The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is questioning the accuracy of Clint Eastwood’s film “Richard Jewell” ahead of its premiere on Wednesday.
In a letter obtained by TheWrap, AJC editor-in-chief Kevin G. Riley challenged the portrayal of the newspaper in the film, according to an unnamed colleague Riley said had seen it. Riley said Eastwood depicted Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs trading sex with an FBI agent in exchange for a tip on a story, but he stated that there is no evidence this ever happened and that Scruggs herself is deceased.
Riley also defended the paper’s reporting of the Richard Jewell case, challenging the notion in the film that the paper ran its story based on questionable sourcing, that the paper’s decision making was unsound and that the paper failed to challenge law enforcement’s investigation.
“This is essential because the underlying theme of the movie is that the FBI and press are not to be trusted. Yet the way the press is portrayed often differs from reality,” Riley said in the letter to TheWrap on Monday. “As more and more filmmaking has come to Atlanta and Georgia, we’ve gotten a taste of just how difficult it can be to cover this industry. I share this information in the spirit of a fellow journalist who knows how crucial it remains to have solid information when covering demanding stories. It’s also ironic that a film purporting to hold the media to account disregards such crucial facts.”
Warner Bros. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Richard Jewell” is the story of a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta who was wrongfully accused of being a terrorist in connection with a bombing attempt at Centennial Olympic Park. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) had discovered a backpack filled with explosives and was initially deemed a hero for helping to evacuate attendees and alert law enforcement, but he was later considered a suspect before finally being cleared.
Eastwood directed the film from a screenplay by Billy Ray based on a magazine article by Marie Brenner. It makes its world premiere Wednesday at the AFI Film Festival and opens in theaters Dec. 13.
Riley says he has not personally seen the film, but that the paper’s reporting on the movie is based on a colleague who attended a preview screening.
Riley’s first point of clarification involves reporter Scruggs, who died in 2001 at age 42. Riley says there is no evidence that Scruggs ever exchanged sex with an FBI agent for a tip on a story.
“There is no evidence that this ever happened, and if the film portrays this, it’s offensive and deeply troubling in the #MeToo era,” Riley said. “Kathy Scruggs was the AJC reporter who got the initial information that law enforcement was pursuing Jewell. Scruggs was known as an aggressive reporter and committed journalist who sought always to beat her competition.”
Riley said the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was also the first to report that authorities were questioning Jewell as a suspect in the bombing. He added that the AJC delayed the story to obtain independent confirmation of the story’s key facts beyond the original source and that an AJC reporter read the entire story to an FBI spokesman to confirm its accuracy before publishing. However, Riley said that Eastwood’s film shows the paper publishing the story calling Jewell a suspect despite questionable sourcing.
“The decision to publish was influenced by several factors, including the AJC’s confirmation from law-enforcement sources that they were focusing on Jewell, and highly visible FBI activity at Jewell’s apartment — where agents were preparing to execute a search warrant,” Riley wrote.
He said the film portrays Journal-Constitution reporters and editors as “unthoughtful,” but that the paper’s actions helped get law enforcement’s investigation into the public eye.
“By publishing the story, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the first to make the public, including Jewell’s own lawyer, aware of the government’s pursuit of Jewell as a suspect,” Riley said. “The AJC’s leaders also recognized that law enforcement’s suspicions of Jewell were about to be made public whether or not the AJC published its story. The story placed law enforcement’s investigation in the public’s view and within its scrutiny.”
Finally, Riley says the film credits Jewell’s legal team with being the first to call out the FBI’s flawed theory in making Jewell a suspect, but that the AJC first challenged the investigation with a front page story. Riley says the film suggests the AJC never questioned law enforcement and stuck to its original story, but that by continuing to pursue the story, the paper helped lead to Jewell’s exoneration.
“Two and a half months before the federal government cleared Jewell, our reporters demonstrated that the FBI’s theory was impossible,” Riley said. “They showed that the 911 call made from a pay phone by the bomber could not have been made by Jewell; they simply paced off the time it took to walk from the phone to Jewell’s position in Centennial Olympic Park when he reported the finding the bomb. The newspaper published that story on its front page, and it changed the course of the investigation. Jewell’s lawyer made a similar walk with TV reporters in tow after the AJC reporters did.”
Riley acknowledges that the film is not a documentary but an entertaining film based on real life events, but stands by the paper’s reporting as undisputed.
“We welcome an accurate review of what happened and our role. And some of our key folks in this story are still around,” Riley said.