Classroom Connection: Artistic license or smear?

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Clint Eastwood’s new movie, Richard Jewell, has come under fire for its portrayal of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs, igniting a debate about Hollywood’s depictions of female journalists.

The film, which opened nationwide on Dec. 13, tells the story of Jewell, the security guard hero-turned-suspect in the July 27, 1996, bombing at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park that resulted in two deaths and injuries to more than 100 people.

In one scene, Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) flirts with an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who was one of her sources; the film insinuates that she traded sex with him for the information that Jewell was being investigated as a suspect. (The Journal-Constitution was the first to report that Jewell — who discovered a backpack containing a pipe bomb, alerted law enforcement and helped to evacuate the area — was the focus of the federal investigation.)

Lawyers’ demands

In a letter sent Dec. 9 to Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray, Warner Bros. and others, lawyers for the Journal-Constitution and its parent company, Cox Enterprises, described the movie’s treatment of Scruggs, who died in 2001, as “false and malicious” and “extremely defamatory and damaging.” They demanded that the studio and the filmmakers issue a statement “publicly acknowledging 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” and that “a prominent disclaimer” to that effect be added to the film.

Warner Bros. called the Journal-Constitution’s claims “baseless” and defended the movie, stating: “The film is based on a wide range of highly credible source material. … 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.”

Dozens of journalists have criticized the film’s depiction of Scruggs, calling the intimation that she traded sex for information an offensive, sexist trope and noting that in reality, female journalists are often “propositioned, pawed and threatened” by sources. Scruggs’ brother, her former colleagues and her friends have also come to her defense.

Libel suit

Jewell, who was officially cleared as a suspect three months after the bombing, sued the Journal-Constitution for libel in 1997, contending that its reporting had damaged his reputation. Two years later, a trial court judge ruled that because Jewell had made himself available for a number of interviews following the bombing, he was to be considered a “limited purpose public figure” for the purposes of the suit — meaning that to win his case, he would have to prove that the paper knowingly published false information about him.

In 2011, the Georgia Court of Appeals found that the Journal-Constitution’s articles about Jewell “were substantially true at the time they were published” and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The following year, the state Supreme Court declined to review the appeals court’s decision, ending a 15-year legal fight. The media’s coverage of Jewell, who died in 2007 (the lawsuit was continued by the executors of his estate), even became a case study in university journalism programs.

Related

For teachers

Discuss: In your experience, how are journalists portrayed in movies and television programs? Are the depictions fair? Are they accurate? Do you think the depictions of female and male journalists differ in any way? Do you think that Richard Jewell should include a disclaimer, as the Journal-Constitution has demanded?

Idea: Have students research Scruggs and the Journal-Constitution’s coverage of Jewell. Based on students’ research, what did the movie get right about Scruggs, and what did it get wrong?

Another idea: Divide students into small groups to discuss how journalists are depicted in films and television programs. Have each group compile a list of five movies and/or shows in which journalists play a significant role and analyze how journalists were portrayed in them.

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