Newspaper fights Warner Bros, 'Richard Jewell' over depiction of reporter trading sex for a scoop

Key Points
  • The scribes behind "Richard Jewell" included a plot line in which journalist Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde, offers a federal agent sex in exchange for a scoop.
  • Cox Enterprises, the parent company of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says this never happened, and it sent Warner Bros a letter threatening legal action.
  • Warner Bros. was quick to respond, calling the newspaper's claims "baseless."
Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser star in Warner Bros. "Richard Jewell."
Warner Bros.

The parent company of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is threatening to sue Warner Bros. over the portrayal of a reporter in the Clint Eastwood film "Richard Jewell."

Eastwood's film includes a plot line in which Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde, offers a federal agent sex in exchange for a scoop.

That depiction of Scruggs and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she worked at the time, has drawn criticism, particularly from the current staff at the newspaper.

Cox Enterprises, the AJC's parent company, sent a letter Monday to Warner Bros., Eastwood and several other people associated with the film, threatening legal action unless a disclaimer was added to the film and a public statement was made by the studio acknowledging that "some events were imagined for dramatic purposes."

The paper claims that the film is inflammatory against Scruggs' legacy and purposefully altered details in order to show the AJC in a poor light.

"It is highly ironic that a film purporting to tell a tragic story of how the reputation of an F.B.I. suspect was grievously tarnished appears bent on a path to severely tarnish the reputation of The A.J.C., a newspaper with a respected 150-year-old publishing legacy," attorney Martin Singer said in the letter.

"Richard Jewell," which arrives in theaters Friday, is about how the media reported on a bombing that took place during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and how the FBI investigated the attack, which killed one person and injured scores of people.

Jewell was the security guard who discovered the bomb. He was questioned by the FBI, who considered him a suspect for a brief period. Scruggs was the first to report that the FBI considered Jewell a suspect.

The AJC was one of several media outlets that were sued after Jewell was deemed not a suspect. However, over a decade later, it was determined that the articles were true at the time they were published, and the case was dropped.

"Richard Jewell" currently has this disclaimer at the end of the film: "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."

Eastwood, an Oscar-winning actor and director, is a prominent conservative and has taken aim at the FBI and the news media with "Richard Jewell." Both groups are among President Donald Trump's most criticized targets.

The legacy of Kathy Scruggs

Warner Bros. was quick to respond, calling the newspaper's claims "baseless."

"The film is based on a wide range of highly credible source material," Warner Bros. said in a statement.

"There is no disputing that Richard Jewell was an innocent man whose reputation and life were shredded by a miscarriage of justice," Warner Bros. said. "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. 'Richard Jewell' focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name."

Wilde has also defended her portrayal of Scruggs.

"I did a ton of research, I really embraced her dynamic, multidimensional nuanced personality," Wilde told Variety. "She was incredibly dogged and intrepid. She was famous to getting to crime scenes before the police."

In the film, Scruggs is depicted as using sex to get information from an FBI agent played by Jon Hamm. Wilde questioned in the Variety interview why there is so much focus on a female reporter sleeping with a male federal agent, but not for a federal agent sleeping with a reporter.

"I don't see the same thing happening to Jon Hamm's character, who arguably does the exact same thing," Wilde said.

Hamm's character is an amalgamation of several people and is not based on one single individual. Wilde's character, on the other hand, is meant to be Scruggs, who died in 2001.

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Friends and co-workers remember Scruggs for her "salty language, short skirts and occasional antics," reporter Jennifer Brett wrote in a piece for the AJC two weeks ago. But those same people say its wrong to suggest Scruggs had ever done anything illicit or unethical to do her job.

"If they had actually contacted me it might have ruined their idea of what they wanted the story to be," Ron Martz, a former AJC reporter and Scruggs' reported partner for much of the bombing coverage, said in the piece. "It's obvious to me they did not go to any great lengths to find out what the real characters were like."

In the last year of her life, Scruggs was on medical leave from the newspaper. She suffered from Crohn's disease and the stress of litigation over her coverage of Jewell exacerbated her medical issues. Scruggs did not live to see her name cleared.

Jewell, too, was not alive when litigation against the AJC was dismissed in 2011. He died in 2007 from heart failure due to complications from diabetes.

Not only is the AJC claiming that "Richard Jewell" defames Scruggs, but that the film purposefully did not include how the newspaper helped exonerate Jewell.

FBI agents looked into whether Jewell could have made the anonymous 911 call that was made by the bomber before the bomb exploded from a pay phone several blocks away from Centennial Olympic Park. Reporters at the paper during that time had dug up information that determined it would have been logistically impossible for Jewell to have made the call.

"Not only does the film omit the highly significant fact that the AJC's reporting discovered the logistical impossibility of Mr. Jewell calling from the pay phone, the film actually substitutes that true fact with a false and fictional narrative in which Mr. Jewell's lawyer (not the AJC's reporters) is depicted unearthing the logistical problems," Singer said in the letter to the studio.

The letter claims that this was done intentionally to portray the newspaper as "unethical, untrustworthy, and reckless."

"As a result of untruthful, defamatory statements about the AJC and its reporters in the film, all those involved in the film and in the dissemination of its defamatory falsehoods are exposed to significant liability in the United States, as well as in other jurisdictions throughout the world where the film is disseminated," the letter said.