A Critical Take on ‘Richard Jewell:’ A Lesson for Journalists

Melody Conrad 
Arts & Entertainment Editor

Clint Eastwood’s newest film “Richard Jewell,” (cover photo) who was praised for discovering the bomb at the 1996 Summer Atlanta Olympics but was then falsely suspected as being the bomber, has been criticized for falsely depicting a journalist as trading sex for information for a story. Screen grab from YouTube

Amid a media firestorm about the misogynistic portrayal of journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who was falsely portrayed as trading sex for a scoop, and articles claiming the utter apathy of a film that failed to pull in over $5 million at the box office, “Richard Jewell” is being overlooked for its overarching themes and valuable lessons to journalists. 

The film, a narrative retelling of a security guard’s actions as he went from hero to suspect after the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics bombing, makes powerful remarks about the state of journalism and the human factor involved in a crisis like this. 

Jewell was a security guard at the Olympics who saved people’s lives by directing them away from what turned out to be a bomb. Initially praised as a hero, he was falsely suspected to be the bomber due to his troubled past and was persecuted by the news media and FBI. While director Clint Eastwood took a great deal of narrative liberties telling the story of Richard Jewell, a message to journalists lingers below the surface.

In the world of journalism, we live by a code of ethics. The great minds of the field came together and assembled this list as a guideline for journalists when faced with difficult decisions. This code points out the moral obligations of the journalist- ways to seek the truth and report it, ways to be accountable and transparent, ways to minimize harm.

But the thing is, it’s not foolproof, and ethical actions don’t equate to morality.

As a variety of factors and nuances pop up, the entire situation can change. One new detail can flip the story, and it’s up to the journalist to use this code to think through difficult scenarios before making an informed decision. Sometimes, we get it wrong.

In “Richard Jewell,” Scruggs of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is portrayed as an envelope-pushing, skanky, self-interested woman with little regard for Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser). Before the bombing, viewers peer into her character as they learn that her main interest is that something newsworthy will happen at the Olympics (preferably criminal). Immediately following the explosion, she is shown praying with her co-worker, pleading to God that she will find who did it first and that the bomber will be an interesting person.

As a journalist, this image is certainly troubling. Her moral compass is pointed due south, and the interest of primacy that drives news gatherers to be the first to get the story is inflated. Yes, getting out the story is important, but time or promise of prestige should never get in the way of the crux of the matter: the truth.

Even after Scruggs discovers the information that Jewell is a suspect from an FBI agent in the controversial tip-for-sex scene, she continues to push journalism ethics out the window in the film by harassing Jewell’s lawyer by climbing into his car to talk to him. Was Scruggs a tabloid writer in a former life? 

Ron Martz, Scrugg’s reporting partner in real life, said in an article from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she “did what was necessary to get the story,” but added it was “within legal and ethical bounds.” 

It would seem, then, that jumping in the car was a narrative twist applied by Eastwood to further a paparazzi element and negate the rigorous level journalists hold for themselves and each other.

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While the media has rightly reached the verdict that Warner Bros. took a number of dramatic liberties with the film, the movie is a strong reminder of the power the journalist wields. As truth-seekers and the mouthpiece for the nation, journalism can shape public perception through what we cover and how we cover it. Every decision has consequences, and the significant responsibility to the public hangs in the balance.

When Scruggs reported that Jewell was a suspect in the bombing, perceptions changed. Lives were altered. The harm inflicted upon Jewell and his mother (Kathy Bates) is a telling reminder that good journalism should never be undercut by speed or prestige.

Because of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s decision to publish, the Jewells went through a world of pain. Richard was defamed, emotionally scarred, and publicly put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit. 

During the film, one of the most poignant moments was when his mother spoke at a press conference about the innocence of her son and broke down in tears. During that conference, the realization that Scruggs jumped the gun comes into focus, and she also wipes a few tears from her own eyes. 

Journalists seek to report the truth, but the decision to reveal or keep quiet on information – even if it’s accurate – can make a world of difference. When we make the wrong choice, when we slip up, the effects can be devastating, potentially ruining an innocent person’s life.

As major news networks fight the role of the journalist as shown in the film, perhaps a new frame should emerge, a new trope that looks not at Scruggs as representative of all of journalism but as an example of what not to do. Her character’s actions lead to a teachable moment, reminding those in the field what can happen when the journalist strays from ethical newsgathering and reporting.

Was the portrayal of Scruggs grossly inflated and larger than life? Certainly. However, Eastwood pulled a great team of actors together to build a story of when journalism didn’t live up to expectations and the media dropped the ball.

Instead of trying to defend the role of the journalist as shown by Scruggs, journalists should recognize this film as depicting an instance in the past, dramatized for effect, that the field strives to grow beyond. No longer are suspect names identified prior to arrest. Instead, the field has grown tighter and more precise. We learn from our mistakes, using the past to propel us into the future.

Therein lies the true jewel of truth.

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