Can Media Protect Sources in Aftermath of Jewell's Ordeal?

The extra edition of the Atlanta Journal on July 30 said that Richard Jewell was the "focus of the Federal investigation" of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and "fits the profile of the lone bomber." But it gave no attribution of any kind. What happens now, as Mr. Jewell seeks retribution, may well hinge on that fact.

Decades ago we were taught in journalism school that a statement damaging to an individual is potentially libelous unless an arrest has been made or charges filed. That newsroom rule has generally broken down under competitive pressures and the symbiotic relationship established between enforcement officers and some news people.

The FBI is notorious for using leaks to pressure its quarry. J. Edgar Hoover made selective leaks into a cottage industry. More recently, in 1989, ABC reported that an American diplomat, Felix Bloch, was under FBI investigation for espionage. Mr. Bloch was staked out and pursued by press and FBI and was never indicted. In the same year, CBS reported that Rep. Bill Gray was under FBI investigation for his financial dealings. The story was false and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh eventually apologized.

FBI Director Louis Freeh has announced an internal inquiry into the FBI's handling of the case, starting with an investigation of whether one or more FBI employees leaked the suspicion about Jewell to the Atlanta Journal. In the past, the federal government in general and the FBI in particular had much success in ferreting out leakers. This time, however, there will be pressure from another source.

Jewell says he plans a libel and defamation suit against the Atlanta Journal, among others. One of Jewell's lawyers, Lin Wood, told me that he assumes the paper's defense against the charge of "reckless disregard of the truth" will be that the information came from a law enforcement officer who seemed to be reliable. Mr. Wood will then demand that the officer be identified and brought in to testify.

That could then produce the latest confrontation over protection of sources. The Supreme Court has held that there is no absolute right to withhold a source when the interests of justice dictate otherwise. The Journal would face a dilemma of weakening its defense to uphold a journalistic principle. But, if the controversy serves to put the over-eager news media and the loose-lipped law enforcement officers on guard about the perils of leaks, it will have served a useful purpose.

*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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