Atlanta Journal-Constitution Pushes Back Against Journalist Trope In 'Richard Jewell'

Dec 11, 2019
Originally published on December 11, 2019 5:42 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Director Clint Eastwood's new movie, "Richard Jewell," opens Friday. It's based on the real-life story of the security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta who discovered a backpack with a bomb in it. Jewell was first considered a hero, then a suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RICHARD JEWELL")

OLIVIA WILDE: (As Kathy Scruggs) Jewell fits the profile of the lone bomber, a frustrated white man who is a police wannabe who seeks to become a hero.

CORNISH: The way the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story is a subplot in the movie. And NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports the newspaper is demanding an apology for how its reporter is portrayed.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In one key scene in the movie, reporter Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde, finds an FBI agent, played by Jon Hamm, at a bar. She flirts with him, looking for a scoop. And before they leave together, presumably for a rendezvous, he whispers to her that Richard Jewell is the FBI suspect. The rest of the movie has Jewell trying to clear his name.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RICHARD JEWELL")

WILDE: (As Kathy Scruggs) I report the facts.

SAM ROCKWELL: (As Watson Bryant) You've ruined this man's life.

DEL BARCO: Last night on the red carpet at the film's Atlanta premiere, local TV station WXIA asked director Clint Eastwood about his portrayal of Scruggs, who died in 2001.

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CLINT EASTWOOD: Kathy Scruggs was a very interesting personality, and she did find the answer to it. So how she did it, nobody probably will ever really know.

DEL BARCO: Eastwood's movie implies she traded sexual favors. That riles her former editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bert Roughton, who says she's not around to defend herself.

BERT ROUGHTON: They made her seem as though she was this viper who was willing to do anything to get a story. And having known Kathy, that just couldn't be less true.

DEL BARCO: Roughton remembers Scruggs as a colorful character, an irreverent, savvy and relentless police reporter with deep sources in law enforcement.

ROUGHTON: She was boisterous and often pretty profane in the way that newspaper people always have been. But she was also a pro, and she was very careful about her reporting and worried a lot about the accuracy of what she was hearing about Richard Jewell and went to a lot of trouble to verify what she had.

DEL BARCO: This week, the newspaper's lawyer sent a letter to Clint Eastwood and the film studio, Warner Brothers, saying the movie version is false and damages the reputation of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the AJC, and reporter Scruggs.

Kevin Riley is the AJC's editor-in-chief.

KEVIN RILEY: Clint Eastwood has taken every misinformed perception of how reporters actually work, and that is how he portrays journalism in this film. At a time when journalism's under almost constant attack, it seems irresponsible.

DEL BARCO: Riley and his paper demand Clint Eastwood apologize. But Warner Brothers defends the film, issuing a statement that it was based on a wide range of credible source material. A disclaimer at the end of the movie does say, quote, "Dialogue and certain events and characters in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization."

The irony is not lost on Evelyn McDonnell, who heads the journalism department at Loyola Marymount University. She says the real-life Kathy Scruggs shouldn't be reduced to a misogynistic cliche about female news reporters.

EVELYN MCDONNELL: Report the truth about her. If you're making a movie that's about trying to set the record straight, make sure you've got the record straight.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS PASCHBURG'S "SPARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.