Viewers soon learn why the reporter, Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde), is so good at her job. She lands her biggest scoop — that the FBI suspects security guard Richard Jewell as the perpetrator of the bombing — by sleeping with the investigation’s lead agent (Jon Hamm).
The reporter-sleeps-with-sources trope has been deployed against female journalists before, in films and TV shows such as “Absence of Malice,” “Thank You for Smoking” and “House of Cards.” But this one is based on a real reporter: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Kathy Scruggs actually did break the Jewell story for her newspaper, though there’s no evidence she slept with anyone to get the story.
The Atlanta newspaper now wants to set the record straight. On Monday, it formally complained about the portrayal of Scruggs and her role in reporting about Jewell in a letter to Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray and Warner Bros., the movie’s distributor.
“The AJC’s reporter is reduced to a sex-trading object in the film,” attorneys for the newspaper and its parent company, Cox Enterprises, wrote. “Such a portrayal 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. That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging.”
The letter demanded the film’s creators publicly acknowledge that “some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and [that] artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters.” It also demanded that “a prominent disclaimer” noting as much be added to the film, which opens on Friday.
In effect, the newspaper’s complaint essentially accuses Eastwood and Ray of the same kind of distortion and character assassination that the movie suggests the news media engaged in when reporting about Jewell in 1996.
Jewell was a security guard who discovered a backpack containing three pipe bombs during a concert at Centennial Olympic Park during the Games. He alerted authorities and helped partially clear the area before the bombs exploded, killing one and injuring more than 100 people.
News reports initially hailed Jewell as a hero, but within three days Scruggs and a colleague, Ron Martz, flipped the story on its head. They reported that the FBI suspected Jewell of planting the bombs. The story set off a media frenzy that is captured largely accurately in Eastwood’s film. The hysteria shredded Jewell’s reputation and turned Jewell (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and his mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates) into virtual prisoners inside their small Atlanta apartment.
With the help of a local attorney (Sam Rockwell), the Jewells fought back. The FBI eventually concluded that it had insufficient evidence and cleared him after 88 days. Another man, Eric Robert Rudolph, was arrested and convicted in 2003 of the Olympic attack and two subsequent bombings; he is serving multiple life sentences.
In response to the AJC’s letter on Monday, Warner Bros. stood firm. “It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that the Atlanta Journal Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast,” it said in a letter obtained by Variety.
The studio dismissed the newspaper’s claims as “baseless” and said the film “is based on a wide range of highly credible source material.”
In fact, while many of the movie’s details comport with actual events, the scenario involving Scruggs appears to have been invented. Neither of the two sources listed in the movie’s credits — Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article on Jewell and “The Suspect,” a book about the case published earlier this year — make any mention of Scruggs having any romantic connection to Donald Johnson, the FBI agent believed to be the source of her Jewell story.
Neither Scruggs nor Johnson are able to defend themselves. Scruggs died in 2001 at the age of 42; Johnson died in 2003 at 57.
“The Suspect,” a meticulously reported account co-written by former U.S. attorney Kent Alexander and journalist Kevin Salwen, describes Scruggs as a talented and driven journalist and a troubled individual; according to their account, her early death was a result of a drug overdose and apparently was a suicide.
They write that Scruggs came by the biggest story of her career as a result of determined effort and extensive sourcing in Atlanta’s law-enforcement community. What’s more, Scruggs never revealed who tipped her about Jewell, despite the threat of jail time in a subsequent legal action against the newspaper.
Journalists have debated for years whether the AJC’s disclosure of Jewell’s name was ethical and appropriate, given that he hadn’t been formally charged with any crime or arrested. But there has been no dispute about the accuracy of the Scruggs-
Martz story; at the time of its publication, the FBI had begun to focus on him as its leading suspect and had compiled an extensive cache of circumstantial evidence against him, according to Salwen and Alexander, the U.S. attorney in northern Georgia at the time of the bombing.
Jewell, who died in 2007 at the age of 44, subsequently filed defamation claims against the AJC, NBC, CNN and the New York Post. NBC settled the case without admitting culpability, paying Jewell $595,000. CNN also maintained that it acted properly, but paid Jewell and his mother $350,000. The New York Post settled for an undisclosed sum, according to Alexander and Salwen.
The AJC never settled. It stuck by its reporting and its reporter and fought Jewell’s lawsuit all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. In 2011, it upheld an appeals court ruling concluding that the articles “were substantially true at the time they were published,” thus negating any defamation claim.
The vindication came a decade after Scruggs died.