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Opening Arguments

Trial by press

Richard Jewell, the security guard who should have been a hero but was labeled a terrorist, has died at 44:

The Jewell episode led to soul-searching among news organizations about the use of unattributed or anonymously sourced information. His very name became shorthand for a person accused of wrongdoing in the media based on scanty information.

Jewell, who was working as a sheriff's deputy as recently as last year, was a security guard in 1996 at the Olympics in Atlanta. He was initially hailed as a hero for spotting a suspicious backpack in a park and moving people out of harm's way just before a bomb exploded during a concert.

The blast killed one and injured 111 others.

Three days after the bombing, an unattributed report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described him as "the focus" of the investigation.

Other media, to varying degrees, also linked Jewell to the investigation and portrayed him as a loser and law-enforcement wannabe who may have planted the bomb so he would look like a hero when he discovered it later.

I knew about the most infamous case of "media justice" before I even started on newspapers -- when the Cleveland news outlets helped railroad Dr. Sam Sheppard into prison (espeically the Cleveland Press, which had one headline that is always mentioned: "Why isn't Sam Sheppard in jail?") .The case became the inspiration for "The Fugitive" TV series.

The press didn't learn from the Sheppard case, and we didn't learn from the Jewell case. Just pick up any issue of any newspaper from the last week. If you don't see at least three examples, you aren't paying attention. And in discussing today's media, we have to include the blogs, which are making rush to judgment a specialty.

What happens when you do all that "soul searching" and can't find one?