The battle of truth versus fiction in Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” intensified Thursday as screenwriter Billy Ray shot back at Kevin Riley, the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Riley, who has criticized the movie for suggesting that reporter Kathy Scruggs traded sex for news tips while reporting on the investigation into the 1996 Atlanta bombing, has lawyered up in preparation for a defamation lawsuit. Ray is calling that threatened suit a “distraction campaign” to divert attention from what he claims is the paper’s sloppy reporting on the case that led to the shattered reputation of Jewell, a security guard who was treated as the prime suspect in the case.
Scruggs was one of the reporters who named Jewell as a suspect in the bombing. Jewell was innocent, but the newspaper’s report helped put Jewell’s life under scrutiny for an extended period of time, prompting him to file several libel lawsuits against the AJC and other outlets.
“This movie is about a hero whose life was completely destroyed by myths created by the FBI and the media, specifically the AJC,” Ray told Deadline. “The AJC hung Richard Jewell, in public. They editorialized wildly and printed assumptions as facts. They compared him to noted mass murderer Wayne Williams. And this was after he had saved hundreds of lives.
“Now a movie comes along 23 years later, a perfect chance for the AJC to atone for what they did to Richard and to admit to their misdeeds. And what do they decide to do? They launch a distraction campaign. They deflect and distort. They focus solely on one single minute in a movie that’s 129 minutes long, opting to challenge one assertion in the movie rather than accepting their own role in destroying the life of a good man. The movie isn’t about Kathy Scruggs; it’s about the heroism and hounding of Richard Jewell, and what rushed reporting can do to an innocent man. And by the way, I will stand by every word and assertion in the script.”
Riley did not immediately return IndieWire’s request for comment.
The newspaper on Monday sent a legal threat to distributor Warner Bros., demanding it add a disclaimer to the film’s credits that notes how the film takes dramatic liberties with the true story at its center. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hinted at legal action, should Warner Bros. not comply with its demand.
Warner Bros. in a statement Monday said it stands by the movie and similarly accused the paper of rushing to judge Jewell in its reporting. The studio already had such a disclaimer on the film at its AFI Fest premiere last month, according to a spokesperson.
Newspapers are often on the other side of defamation suits, and as fierce defenders of the First Amendment, don’t often find themselves on the other end — making this case exceptional, attorney Mark Litwak told IndieWire. He serves as production counsel and has written several books on entertainment law.
While the portrayal of Scruggs, who died in 2001, has been at the center of this dispute, Litwak noted that only living people can sue for defamation. That means the paper itself must prove it was harmed if it takes the disagreement to court. Additionally, filmmakers are given great creative leeway in crafting movies that are based on a true story, as this one is marketed.
“Defamation cases are very hard to win, generally speaking,” Litwak said. “In order to win, the plaintiff here is going to have to show the newspaper itself was harmed, not just a reporter who is deceased, but also that they were damaged, that they lost subscribers or advertisers as a result. That’s going to be difficult to show.”
Such cases, however, can be easier to win in the UK, where AJC attorney Martin D. Singer suggested he may file suit, Litwak said.
The film, which opens Friday, shows Scruggs in a bar with an FBI agent (a composite character played by Jon Hamm), who whispers a tip about Jewell being a suspect as Scruggs moves her hand up the agent’s leg. They then leave the bar together to complete what could be suggested as the tips-for-sex transaction.
Meantime, Olivia Wilde, who plays Scruggs, published a Twitter thread Thursday where she said she interpreted the dramatized version of Scruggs not as offering a sexual quid pro quo, but rather as being in a preexisting romantic relationship with an FBI agent.
I cannot speak for the creative decisions made by the filmmakers, as I did not have a say in how the film was ultimately crafted, but it’s important to me that I share my personal take on the matter.
— olivia wilde (@oliviawilde) December 12, 2019
Either way, journalism ethics experts say such relationships amount to malpractice in a profession that guards against real or perceived conflicts of interest.
Reached by IndieWire for comment earlier this week, before Wilde published her Twitter thread, Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee chairman Lynn Walsh offered a rundown on ethical relationships between journalists and sources in a statement. It goes without saying that reporters should not offer sex for news tips, she said.
“If journalists develop a romantic relationship with a source, the reporter should no longer use that individual as a source and should not report on issues that source is involved in,” she said. “Journalists should also alert their editor and news managers to any romantic relationship with a source, so the news organization is aware of the potential conflict of interest and can assign other reporters not romantically involved with the source to cover stories they are involved with. If journalists develop friendships with a source, the same thing applies.”
Additional reporting by Ryan Lattanzio.