The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is asking Warner Bros. and the makers of “Richard Jewell” to release a statement acknowledging it took dramatic license when it portrayed journalist Kathy Scruggs as trading sex for tips.
The Clint Eastwood film looks at the media circus that broke out around Jewell, a security guard who came under suspicion for orchestrating the Centennial Olympic Park bombing before being exonerated. Scruggs, an employee at the paper, broke the story that Jewell was under investigation by the FBI. The film shows Scruggs, portrayed by Olivia Wilde, sleeping with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) to get the story. Scruggs died in 2001 at the age of 42. The paper has maintained that there is no evidence that Scruggs slept with anyone involved in the Jewell investigation.
“We hereby demand that you immediately issue a statement publicly acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters,” the letter, sent to Warner Bros., Eastwood, and screenwriter Billy Ray, reads. “We further demand that you add a prominent disclaimer to the film to that effect.”
The paper has tapped Martin Singer, a Hollywood attorney whose clients have included John Travolta and Brett Ratner, to plead its case. Singer is known for his pit bull tactics.
Reached for comment, Kevin G. Riley, editor of the Journal-Constitution, said that reporters in his newsroom and those who knew Scruggs were disturbed by the film’s portrayal. Riley saw the film when it premiered at AFI Fest. He said he felt that the movie trades in harmful stereotypes about female journalists, such as those seen in movies like “Absence of Malice” and “Thank You for Smoking” that have depicted female reporters sleeping with sources.
“I think this letter makes it clear how seriously we take the misrepresentation of our reporters’ actions and of the actions of the newspaper during that time,” he said. “We have been clear about how disturbed we are in the film’s use of a Hollywood trope about reporters…and how it misrepresents how seriously journalists concern themselves with reporting accurately and ethically.”
“Richard Jewell” opens on December 13. On Monday morning, it earned a Golden Globe nomination for Kathy Bates’ performance as Jewell’s mother and is seen as an Oscars contender. Reviews have been largely positive
Singer sent the letter on behalf of the paper and its owner Cox Enterprises. In it, he also asserts that not only does the film fail to accurately characterize Scruggs’ behavior, it also misrepresents the role that the paper’s reporting played in exonerating Jewell. Eric Rudolph, an American terrorist, was later found to have been responsible for setting off a bomb that killed two people and injured 111 others. Jewell, a security guard at the park, helped to evacuate the area after the bomb was discovered.
“The film literally makes things up and adds to misunderstandings about how serious news organizations work,” said Riley. “It’s ironic that the film commits the same sins that it accuses the media of committing.”
Riley did not personally know Scruggs and was not at the paper during the time of the bombing. A recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked to people who knew and worked with Scruggs and who felt that her portrayal in the film “veers from reality.” It quotes Ron Martz, who co-bylined Scruggs’ initial story on Jewell being a suspect, with saying that no one associated with the film reached out to him.
“If they had actually contacted me it might have ruined their idea of what they wanted the story to be,” Martz told the paper. “It’s obvious to me they did not go to any great lengths to find out what the real characters were like.”
Riley said that neither Warner Bros. nor anyone associated with the film have reached out to him since he went public with his objections to the portrayal of Scruggs.
Wilde has defended the film and its depiction of Scruggs.
“I think it’s a shame that she has been reduced to one inferred moment in the film,” Wilde told Variety‘s Marc Malkin on the 2019 Gotham Awards red carpet. “It’s a basic misunderstanding of feminism as pious, sexlessness. It happens a lot to women; we’re expected to be one-dimensional if we are to be considered feminists. There’s a complexity to Kathy, as there is to all of us, and I really admired her.”
A spokesperson for Warner Bros. did not immediately respond to request for comment.