‘Richard Jewell’ Fosters Discourse on Newsroom Ethics

Journalists must confront the controversies and mistakes of past reporters in order to do right by their subjects and their organizations.
July 1, 2020
11 mins read

The 2019 biographical drama “Richard Jewell” revisits old conversations and opens up new ones that should engage all journalists and students studying journalism.

Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood and written by Billy Ray, the movie depicts the July 27 Centennial Olympic Park Bombing and the media circus surrounding security guard Richard Jewell that followed it.

The film was partially inspired by the 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” written by investigative journalist Marie Brenner, who interviewed Jewell.

“Richard Jewell” raked in award nominations and wins at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and National Board of Review Awards. But the most notable reaction to the film was the controversy regarding its portrayal of the late reporter Kathy Scruggs.

The film discusses a variety of topics. Newsroom ethics, trusting sources, women in journalism and Hollywood’s perspective on journalists are just a few of its themes.

While working as a security guard for a Jack Mack and the Heart Attack performance in Centennial Olympic Park, the real-life Richard Jewell discovered a suspicious bag hidden under a bench. He alerted fellow security guards and began clearing the area.

Only thirteen minutes after his discovery, the bombs exploded.

Alice Hawthorne, who attended the concert with her youngest daughter, died as a result of the explosion at 1:20 a.m. on July 27, 1996. The explosion injured more than 100 spectators, including Hawthorne’s daughter, Fallon.

At first, the news commended Jewell for his bravery and deemed the security guard a hero for sounding the alarm. However, the media coverage of the aftermath quickly took a turn.

Three days later, The Atlantic Journal-Constitution revealed that the FBI was treating Jewell as a possible suspect because he fit the “lone bomber” criminal profile. Other news organizations followed, and for the following weeks, the media circuit aggressively focused on Jewell. They labelled him a “person-of-interest” and camped out outside of the home he shared with his mother.

The media ruined Richard Jewell. He was never formally charged and was exonerated on Oct. 26, 1996. But that doesn’t change what the public thought of Jewell.

After watching the movie and researching the story, I asked several people in my family if they recognized the name Richard Jewell. Those who recognized his name, like my mother, said that they associated his name with terrorism.

The film tells a cautionary tale. Print newspapers are tossed or used as fire starter the next day, but the headlines they bear do not disappear into smoke.

Journalists, like myself, must remember that our audiences don’t have short-term memory loss. Everything in the news stays in at least one person’s memory.

Even though the FBI was looking into Richard Jewell as a possible suspect, the media coverage of their investigation forced their hand. Once the public knew that he was a suspect, they had to investigate Jewell further. This kept him in the spotlight longer than he would have been without press intervention.

It is a journalist’s job to report the truth, even if no one believes it. But it is also a journalist’s job to know what truth its audience needs to hear and at what time.

The movie “Richard Jewell” portrays the editor in chief and the reporters involved as eager to be the first to publish their insider information. In one scene, the editor in chief of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution begins to question his reporters’ sources. However, he forgoes any emphasis on accuracy to give into the sense of urgency filling his newsroom.

Whether or not the portrayal of these specific journalists is true, it should be used as a reminder to any students studying journalism that what they report on affects living and breathing people, just like them.

An editing course I took last semester encouraged me to watch “Richard Jewell.” And I believe it unlocked productive discourse amongst my classmates about newsroom ethics.

But there was one thing that shocked me during our discussion. No one else in the room brought up the controversy surrounding the movie’s portrayal of the real journalist Kathy Scruggs.

Don’t get me wrong, names like Kathy Bates (“Misery”) and Samuel Rockwell (“Jojo Rabbit”) and the introduction of actor Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell made “Richard Jewell” an emotional whirlwind and success.

However, actress Olivia Wilde’s depiction of Kathy Scruggs ruined the movie for many journalists.

In the movie “Richard Jewell,” Wilde’s Scruggs offers to sleep with an FBI Agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), in exchange for the name of a suspect.

Interestingly enough, Shaw is entirely fictional and does not have the same name as the FBI agent who allegedly gave information to Scruggs.

Kevin Riley, the current editor in chief of The Atlantic Journal-Constitution, said that there is no evidence of this kind of exchange in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

“There has never been any evidence that this is how Kathy got the story,” Riley said. “This came out of the blue.”

Riley addressed the reality that Scruggs was unable to defend herself as “Richard Jewell” dragged her name through the mud. She died of a prescription drug overdose in 2001.

Friends and family said that in the years leading up to her death, the repercussions of the Jewell reporting troubled her until her last days. Although serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph would eventually confess to the crime in 2003, Scruggs did not live to see it.

Even though she was rebellious and wore short skirts and used salty language, she was far from Wilde’s caricature of her in the movie.

Ron Martz, the former reporter who worked with Scruggs on most of the bombing coverage, said that it was obvious that the film’s creators did not try to accurately portray her in the movie in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“She was one of the better reporters I ever worked with. She was really tough and hard-nosed,” Martz said. “When she went after a story she did what was necessary to get the story, within legal and ethical bounds.”

Unfortunately, the movie’s exaggerated and sexed-up portrayal of Kathy Scruggs is no surprise. Although the story of the Centennial Olympic Park Bombing and Richard Jewell is already dramatic, the creators probably thought “Richard Jewell” needed sex appeal to attract viewers.

“Richard Jewell” perpetuates harmful stereotypes about female journalists that paint them as heartless, ruthless and willing to do anything to get a lead on a story. Wilde’s portrayal is a few steps backwards for women in general, but specifically for women journalists.

In a letter to the filmmakers, the lawyers for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that the movie “makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned offering sexual gratification to sources in exchange for stories.”

They asked the film to include a prominent disclaimer at the beginning of the film that said they took dramatic license in portraying its events and characters.

In the letter, they also said that the implication surrounding Scruggs in the film “is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging.”

The irony is that the movie “Richard Jewell” was created with good intentions, at least regarding Jewell. Unfortunately, he died after suffering medical problems related to his diabetes in 2007.

However, the film “Richard Jewell” is doing something very similar to Kathy Scruggs’ name. I do not agree with how Scruggs handled reporting on Jewell. But hindsight is everything and there is no evidence that she used her sexuality to gain information.

As a woman journalist, I find those accusations to be despicable. “Richard Jewell” might clear Jewell’s name in the public eye, but it smears Scruggs’ name and ruins opportunities for women in journalism in the process.

Working and aspiring journalists must discuss the conflicting messages that Clint Eastwood’s movie perpetuates. After all, “Richard Jewell” addresses more problems in the world of journalism than it intended.

And if you’re not interested in journalism, I still advise that you watch the movie even if it’s just to witness Kathy Bates’ and Samuel Rockwell’s amazing performances.

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