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The Centennial Olympic Park Bombing
Ryan C. Fordham
Park University
This research paper examines how the media covered the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in
1996. A thorough review of the attack is conducted to contextualize the event for the reader. An
extensive assessment of the initial suspect and the real perpetrator is performed. The aftermath
of the bombing is also provided to illustrate the impact the attack had on Americans. Instead of
detailing the gruesomeness of the attack, this paper scrutinizes how the media covered the
bombing. It also used the event to explore two key course themes. The first theme that is
analyzed is how the attack contributes to the problematic definitions of terrorism. The second
theme that is examined is the role(s) the media plays in terrorist acts. This paper will explore the
impact the attack and the media’s relentless coverage had on Richard Jewell and the Federal
Bureau of Investigation’s hunt for the bomber. It will also examine how the bombing would be
covered in today’s digital media climate. The similarities and differences between the legacy
media and today’s online news outlets will be highlighted. The bombing is also compared and
contrasted with a recent terrorist attack to illustrate these differences.
Keywords: bombing, themes, media
The Centennial Olympic Park Bombing
The bombing of Centennial Olympic Park was a heinous act committed by one of the
most infamous domestic terrorists in United States history. In hindsight, it is clear that the attack
was a deliberate form of terrorism, but during the immediate aftermath of the attack, things were
not so clear. When evaluating the attack from a purely objective perspective, it leads to many
questions. Did the bombing meet all of the requirements to be defined as “terrorism?” Was the
term politicized by an opportunistic government or media apparatus? What role(s) did the media
play in the bombing? What was the impact of the media’s coverage? How might this story be
covered today?
The Centennial Olympic Park bombing took place on July 27, 1996, in Atlanta, Georgia
at around 0125 hours. The explosion occurred during a Jack Mack and the Heart Attack concert,
eight days after the beginning of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. The device was a crudely
constructed pipe bomb, stuffed inside a green military-style backpack. The bombmaker placed
nails and screws inside the explosive to maximize the number of casualties.
Shortly before the bomb detonated, an anonymous phone call was made by the
perpetrator, informing law enforcement that an attack was imminent. This information was
passed on to the security personnel working at the park. The bomb was discovered by a security
guard named Richard Jewell, who alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. After locating
the explosive, Jewell and several other security personnel evacuated the immediate area.
Unfortunately, the evacuation was not quick enough. The Encyclopaedia Britannica noted that
“The blast… killed one person and injured 112 others. A photojournalist also died, of a heart
attack while running to cover the event” (2019). The park remained closed for three days, while
law enforcement surveyed the area and collected evidence.
The attack affected many Americans and Georgians negatively. Initially, they felt less
safe because the perpetrator of the attack was unknown to the public and law enforcement.
Many wondered if the games would be canceled. Government and Olympics officials met and
decided the Games would continue, to honor the victims. John Cushman Jr. was a reporter with
the New York Times. He noted, “Mr. Clinton said he had consulted with Vice President Al
Gore, Olympic officials, Mayor Bill Campbell of Atlanta, Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia, Attorney
General Janet Reno and Director Louis Freeh of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All had
agreed that the Games should continue, he said” (Cushman, 1996). Event security was tightened
at the event. The number of security personnel and searches were increased to ensure safety.
The Initial Suspect: Richard Jewell
Authorities initially suspected that a domestic terrorist organization had committed the
attack. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) could find no evidence to support their
belief, they created several potential profiles of the bomber. Eventually, they turned their
attention to the thirty-three-year-old man who discovered the backpack, Richard Jewell. The
FBI determined that Jewell had fit one of the profiles, so they questioned him for several hours.
With no evidence linking Jewell to the crime, they were forced to let him go. According to the
Encyclopaedia Britannica, on July 30, 1996, “Frustrated by their lack of progress, the FBI
attempted to place pressure on Jewell by leaking to the press the fact that he was a suspect”
(2019). After being identified by the FBI as the prime suspect, Jewell’s life was flipped upside
down. He went from being a “nobody” to being vilified by the press and the American people.
His life was no longer private. Jewell was subjected to harassment and was followed everywhere
he went. He faced extreme scrutiny until the Department of Justice (DOJ) formally cleared him
on October 26, 1996.
The Real Perpetrator
The real perpetrator of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing would not be identified for
another year and a half. On February 2, 1998, the DOJ declared Eric Robert Rudolph, the prime
suspect after he was linked to two other bombings. Encyclopaedia Britannica reported that he
“… was identified as a suspect in the bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama,
earlier in the year, and later in 1998 he was charged with the Centennial Olympic Park bombing
and the 1997 bombings of a gay nightclub and an abortion clinic in Atlanta” (2019). Rudolph, a
twenty-nine-year-old carpenter, and handyman was a member of a Christian terrorist group who
referred to themselves as the Army of God. The Army of God was formed in the early 1980s.
The terrorist organization was a part of an militant anti-abortion movement. The Army of God
targeted abortion clinics, doctors, and advocates. Members of the organization committed
various crimes, to include murder, kidnapping, and vandalism/property crimes.
After being identified, Rudolph fled to the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina.
Homeland Security Digital Library referred to Rudolph as “‘one of the most prolific lone wolf
terrorists in U.S. history’” (Chapman, 2016). He was added to the FBI’s list of most wanted
fugitives but was able to evade capture for more than five years successfully. On May 31, 2003,
Rudolph’s luck changed when he ran into Jeffery Postell, a rookie cop assigned to the Murphy
Police Department in North Carolina. In 2005, Rudolph pled to guilty to the bombing and was
sentenced to serve life without parole in a federal prison in Colorado.
Course Themes
Problematic definitions of terrorism
On July 27, 1996, a few hours after the bombing, President Clinton addressed the
American people from the White House. During his public statement, Clinton referred to the
attack as “an evil act of terror. It was aimed at the innocent people who were participating in the
Olympic Games and at the spirit of the Olympics” (AP Archive, 2015). He praised the city’s
first responders for their speedy response and professionalism, as they cared for the victims of
the attack. President Clinton disclosed that the Games would proceed as scheduled, to unify and
galvanize the disheartened American public. He also vowed to hunt down the person responsible
for the attack and bring them to justice. President Clinton’s pledge placed a tremendous amount
of stress on the nation’s law enforcement apparatus. The Department of Justice and the Federal
Bureau of Investigation felt pressured to locate and prosecute the bomber quickly.
Two days later, the FBI leaked information to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and
named Richard Jewell as the prime suspect. On July 30, 1996, the paper published an article
detailing the case the FBI had against Jewell. Although the FBI had no evidence, they asserted
that Jewell fit the profile of the bomber. They stated that Jewell was a “wannabee” police officer
who wanted notoriety (i.e., motive). Denis Cummings, a writer with Finding Dulcinea, reviewed
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s original article. He opined, “The FBI suspected Jewell not
because there was any evidence linking him to the bomb, but because he fit ‘the profile of the
lone bomber. 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,’” (Cummings,
2011). Shortly after the article’s publication, the media circus commenced. The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution’s piece was picked up by every mainstream print, radio, and television
outlet. Soon, the media discovered that the drama surrounding the “hero-turned-terrorist” was
highly profitable. They invaded Jewell’s life. He was hounded by the press, until the
government cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Terrorism is a word that is challenging to define. Even scholars have struggled to define
the term precisely. Although terrorist attacks throughout history have shared common themes
(i.e., fear through violence) and motives (i.e., political), the word “terrorism” is still difficult to
categorize. Dr. Ariel Merari created one of the most widely accepted descriptions of terrorism.
Merari is in charge of the Center of Political Violence, which is located at Tel Aviv University,
in Israel. In his explanation, Merari highlighted three common elements that exist in the
definition of terrorism, “(1) the use of violence; (2) political objectives; and (3) the intention of
sowing fear in a target population” (Barnett & Reynolds, 2009, p. 15). Merari recognized that
these elements were too broad and decided to integrate his definition with the United States’
State Department. The U.S. State Department defined terrorism as “‘premeditated, politically
motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or
clandestine state agents, usually intended to influence an audience’” (Barnett & Reynolds, 2009,
p. 15). At the time of the attack, the bombing did not satisfy all of the criteria above. In the
aftermath of the attack, no person or group assumed responsibility for the attack. There was also
no clear motive (i.e., political or social objectives). Despite these oversights, the attack was still
labeled as an act of “terrorism” by an opportunistic government and profit-driven media
The real motivation for the attack did not become evident until almost nine years later
when Eric Robert Rudolph pled guilty to the bombing and addressed the courtroom/media.
According to Eric Robert Rudolph, “… the purpose of the attack on July 27 was to confound,
anger and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable
sanctioning of abortion on demand” (NBC News, 2005). Unfortunately, the media circus
surrounding Jewell distracted the public and hindered law enforcement’s ability to locate the real
The role(s) media plays in terrorist acts
During the initial coverage of the event, the press did an excellent job of trying to
disseminate information to the public. Despite the chaos, they performed their duties. For
example, Suzanne Lawler, a local reporter with 13WMAZ (a CBS Atlanta affiliate station), was
able to describe the location of the blast. Lawler opined, “This blast was more over on the side
of the park, right by the big AT&T screen” (13WMAZ, 2018). Lawler also took on an
adversarial stance and tried to get access to information from the police. She also interviewed
several eyewitnesses on camera.
Mike Jacobs is another example of a reporter who took on a disseminator/adversarial
role. Jacobs was a local reporter with Today’s TMJ4 (an NBC Milwaukee affiliate station) who
was on-site broadcasting the Games. After the bombing, Jacobs reported, “Even so the system
is not foolproof. I tested it by removing my credentials and trying to get through. The fact is, I
walked right through, and nobody even bothered to check this fanny pack” (Today’s TMJ4,
2015). Jacobs was able to highlight critical flaws in security at the Games, which could have
prevented the attack and saved lives.
A few days after the attack, the media began taking on a more interpretive role.
Unfortunately, many media outlets began speculating and making accusations/assumptions about
the bomber, without evidence. One example of a media outlet taking on an interpretive role was
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Three days after the attack, the paper levied accusations
against Richard Jewell. They ran an article entitled, “FBI suspects ‘hero’ guard may have
planted bomb” (Graham, 2016). In the piece, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asserted that
Jewell was behind the attack because he was a “wannabe” cop who sought fame.
Tom Brokaw is another example of a news anchor who took on an interpretive role. He
suggested that the only reason the FBI had not arrested Jewell was because they were still
constructing their case. Scott Freeman, a writer with Atlanta Magazine, asserted “NBC’s Tom
Brokaw told viewers, ‘The speculation is that the FBI is close to ‘making the case,’ in their
language. They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute
him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still some holes in
this case.” (1996). Brokaw’s erroneous analysis landed NBC in hot water. After the DOJ
cleared Jewell, he sued the media corporation for libel.
The Impact
Although the media’s intent was pure (i.e., public safety), their biased, hyper-focused
coverage prevented the FBI from identifying/catching the real terrorist. If the press had
remained more objective, their investigations may have yielded better results. These news
outlets could have helped the FBI identify the real bomber and prevent subsequent attacks,
deaths, and injuries. Instead, they hindered the investigation by creating a media circus that
enveloped Richard Jewell. Despite all of their resources, the media and law enforcement were
unable to identify the real perpetrator, Eric Robert Rudolph, for nearly two years after the attack.
During that period, Rudolph bombed several other locations killing one person and severely
wounding several others. According to Mike Brooks, a CNN correspondent, “[Rudolph] was
also being sought in the double bombing outside a suburban Atlanta women’s clinic in January
1997 and another at an Atlanta gay nightclub in February 1997” (2003). Rudolph evaded capture
until 2003 when he was arrested by a rookie police officer “dumpster diving.”
The press also damaged Richard Jewell’s personal and professional life. After having his
name leaked to the media and being named the prime suspect, Jewell’s reputation was destroyed.
He was an outcast, shunned by his community. Erin Fuchs, a writer with Business Insider,
stated, “Jewell holed up at his mother’s house, where she said the media ‘descended like vultures
on prey’ and totally robbed them of privacy…. Two victims of the bombing even filed civil
lawsuits against Jewell” (2013). Despite being cleared of all charges, Jewell still found it
difficult to rehabilitate his image. He spent the next decade trying to clear his name. Jewell
hired lawyer L. Lin Wood and pursued several libel lawsuits against various media outlets. One
case was dropped, while a few others were settled out of court. Jewell served as a police officer
until he died on August 29, 2007, from a series of complex medical issues (i.e., diabetes, kidney
issues, and heart disease).
Coverage in Today’s Media Climate
Back in the 1990s, the news was consumed at a much slower rate. The only sources of
media were newspapers, radio, and television. The single network that provided live and
continuous news coverage was CNN. Since the 1990s, we have seen significant development in
the online media sector. According to Erin Fuchs, “The media is a lot different from how it was
back in 1996 when the press demonized Jewell. There’s even more of an echo chamber now
when the news is updated virtually every minute, and information is constantly re-reported”
(2013). You can find newspaper articles and blogs, listen to live radio stations and podcasts and
watch up-to-date news coverage on YouTube. We can access any information, anywhere in the
world in a manner of seconds.
Most Americans rely on social media as their primary source for news. When you scroll
through your Facebook timeline or Twitter feed, you are bombarded with the latest news stories.
According to a Pew Research Center report, “… 68 percent [of Americans] said they used social
networks for news, with 20 percent saying they got information ‘often’ from those services
including Facebook and Twitter” (Phys.org, 2018). Simultaneously, many media outlets have
changed their business models. Outlets that once focused on producing high-quality news are
now fixated solely on generating the maximum amount of revenue. They rush to publish stories,
without corroborating all of the facts, to capitalize on the news cycle and boost their revenue
(i.e., page views/“clicks”).
The widespread use of social media applications for news has made the “CNN Effect”
worse. Will Kenton, a writer with Investopedia.com, noted, “However, as fast as cable news is,
it has been overtaken. The CNN effect – the theory that real-time information and prolonged
focus on a particular even has a market impact – is still valid, but it may now be accurate to
rename it the Twitter effect…” (2019). Unfortunately, many social media websites are littered
with “fake news.” Occasionally, these hoaxes are picked up by major media conglomerates and
are deemed “true,” with little fact-checking. Although many social media outlets are employing
algorithms to crack down on “fake news,” hoaxes still spread throughout the internet, unchecked,
on every major social media platform.
If the Centennial Olympic Park bombing were covered today, the media frenzy would be
much worse than it was in 1996. Coverage of the attack would be similar to the attempted mail
bombings of high-ranking United States government officials and media outlets in 2018. The
Centennial Olympic Park bombing and the mail bombings had many similarities. The
perpetrator acted alone, used pipe bombs, and was politically motivated (i.e., right-wing
extremist). Both stories dominated media coverage and almost every major media outlet
speculated about the identity and the motives of each respective bomber. Fortunately, no lives
were lost as a result of the 2018 mail bombings.
The most significant difference between both events was the type of media that covered
them. The Centennial Olympic Park bombing was only covered by legacy media (i.e., print,
radio, television). The 2018 mail bombings were covered by traditional media and “new media”
(i.e., blogs, social media, etc.). During coverage of the 2018 mail bombings, hoaxes on blogs,
right-wing news outlets, and social media spread like wildfire. Rumors even circulated that the
attack was a “false flag” operation perpetrated by a Democrat. According to Abby Ohlheiser and
Avi Selk, writers with the Washington Post, “Within minutes of the news of the suspicious
packages, the ‘false flag’ narrative began circulating in pro-Trump spaces like the r/The_Donald
subreddit” (2018). On October 26, 2018, Cesar Sayoc Jr. was arrested and charged with the mail
bombings. In March 2019, he was convicted. Sayoc Jr. is currently pending sentencing.
Despite clear evidence and a guilty plea from the offender, hoaxes are still circulating social
media. If the Centennial Olympic Park bombing were covered today, the press would circulate
similar rumors and/or speculate wildly about the identity of the bomber and the motives behind
the attack.
Eric Robert Rudolph bombed Centennial Olympic Park on July 26, 1996. Rudolph
targeted the Games to undermine the United States’ position on abortion on a global stage. In
hindsight, it is clear that the attack was a deliberate form of terrorism. Initially, the bombing did
not meet the textbook definition of terrorism. Instead, the term was politicized by the
government and the media. It was used by President Clinton to re-unite and re-energize a
demoralized American public, while the media used the term to profit. During the immediate
crisis, the media did an excellent job of taking on their traditional journalistic roles. They
quickly disseminated information and took an adversarial stance, when required. Unfortunately,
in the days following the attack, the media assumed a more interpretative role, which hindered
the investigation and damaged Richard Jewell’s reputation, forever. Many believed that the
press had learned a valuable lesson in the aftermath of Jewell’s lawsuits. Sadly, things seem
worse in a digital age where legacy media (i.e., print, radio, television), is competing with new
media (i.e., social media applications, Podcasts, etc.). In the race to see who generates the most
revenue, it appears inevitable that the reputations of many more innocent citizens are destined to
be ruined.
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learned the lessons? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com
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Figure 1. “FBI suspects ‘hero’ guard may have planted bomb.” This figure illustrates how the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution demonized Richard Jewell and began a media frenzy. Taken from:
Graham, B. A. (2016, July 27). The Atlanta Olympic Park bombing, 20 years on: Have we
learned the lessons? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/