Reporters Enraged Over Media Portrayal in ‘Richard Jewell’

Paul Walter Hauser attends the "Richard Jewell" premiere during AFI FEST 2019 Presented By Audi at TCL Chinese Theatre on November 20, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Media figures are outraged over the upcoming Clint Eastwood film Richard Jewell, blasting its negative portrayal of the journalists that upended the title character's life in 1996.

Reviewers and reporters are slamming the film as misogynistic and even "Trumpian," while the Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent a letter demanding the movie include a disclaimer stating that its portrayal of former police reporter Kathy Scruggs reportedly trading sexual favors for a story on Jewell is false.

Eastwood's movie, which comes out Friday, portrays federal law enforcement and media as powerful forces that combined to destroy Jewell, the security guard falsely suspected of the 1996 Summer Olympic bombing in Atlanta.

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"[F]ormal precision notwithstanding, Richard Jewell has been constructed from the ground-up as nothing more than a nuance-free rallying cry for Trumpian talking points about the corrupt villainy of the FBI and the media," the Daily Beast wrote in a scathing review, adding the portrayal of Scruggs was "brazenly misogynistic."

Slate acknowledged Jewell was in part a victim of a "merciless media spotlight" but harangued the movie for making Scruggs serve as a scapegoat for "everything wrong with the press."

Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern called for a "flat-out boycott" of the movie over the trope of a female reporter trading sex for tips. Former BuzzFeed scribe John Stanton was more direct, telling Warner Brothers, "f—k y'all and all your movies." Others took to Twitter to blast Eastwood for reverting to sexist stereotypes.

Olivia Wilde, an outspoken liberal, drew criticism from some reporters for taking the Scruggs role. She told Deadline she did "extraordinary" research into the role before taking it, although Scruggs's brother said the actress did not reach out to him or Scruggs's close friends.

In addition to sending its letter, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article last month entitled "The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs." It liberally quoted colleagues and friends praising her as a tenacious, fair-minded, and hard-living reporter who got the story right on Jewell being a suspect.

Jewell sued several outlets for their coverage, eventually settling with all but the AJC.

The AJC framed Jewell's lawsuit as contributing to Scruggs's death, writing, "Stress over the case contributed to her failing health, friends believe. She died in 2001, just shy of her 43rd birthday."

Litigation naming the AJC was dismissed in 2011 when the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled its stories were true at the time of their reporting.

Warner Bros. responded sharply to the AJC‘s letter, saying that it was the "ultimate irony" that the newspaper was trying to malign the filmmakers and cast after contributing to the rush to judgment on Jewell.

"The AJC‘s claims are baseless and we will vigorously defend against them," the studio said in a statement.

Jewell was a security guard who discovered pipe bombs—later found to have been planted by domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph—at the 1996 Summer Olympics. The explosives killed one person and injured more than 100. Jewell helped evacuate people from the crowded Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, saving countless lives. However, he became a suspect after FBI analysts concluded he fit their "lone bomber" profile.

It took three months for the FBI to formally clear Jewell of suspicion, but by then his life had been dramatically altered. The film is based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article "American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell," which chronicled the intense police and media scrutiny he endured following the bombing.

Scruggs, according to Jewell's lawyer, at one point failed to record a conversation she had with the lawyer and falsely quoted him as saying his client had a "sample of the blown-up bomb" in his apartment. Rather, he told her Jewell had a souvenir of the "bombing," specifically a piece of blown-up fencing. Scruggs's story was picked up by other outlets, ultimately leading to a CNN analysis claiming that "the guy was seen with a homemade bomb at his home a few days before." CNN apologized the next day.

According to Vanity Fair, the AJC asserted Jewell fit the "lone bomber" profile, and it falsely reported Jewell personally approached the paper for an interview, which fit the narrative that he had planted the bomb so he could find it and be a "hero." Columnist Dave Kindred compared Jewell to convicted Atlanta serial killer Wayne Williams.

Jewell's mistreatment was not limited to the AJC. NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw told viewers on July 30, the day Jewell was interviewed at FBI headquarters, that "they probably have enough to arrest [Jewell] right now." Comedian Jay Leno said Jewell bore a "scary resemblance to the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan," and the New York Post labeled him "a fat, failed former sheriff's deputy."

Jewell told Vanity Fair at the time he would never fully recover from the time he was a suspect.

Then-Georgia governor Sonny Perdue (R.) formally recognized Jewell's heroics at the 10-year anniversary of the bombing in 2006. Jewell died a year later at age 44.