The new movie “Richard Jewell,” which opens in theaters today, is drawing the ire of the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who says the film’s depiction of the paper’s real, but deceased reporter is factually inaccurate.
Kevin Riley, the AJC’s editor since 2011, said Friday he is appalled by the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs as a reporter who traded sex with an FBI agent to get information about the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“What happened to Richard Jewell was terrible and tragic and wrong in this case and it’s certainly worthy of an examination,” Riley said during an appearance on WDUN’s “Morning Talk with Martha Zoller.” “The film, however, in its effort to tell Richard Jewell’s story and show how he was victimized goes and creates another victim.”
Riley said it’s important to defend Scruggs, who died in 2001 and can’t defend herself.
“It’s been upsetting to see that such an important story that examines media behavior and tries to make the case that the media got it wrong and that law enforcement did a lot of bad things goes and makes up crucial details,” Riley said. “It’s going to be confusing for the audience. I want them to know that that part of it’s not true.”
Jewell was working as a security guard at the park on July 27. After he found a backpack filled with three pipe bombs, he alerted police and helped evacuate the area. He was initially hailed as a hero.
But Scruggs became the first journalist to report that the FBI considered Jewell a suspect in the bombing. Although he was never charged, the FBI publicly searched his home and maintained around-the-clock surveillance of him.
Jewell was later cleared, and Eric Robert Rudolph was charged in the bombing. Jewell died in August 2007 from complications of diabetes.
Riley, who was working at a paper in Ohio in 1996, called the bombing one of the biggest stories in the world at the time.
“It certainly seems like a great subject for a feature film,” Riley said. “How did this happen? Could it happen again?”
But he also said he hoped the film would be true to the facts.
“They portray our reporter, Kathy Scruggs, who got this tip, who was just an outstanding police reporter and just a huge personality in this newsroom … as having sex with an FBI agent in order to get the tip,” Riley said. “It’s an appalling scene and it’s an old Hollywood trope to represent female journalists that way.”
Riley was particularly concerned that Scruggs was a real person, but the FBI agent in the movie is fictitious, most likely a composite of multiple FBI agents. He also said that since Scruggs’ sources have never been identified publicly, he couldn’t confirm who gave her the tip.
“In the film, the way the narrative is set up in the film, the FBI agent unlike Kathy, they don’t use a real name of an FBI agent,” he said. “They use the name Shaw and he is apparently a composite of several characters, several FBI agents. … But to just make up this whole scene. That really doesn’t add to the drama of the scene. They use Kathy’s real name. Say these terrible things about her. She’s dead. She can’t defend herself. And then they use a fictitious FBI agent.”
Olivia Wilde, the actress who portrays Scruggs in the movie, defended her portrayal in a tweet on Thursday.
“Contrary to a swath of recent headlines, I do not believe that Kathy ‘traded sex for tips,’” Wilde tweeted. “Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had. That would be an appalling and misogynistic dismissal of the difficult work she did.”
Riley also denied a media campaign to convict Jewell. He pointed to the work of another AJC reporter, Bill Rankin, whose reporting helped law enforcement realize Jewell wasn’t the bomber.
In an August 1996 article, Rankin wrote that Jewell likely was innocent because he was in Centennial Olympic Park when the bomber called in a bomb threat from a phone booth blocks away from the park.
After Jewell was cleared, he hired an attorney and sued the AJC and other news organizations, including NBC News, for defamation. Other news outlets eventually settled with Jewell, but the AJC continued to fight the case, even after Jewell died.
“We defended the lawsuit for really about 15 years and ultimately the Georgia Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit for a very important reason and the reason was this: The reporting was accurate,” Riley said. “In other words, it was the truth. As tragic as this was for Richard Jewell, it was absolutely true that he was the FBI’s No. 1 suspect. So that’s what makes this story so hard because, while the FBI was wrong, that particular fact was true.”