Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff ‘Appalled’ by ‘Richard Jewell’ Portrayal of Reporter, Journalism

“To me it seems clear that Clint Eastwood doesn’t understand how journalists actually work,” AJC top editor Kevin Riley says

Olivia Wilde Kathy Scruggs Richard Jewell
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Kevin Riley said newspaper staffers were “appalled” after seeing Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” and its depiction of journalism and their late reporter colleague, Kathy Scruggs.

“Our employees were appalled by the scene and the treatment of our journalism in the film,” Riley told TheWrap on Friday, adding that he was particularly shocked at the film’s depiction of Scruggs trading sex for a news tip, which has no basis in fact.

“I was shocked that a filmmaker would represent a journalist and journalism in this way,” Said Riley, who attended a screening of the film for AJC staffers on Wednesday. “To me it seems clear that Clint Eastwood doesn’t understand how journalists actually work, especially newspaper journalists.”

In the film, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), the reporter who broke the news that security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was the FBI’s main suspect in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, has sex with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) to get the tip about Jewell. Scruggs was known by her colleagues for “salty language, short skirts and occasional antics,” as a recent AJC article said but there is no evidence that Scruggs had sex with an FBI or other source.

“She was the real deal when it came to being a dedicated reporter,” attorney and family friend Edward Tolley said in a recent AJC article. “If she’s being portrayed as some floozy, it’s just not true.”

“The idea that a reporter would sleep with a source — while that’s a common way for Hollywood to portray it — in fact is an appalling breach of ethics, and you would rarely find that happening,” added Riley, who has been the editor of the AJC since 2011 but wasn’t at the paper at the time the bombing took place. “I get that there are examples, but we all know this is not how journalists really work. Journalism is really hard work — developing sources, talking to lots of people and finding out whats really going on.”

Scruggs’ story about Jewell, who was ultimately cleared of suspicion in the case, started a “trial by media” that ruined his reputation. Scruggs’ former editor, Bert Roughton, did not respond to requests for comment.

Riley and AJC journalists had other issues with the film’s portrayal of Scruggs, who died in 2001. “Several episodes in the film are completely unrealistic — where Kathy pops up in the back seat of Richard Jewell’s lawyer’s car. That’s not how it works — she was a good reporter, got biggest story in the world at the time. You don’t do that by hiding in back of someone’s car,” Riley said.

“The movie portrays journalists in every moment — it’s extremely negative but it’s untrue. Trading sex for a story tip. The idea of hiding in the back seat of a lawyer’s car. Richard Jewell and lawyer marching into the AJC newsroom to confront Kathy never happened. Basic security wouldn’t have let that happen.”

He concluded: “She was a big newsroom personality by all accounts, and as is always the case, she was an imperfect person. Kathy’s story is worth knowing. And worth being represented.”

Earlier this month, the AJC sent a letter threatening producers and filmmakers with legal action over the “malicious fabrications,” and called for a boycott of the film. The letter, from the law offices of Lavely & Singer accused the filmmakers of acting “recklessly” and “engaging in constitutional malice” due to the film’s portrayal of Scruggs. The paper demanded that the filmmakers issue a public statement that acknowledges they took dramatic and artistic licenses with the story, and that a prominent disclaimer is added to the film.

Riley told TheWrap that in the version he saw there is a disclaimer, though it was placed at the very end of the credits where most filmgoers will miss it. “It even appears after the notice that no animals were hurt in the making of the movie,” he said. “So apparently destroying Kathy Scruggs’ reputation is not quite as important as worrying about whether they hurt any animals.”

An individual with knowledge of the project told TheWrap that the disclaimer has always been in the film, and wasn’t just slapped on in recent weeks. A spokesperson for Warner Bros. has not yet responded to TheWrap’s request for comment, but earlier this week, Warner Bros. released the details of the disclaimer.

“The film is based on actual historical events. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization,” the disclaimer reads.

Eastwood directed the film from a screenplay by Billy Ray based on a magazine article by Marie Brenner. “Richard Jewell” opens in theaters on Friday.