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Atlanta Journal-Constitution demands disclaimer over portrayal of reporter trading sex for a story in ‘Richard Jewell’ film

People who knew Kathy Scruggs, the reporter who broke the story that a security guard at the 1996 Summer Olympics was being investigated, are outraged at the 'Richard Jewell' film.

The filming during "Richard Jewell." Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures
The filming during "Richard Jewell." Claire Folger/Warner Bros. PicturesRead more

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has asked Warner Bros. to issue a disclaimer that the studio took dramatic license with the film Richard Jewell, which depicts its former reporter Kathy Scruggs trading sex with an FBI agent to get her story, Variety reported this week.

Clint Eastwood directed the film about the media frenzy that swirled around Jewell, a security guard at the Atlanta Summer Olympics, after a July 27, 1996, terrorist bombing.

At first, Jewell was heralded as a hero for spotting the backpack that contained three pipe bombs, alerting police, and helping to evacuate Centennial Olympic Park. But shortly afterward, the FBI viewed him as a suspect in the bombing that killed one person and injured 111 others. A second person died later from a heart attack.

Scruggs, who died in 2001 at age 42, was the first to report that the FBI had begun to investigate.

The film, which opens Friday, suggests that Scruggs, portrayed by Olivia Wilde, had sex with an agent, portrayed by Jon Hamm. "The paper said there is no evidence that Scruggs slept with anyone involved in the Jewell investigation,” Variety said.

“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,” reads the letter, which was sent to Warner Bros., Eastwood, and screenwriter Billy Ray. “We further demand that you add a prominent disclaimer to the film to that effect.”

Hollywood attorney Martin Singer sent the letter on behalf of the paper and its owner, Cox Enterprises, the newspaper said. The letter called the movie a mix of fact and fiction.

On Monday, the day Kathy Bates was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Jewell’s mother in the film, journalists who knew Scruggs and others took to social media to condemn Eastwood for depicting Scruggs in a sexist manner. Critics said they were especially angry because Scruggs is no longer alive to defend herself.

The Journal-Constitution wrote a story called “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs” last month to counter Scruggs’ characterization in the movie as a “floozy.”

Wilde has defended her portrayal of the reporter.

“I think people have a hard time accepting sexuality in female characters without allowing it to entirely define that character,” Wilde told the Hollywood Reporter. “We don’t do that to men, we don’t do that to James Bond — we don’t say James Bond isn’t a real spy because he gets his information sometimes by sleeping with women as sources.

“By no means was I intending to suggest that as a female reporter, she needed to use her sexuality,” said the actor, the daughter of prominent journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn.

Rolling Stone reviewed the film with the headline “‘Richard Jewell’: Clint Eastwood Defends Truth, Justice and an Innocent Man: The veteran filmmaker charts how a security guard was declared a hero for finding a bomb — then became the prime suspect in the case.”

Yet the review said the heroic depiction of Jewell comes at the cost of portraying Scruggs as unscrupulous: “Indeed, the attempt to slut-shame a reporter who’s not around to defend herself stands as a black mark in a film that otherwise hews close to the proven facts of the case.”

Kevin G. Riley, editor of the Journal-Constitution, told Variety that reporters were disturbed by the film’s portrayal. Riley, who saw the film last month at the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest, said, “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 reporter’s actions and of the actions of the newspaper during that time,” he told Variety. “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.”

On Monday, Warner Bros. told Deadline that it would defend the movie against a threatened lawsuit by the paper for defamation.