EXCLUSIVE: In his first comments addressing the controversy surrounding Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, which has culminated in a threatened defamation lawsuit by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the film’s screenwriter Billy Ray assailed the newspaper for failing to own up to its role in destroying the life of the security guard who spotted a suspicious backpack under a bench at an outdoor concert in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics and helped move bystanders away before an explosion left two dead and more than 100 injured.
The newspaper, in turn, has criticized the film’s depiction of Kathy Scruggs — who broke the story with Ron Martz that the FBI was eyeing Jewell as its prime suspect — as a promiscuous crime reporter who essentially traded a sexual encounter with an FBI agent for the tip. The film asserts that tip, and pressure from Scruggs, led the newspaper to tear up its front page to run a story under the headline, “FBI Suspects ‘Hero’ Guard May Have Planted Bomb.” That created the media maelstrom that upended Jewell’s life, as depicted in the Eastwood-directed drama that Warner Bros opens Friday.
“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,” Ray said. “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,” he added.
Several of the key characters in the film have died. That includes not only Jewell but Scruggs, who likely would have sued were she still alive. Olivia Wilde plays her as a steely and sexy reporter who wasn’t above flirting with sources to get tips. She’s seen in a bar with FBI agent Tom Shaw (played by Jon Hamm in an amalgamation of several law enforcement officers involved in the investigation). As the hand she has placed on his leg moves upward, the agent whispers the tip about Jewell in her ear. They next are seen leaving the bar together, presumably to complete what comes off as a quid pro quo transaction.
Ray isn’t inexperienced or shortsighted when it comes to the dance between truth and dramatic license that is present in every retelling of narrative historical story on the big screen; it’s an area into which he has submerged himself many times before. He received an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Richard Phillip and Stephen Talty’s book A Captain’s Duty, which became another untold-hero story in Captain Phillips. He wrote and directed Shattered Glass, a drama about a hotshot journalist caught fabricating magazine articles, and Ray also adapted and right now is directing a star-studded miniseries adaptation of former FBI director James Comey’s bestselling memoir A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership for CBS Television Studios.
Ray based Richard Jewell on Marie Brenner’s February 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell.” Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen’s book Suspect: An Oympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle was also used as source material.
Since Richard Jewell‘s world premiere, current AJC editor-in-chief Kevin Riley – who wasn’t at the paper back then – has proactively challenged the depiction of Scruggs’ promiscuity and the AJC‘s hasty decision to blast a front-page headline that Jewell was being looked at as a suspect by the FBI, just days after he was hailed for heroism for reporting the suspicious backpack he found under a bench, and for helping to divert the crowd away from the blast range. Suddenly, he was considered the prime suspect based on a theory the FBI investigated that Jewell was a frustrated wannabe lawman who planted the bomb to make himself a hero and gain favorable attention. It was more a hunch than anything ground in theory, and there wasn’t a shred of real evidence to pin Jewell to the crime. Still, the newspaper technically was accurate in its reporting that the FBI was investigating Jewell.
Riley said he objects primarily to what he called falsehoods about Scruggs, who isn’t around to defend her honor. “You can’t take someone who died and portray them as an immoral character,” Riley told Deadline. “No one ever said this happened (with Kathy); it’s a horrible trope that Hollywood seems to fall into about female journalists.”
Deadline was hard-pressed to find specifics to verify that Scruggs traded a sexual favor for what initially seemed like the biggest story of her career, until it blew up on the newspaper when the FBI cleared Jewell and someone else, Eric Rudolph, confessed to the bombing. Deadline secured a deposition that Scruggs gave from May 23, 1997, when she was questioned by L. Lin Wood, Jewell’s libel and defamation attorney, who would later represent JonBenet Ramsay’s parents John and Patsy Ramsey and their son Burke in their battle against defamation claims against St. Martin’s Press, Time Inc., The Fox News Channel, American Media, Inc., Star, The Globe, Court TV and The New York Post.
The book Suspect details Scruggs’ questioning by Wood:
The reporter had never been sued or even deposed. Beforehand, she spent a full day and a half with Canfield and his team gearing up for the questioning; the lawyers girded her for Wood’s ultra-aggressive tactics. As one colleague at the paper put it: “Strap it on and tie it on tight, because he’s coming after you.”
The deposition began at 9:55 A.M., and Wood delivered as advertised. Within minutes, in a zigzag pattern to keep her off balance, he grilled Scruggs on topics ranging from profiling to libel to her personal life.
In the deposition examined by Deadline, Wood asked the following:
Wood: You have close ties to the Atlanta Police Department, don’t you?
Scruggs: I guess so, yes.
Wood: Have you ever had a social relationship or dated or had a boyfriend that works for the Atlanta Police Department?
Scruggs: Yes, I have.
Scruggs named the officer and said the relationship had run its course. Perhaps that was the kernel that empowered the dramatic license that became part of the scripted narrative? No one was saying, specifically.
While Scruggs’ counsel objects to the line of questioning, the reporter answers that the relationship “ended in ’93 or ’94” well before the Olympic bombing. Later on in the deposition (on pages 370-371), Wood questions Scruggs how her reputation would stack up if she was the focus of an investigation like Jewell had been. “I suspect there are quite a number of people that could call in and say quite a few seamy things about you,” Wood says in the deposition. Scruggs answers, “I am sure there are.”
Deadline reached Wood, who said he was never approached by anyone connected to the Eastwood film in their preparation. While he has not seen the movie, Wood said: “I do not recall any testimony or evidence that supports the specific storyline as you described it…I have no evidence to suggest that those rumors were true or that she ever engaged in any sexual act in exchange for information or tips, and I never made or asserted such a damning and unprovable claim,” said the attorney. “That is the full extent of my knowledge and it is based solely on sworn testimony — not rumor and not rank sensationalized speculation. I deal in facts. Hollywood is not so limited,” Wood added.
In a November 26 AJC piece, Scruggs family friend and attorney Edward Tolley exclaims “That is complete horse (expletive)” about the quid pro quo scene in the film. “If she’s being portrayed as some floozy, it’s just not true.”
In other testimony in the deposition, Scruggs discussed how the newspaper excised an allegation that Jewell allegedly said that if anything happens at the Olympics, he wants to be right in the middle of it, and that some FBI sources believed Jewell was a voice match to the anonymous call to police that a bomb was placed in the park and would explode in half an hour. Scruggs said the paper didn’t publish those assertions because they couldn’t get enough corroboration.
Wilde vouched for Ray’s research in the script and said she devoured everything she could get her hands on to inform her portrayal of Scruggs.
“She was incredibly successful as a cop reporter,” Wilde told Deadline last week. “She had a very close relationship with the cops and the FBI helping to tell their story, and yes, by all accounts she had relationships with different people in that field. But what I resented was this character being boiled down to one inferred scene and I don’t hear anyone complaining about Jon Hamm’s character as being inferred that he also had a relationship with a reporter. It feels unfair that Kathy has been minimized in this way.”
Ray said he believes in the film’s premise, and argues that the newspaper didn’t consider enough what might happen to Jewell when its front-page story established him as the FBI’s prime suspect, at a time when the investigation was nascent and the bureau was still gathering leads. In her deposition, Scruggs said she did consider that as the paper was deciding whether to publish that first story she co-wrote Ron Martz.
To Ray, the newspaper chose to seize on the opportunity for a big scoop, for which Jewell paid a high price. Jewell died of serious complications relating to diabetes at age 44, and is depicted as having heart trouble as the stress of the FBI and media maelstrom mounted.
“They profiled Richard Jewell as a wannabe cop and lone bomber, but they did so in the “voice of God,” without quoting anyone — thereby stating their assumptions as facts,” Ray said.
“In subsequent headlines they said his possible motivation was that he could be a sociopath. Then of course, they compared him to Wayne Williams. How was Richard going to get a fair trial in the court of public opinion if the only paper that mattered was destroying him?” he added.
While Scruggs did not reveal her source, Brenner in her Vanity Fair profile reported that the journalist “had allegedly gotten a tip from a close friend in the F.B.I., got a confirmation from someone in the Atlanta police.” In Brenner’s conversation with then-managing editor John Walter, he defended the paper’s voice-of-God, declarative-sentence style that included the statement that “Richard Jewell . . . fits the profile of the lone bomber.” Another editor told Brenner, “The whole story is voice-of-God. . . . Because we see this event taking place, the need to attribute it to sources — F.B.I. or law enforcement — is less than if there is no public acknowledgment.” Walter admitted to Brenner he had not seen any documentation that validated the existence of an actual lone-bomber profile theory used by the FBI.
“I believe the AJC’s current motivation is to protect itself from the harsh light that this is movie is shedding on their behavior. I think the paper is trying to sully our movie in an effort to spare itself a justified embarrassment. That’s journalistic cowardice,” Ray said. “What is so appalling is that this is corporate ass-covering disguised as an effort to protect Kathy Scruggs.”
Some detractors speculated that Eastwood’s conservative political views might have informed a negative depiction of media here. Ray is having none of that, and onstage last week at Deadline’s The Contenders New York event told the crowd how sacrosanct the director was about the words in his screenplay.
“Some will try to paint this movie as being anti-FBI or anti-media,” Ray told Deadline. “It’s neither. It’s about speaking truth to power. You have to stop thinking about the FBI and the media as institutions. The FBI and the media are groups of people who are stewards of institutions. And those people can have good or bad judgement, good or bad intentions. In this particular case, the FBI and the AJC, in their pursuit of truth, rushed to judgment and destroyed an innocent man who had saved lives. Richard then had to develop a whole new kind of courage so he could defend himself from them,” said Ray.
While Jewell settled libel lawsuits against major media outlets including CNN, NBC and the New York Post, the AJC continued to fight for itself and eventually won a summary judgment that was upheld on appeal. The newspaper maintained it was law enforcement that rushed to judgment about Jewell, and the paper served its obligation to report what law enforcement was doing. AJC’s Reilly maintains the newspaper did its job in reporting that Jewell was the lead suspect at that moment in 1996.
Bert Roughton was the editor on duty whom Scruggs phoned after a source informed her that investigators were looking into Jewell as a potential suspect. In September, after reading Ray’s script, he wrote in AJC the column “Drama shouldn’t recast this truth,” detailing that he’d “been in the newsroom for a few years by the time Kathy Scruggs arrived. Until then — 1986 — it had been a stodgy and drab, shirt-and-tie kind of place”; and that she was “an explosion of color, energy and expletives.” Roughton was upset by the depiction of his former colleague.
“Kathy was pretty, and she knew it,” Roughton wrote. “She had a raspy voice and wore short skirts and revealing tops. She used bawdy banter as a weapon. Even so, it would be wrong to reduce Kathy to a sex kitten with a notebook. She was so much more.”
The AJC set up a special newsroom during the 1996 Olympics. While Roughton as a reporter had covered Atlanta’s Olympics bid, he was appointed as editor during the Summer Games to oversee all non-sports stories. The team included police beat reporter Scruggs, who was covering security at the Olympics with Martz, reporting into Roughton.
“(In the deposition) they don’t make the leap from her social relationships to she had sex (with a source or sources). There’s no basis in the testimony that suggests that,” Roughton told Deadline.
“When a reporter trades sexual favors for a story, their career is over. If I ever thought for one second that Kathy did anything inappropriate, I would have seen to it that she was fired in 24 hours,” Roughton said.
“To defame a dead woman and to accuse her of doing the worst thing in her profession is just cruel,” the former editor added. “To convict her of the mortal sin of trading sex for a story, it’s the worst thing conceivable you can do to a journalist. It’s one thing to debate the journalist, but to destroy someone’s reputation eternally — because for the rest of time, this movie will be out.”