allegation of another affair even made the front-page of the usually staid Washington Post. Rumor, allegation, insinuation abound about what he did and when he did it. Talk show journalists psychoanalyze his motives, behavior, and character.

The emerging media narrative is an archetypal Washington scandal: a powerful, ambitious politician who acts solely out of cold self-interest and has what Geraldo Rivera calls “a real dark secret life.” If he’s “prone to act in certain ways,” as a USA Today reporter put it, then who knows where it could lead. Speculation morphs into news, and the underlying media murmur – without any foundation in fact – has Condit somehow involved in Levy’s disappearance.

Condit is no Jewell in one sense: he lied about his affair with Levy, which may have hindered the police early on. But assuming he had no other connection with her disappearance, then Condit – like Jewell – has become yet another bystander whose personal life has been ripped open by a media twister fueled by ratings and our thirst for scandal. Turning someone’s private life into a public soap opera may be entertaining. But it’s not journalism and shouldn’t be news.

Gary Condit is living his private hell right now. He’s faced with his character flaws, his shattered marriage, and the knowledge that a woman he evidently liked if not loved – Chandra Levy – is possibly dead. But that’s the point – it’s his private hell, and unless there’s a compelling need to report it, the press should simply back off.