Fact Vs. Fiction In ‘Richard Jewell’: A Look At Why Kathy Scruggs Deserved Better

(This post will contain both “spoilers” for the movie Richard Jewell and historical facts. Please proceed accordingly)

Clint Eastwood’s new movie, Richard Jewell, adapted by screenwriter Billy Ray partly from a 1997 Marie Brenner Vanity Fair article, tells the story of the FBI and the media’s rush to judgment in the case of Richard Jewell, a security guard who discovered a bomb in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park and then became the prime suspect, beaten up in the press even though he actually helped save people’s lives. In the movie, much of the blame for that seems to land on Kathy Scruggs, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).

As the film depicts it, Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde) finds out that Jewell is the FBI’s primary suspect (which he probably never should’ve been) by sexually accosting an FBI agent played by Jon Hamm at a bar. “If you couldn’t f*ck it out of them, what makes you think you can f*ck it out of me?” Hamm’s character asks her.

She nonetheless gets the information, while fondling for his crotch. “Want to get a room or just go to my car?” Scruggs asks after he reveals Jewell’s name. Scoop in hand, she convinces her bosses to run with the story over their concerns.

Scruggs isn’t alive to defend herself, but Richard Jewell‘s depiction of her had Scruggs’ colleagues at the AJC calling foul before they’d even seen the film. An AJC piece by Jennifer Brett quotes Scruggs’ brother, and her co-author of the original piece identifying Jewell — Ron Martz — criticizing the filmmakers for never seeking their perspectives. As Martz told the New York Times:

“[Kathy] could be flirtatious, but she wouldn’t have done that sort of thing, because she was very conscious of her role as a reporter and she wanted to be known as a top-notch reporter. That sort of portrayal of her, it’s an insult not only to her, but to just about any other woman who’s been a reporter.”

This, in turn, had actors in the movie, like Jon Hamm, when I interviewed him, urging people to see the film before passing judgment. “I think the people that have (criticized the film’s version of Scruggs) haven’t seen the film and certainly haven’t read the book. I would encourage people to see the movie and read the story behind it and then come to that conclusion,” Hamm told me, referring to The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, The FBI, The Media, And Richard Jewell, The Man Caught In The Middle, by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, another source for the movie.

People have begun to do just that, and the criticism has, if anything, only intensified. The AJC has since gone so far as to retain an attorney, the infamous pitbull Marty Singer (known for representing John Travolta, Brett Ratner, and Bryan Singer during controversies, among others) and have demanded a disclaimer be added to the film. Warner Brothers has fired back at the AJC, saying that “having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, [the AJC] is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast.”

Olivia Wilde, who plays Scruggs in the film, defended the film’s depiction of her character on feminist grounds, saying the film’s critics were holding it to a “sexist double standard.”

“She was incredibly successful as a cop reporter. 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,” Wilde told Deadline. “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.” […] “It’s a misunderstanding of feminism to assume that all women have to be sexless.”

Wilde seems to infer that Richard Jewell‘s critics are basing their criticisms of the Kathy Scruggs character solely on the idea that the movie “infers” that Scruggs had sex with a source for a story (true, the film doesn’t show the actual penis going in, but when two people say they’re going to have sex and leave for a hotel room it’s not much of a leap to assume that they did).

To say that Kathy Scruggs had sex with an FBI agent (or at the very least fondled his crotch) to get the Jewell scoop when there’s no evidence of that is defamatory enough, and that has nothing to do with sexism or double standards. The movie actually does Scruggs worse than that. The film’s depiction of her is not only wrong, but unnecessary. It’s both incorrect and unfair, blaming her for things she didn’t do and turning her into a less compelling character in the process.

Wilde’s defense seems to be based on the idea that while Scruggs didn’t sleep with her source for Jewell, the depiction was “fair” because people did question Scruggs’ close relationship with police sources, and many believe she had slept with her sources in the past. She was also known for a foul mouth, low-cut dresses, and general wildness. She was once arrested drunk and naked, sitting in the driver’s seat of a taxi outside a bar. Her own brother said of her, “I loved Kathy, but she was crazy.”

The trouble is, that character sounds a lot more interesting than what we get in Richard Jewell, a character we first meet when she storms into the AJC newsroom, wearing a gold necklace that says “KATHY,” flipping the bird to fellow reporters (they’re jealous, apparently) and telling a colleague that she’s considering getting breast implants. “I’m thinking D-cups,” movie-Scruggs growls, cupping her breasts for effect.

Movie Kathy not only sleeps with her source to get the Jewell scoop, but:

– Insults her fellow reporters
– Dreams of implants
– Says a prayer directly after the bombing — not for the victims, but for the murderer to be “interesting”
– Goads her bosses into rushing the story into print
– Burns her source, breaking her promise to be off the record and jeopardizing an ongoing investigation

What kind of person does all that add up to? It’s true we shouldn’t boil the character to one sexual act (which, again, doesn’t seem to have actually happened), but the film doesn’t present much that would flesh out the picture. Later, movie-Scruggs is moved to tears at a Jewell press conference, apparently humbled by the Jewells’ plight and ashamed at her own actions — the movie’s way of showing that Scruggs had learned a lesson about being so aggressive (uppity?).

“Most people within the Atlanta Journal-Constitution thought that everybody would get the story at the same time, that it would essentially be a tie,” Kent Alexander, co-author of The Suspect told me. “Kathy Scruggs, who was a very accomplished and very aggressive police reporter, had a motto: ‘I’m not in the business of being last.’ And she decided that she was going to be her usual aggressive self and made call after call to law enforcement sources. One of the people she called got back to her and said ‘Meet me in a bar after work.’ And so she goes to the bar and she learns that Richard Jewell, who up to that point had been the hero, was the guy that the FBI believed was the prime suspect.”

Translation: the FBI fed her the story. Or at least, one FBI agent in particular fed her the story. That FBI agent is identified by name in The Suspect, but, tellingly, not in the movie* (book spoilers in the footnote). As for the bar scene, Kent Alexander and his co-author Kevin Salwen have declined to discuss their input, saying in a statement, “We have been asked repeatedly whether we found evidence that Scruggs traded sex for the story. We did not.”

Richard Jewell takes an interesting real-life character and flattens her into a lame trope of reporter-who-sleeps-with-sources, not to mention a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants and needs to be humbled and tamed.

Once Scruggs got the scoop, she wrote up the story with her co-author, Ron Martz. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution then read the full text of the story to an FBI spokesperson before publication — specifically to avoid jeopardizing the investigation. The FBI greenlit the entire thing. How that actually played out is an interesting, quasi-Coen Brothers-esque story in itself.

“Martz, who made the call to confirm the story with the FBI, said he wanted to make sure that, one, the story wasn’t going to screw up the investigation. And two, that it was accurate,” said Alexander. “The guy on the other end, agent Jay Spadafore, is a part-time PR guy, intentionally kept completely away from the investigation. So he said, ‘Yeah, the name’s out there and I don’t really know the details.’ So he couldn’t really say it was accurate, but he said, ‘I’m not going to quibble with it.’ And then, will it screw up the investigation? It’s like, well, the name’s out there. He really didn’t know. But in the end, it actually did screw up the investigation because nobody among the FBI supervisors had any intention of letting word out that Richard Jewell was a suspect.”

To play this as Kathy Scruggs willingly burning her source and jeopardizing an investigation is unfair. She did her job as it was then understood. If there was a double standard, it was one Ron Martz complained of at the time: that Kathy Scruggs seemed to be getting all the criticism over a story on which Martz was a co-author. Which is still the case — and not despite the movie, but because of it. This movie that supposedly aims to set the record straight often ends up regurgitating lazy assumptions. As for Olivia Wilde’s notion of why people aren’t complaining about Jon Hamm’s character, that’s an easy one: “Tom Shaw” isn’t a real person. He’s a composite.

Why should Kathy Scruggs get named and shamed while the FBI agent who revealed the suspect’s name receives anonymity? She was at least doing the job as it was understood; he was the unscrupulous one. According to the 1997 Vanity Fair piece by Marie Brenner that the movie is partially based on, the case was being handled by an FBI division that had been formed to fight the Cold War, “whose strength was intimidation and manipulation rather than the deliberate gathering of evidence to be presented in court.”

That piece didn’t name the individual leaker. The Suspect does*, painting him more as a rogue FBI agent whose leak infuriated his bosses. Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen write:

Witnesses repeatedly came forward to accuse [him] of twisting their words. His own FBI partner, Agent Thomas Dauenhauer, complained to higher-ups that [he] rarely, if ever, took out a notepad when interviewing witnesses and suspects, and would then craft his official reports from “memory.” Reading through [his] 302s, Dauenhauer would fume “this is bullshit,” and refuse to add his initials.

As Hamm told me during our interview, “I really do think that the movie is an exoneration of a man who did his job and was wrongfully accused of something that he didn’t do and is still thought of as something that he isn’t.”

Fair enough, and certainly Jewell deserves that, but Jewell already received the benefit of being exonerated during his lifetime. The New York Times wrote a 3,000-word cover story about his poor treatment after the FBI cleared him. He received a public apology from Jay Leno, a $200,000 settlement from CNN, and an almost $600,000 settlement from NBC, among others. True, Jewell’s lawyers surely got a chunk of that — only one of whom, Watson Bryant, appears in the film, played memorably by Sam Rockwell. (Perhaps not coincidentally, The Suspect reports that Bryant teamed up with Jewell’s mother to sell the movie rights.) Jewell’s biker pal who stuck by him throughout the ordeal, Dave Dutchess, appears in a single scene.

Kathy Scruggs herself wrote follow-up stories about Jewell’s shabby treatment and interviewed criminal profilers about how criminal profiling had been mishandled in the Jewell case. When Jewell died of a heart attack in 2007, he at least got to see the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, go to prison (six life sentences, plus 120 years). After the bombing fiasco, Jewell went on to get married, realized his dream of becoming a cop (The Suspect details a later incident in which Jewell performed CPR on a dying infant, saving its life), and bought a 26-acre farm in rural Georgia. All of which again escapes mention in the film — which it’s possible to come away from believing that Jewell was still basically the same sexless weirdo mama’s boy that the media made him out to be in the nineties.

Yes, Jewell deserves to be better remembered as a hero, but the movie only does a middling job of helping that case, presenting Jewell largely as a sad sack defined by his victimhood — rather than a lovable good ol’ boy who showed up to his interrogation in a stars-and-stripes fanny pack, loved karaoke, and sang “Free Bird” in a cover band. That would’ve been a fun movie.

By contrast, when Kathy Scruggs died in 2001 of a drug overdose (possibly deliberate, according to The Suspect) just shy of age 43, she was still fighting court battles over her story. She and Martz had been held in contempt for refusing to reveal their source. The case wasn’t dismissed until 2011, on the grounds that they were “substantially true at the time they were published.” None of the lawyers who pursued Scruggs get mentioned in the film. Jewell’s death is noted at the end. Scruggs’ is not.

The media as a whole certainly wasn’t innocent in the case. Tom Brokaw, who said the FBI “probably had enough to convict” Jewell but were just trying to collect all the evidence, does get a soundbite in the film. Then-AJC columnist Dave Kindred, who wrote a column comparing Richard Jewell to murderous pedophile Wayne Williams, does not. Nor does Nancy Grace, a then-assistant DA who said on television that Richard Jewell did not deserve the presumption of innocence.

“I think [Grace] said that there was no presumption of innocence at this time because there wasn’t a jury trial, and that was a head-shaker,” Alexander says. “The deputy attorney general called that morning, and said, essentially, ‘Get that woman off the air. She is right now the face of justice.’ So I had to call the district attorney, and we went through this whole back and forth and Nancy didn’t end up speaking about the Olympics again.”

Columnist Hollis Gillespie went on a date with Jewell after meeting him on an airplane, only to write up the whole thing in Atlanta Magazine, along with a follow-up piece in which she appeared on the cover. “Here’s a guy who hadn’t had a date in a year and the first time he goes out, it turns out the woman is a reporter that writes a story about him,” Alexander says. “It was heart-wrenching for Richard,” Alexander’s co-author, Kevin Salwen adds.

Again, a chapter that goes unmentioned in the film.

Even the AJC’s house style, voice-of-God narration that stressed declarative sentences over attribution, news in bite-sized “chunklets” in an attempt to mimic USA Today, deserves some blame — making “Jewell fit the profile of the lone bomber” sound like objective fact rather than the opinion of the FBI, who created said profile.

It might be a valuable discussion to have, whether Scruggs, Martz, and the AJC erred in running with the Jewell-as-prime-suspect story, even if it was well-sourced, true, and okayed before publication. Should they have known what the unprecedented 24-hour news cycle would do with Jewell? Perhaps, but it’s hard to have that discussion when the movie unfairly paints one of the players in it as an unscrupulous news ghoul.

Moreover, of all the players who deserve scrutiny in this saga, why demonize the one who, at the very least, did sourced, factual reporting? Whereas Scruggs’ important job, local police reporter, is increasingly an anachronism, we still seem to have plenty of Brokaws, Kindreds, and Graces to go around (admittedly fewer Hollis Gillespies). Why doesn’t the film give time to people whose conduct would’ve actually warranted the villain treatment?

One wonders if it was because none of them were attractive, foul-mouthed women who wore fishnets and miniskirts. In the end, Kathy Scruggs’ greatest crime was being interesting.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

(Ed: note: The source’s name, according to The Suspect, was… Don Johnson. There’s even another agent in the story named Tubbs. Tell me this wouldn’t have made an incredible movie from The Death Of Dick Long guys — so many Southern oddballs! — or the Coen Brothers.)