The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is blasting an upcoming movie about wrongly accused 1996 Olympics bombing suspect Richard Jewell for allegedly depicting one of its reporters as trading sex for the scoop. Meanwhile, the newspaper is planning private screenings of “Richard Jewell” for subscribers at a Sandy Springs theater, where Editor Kevin Riley will discuss “where Hollywood strayed from the real story.”
The Dunwoody-based newspaper hired a high-profile Hollywood attorney to blast the Clint Eastwood-directed movie, which is scheduled for nationwide release Dec. 13, as defaming the late reporter Kathy Scruggs as a “sex-trading object” and “damaging” the AJC with false accusations of unethical and incompetent work. The AJC’s complaint, delivered in a Dec. 9 letter, also alleges the film could open the paper to being “blackball[ed]” by the “cancel culture” due to an incorrect suggestion that it allowed sexual exploitation in the workplace. (For a full copy of the letter, click here.)
Studio Warner Bros., according to media reports, has responded by calling the complaint the “ultimate irony” from a newspaper that joined in a “rush to judgment” against the “real victim.”
In recent emails to AJC subscribers, Riley said the newspaper is arranging private, reservation-only screenings of “Richard Jewell” as subscriber rewards on Dec. 15 at the Springs Cinema & Taphouse, an independent movie theater in Sandy Springs.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see the movie in advance, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution plays a major role in the story about the act of terrorism during the Olympics and the investigation that followed,” Riley says in the emails. “Following the movie, I’ll host a Q&A session on the film and where Hollywood strayed from the real story.”
So many AJC subscribers are interested, the emails say, that a total of seven private screenings have been arranged and a wait list started.
“The AJC reached out to us inquiring about private screenings to host some employees and key customer relationships with a panel discussion following the film,” said Springs Cinema owner Brandt Gully about the private screenings. And he’s looking forward to attendance from the general public, too.
“We have actually heard a lot of buzz about this film over the past few weeks from our patrons, as they are eager to see how the story that we lived here in Atlanta is portrayed on the big screen,” he said. “We expect the film to do extremely well for us, as it has it all: well-known local story, strong cast, infamous director, all mixed in with some controversy.”
The movie dramatizes the story of Jewell, a security guard who discovered a terrorist’s bomb and saved lives by warning people away, only to become suspected by the FBI. A national media frenzy ensued when the AJC revealed the FBI’s suspicions in a scoop scored by Scruggs. The investigation soon fell apart and the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, continued a crime spree in Sandy Springs, Atlanta and Alabama that killed two more people.
Before his death in 2007, Jewell sued several media outlets for libel, including the AJC, with assistance from prominent Buckhead attorney L. Lin Wood. The AJC was the only outlet not to settle with Jewell or his estate and finally won the case on the grounds that its reporting was accurate at the time. Controversy persists over whether the AJC’s reporting was sufficiently skeptical of official claims or written in a style that made FBI opinions sound more like proven facts.
The AJC has launched several preemptive strikes against the movie, including opinion pieces and news stories suggesting it may unfairly depict both Scruggs and Jewell. At a Nov. 12 panel discussion at the Atlanta History Center attended by 500 people, including many AJC staff members, former Managing Editor Bert Roughton made his first public discussion of the case since the libel lawsuit ended. Roughton, who was an editor involved in the decision-making on the Jewell story, strongly defended its publication, while acknowledging some mixed feelings and certain personal qualms he had with it then and now.
Following preview screenings, the AJC is now reporting concerns that the movie shows Scruggs – portrayed by Olivia Wilde – got the Jewell scoop after offering to have sex with a source. The AJC says there is no evidence Scruggs had sex with sources, and its reporting on the matter is already stirring debate about sexist clichés about women in journalism.
The AJC and parent company Cox Enterprises has hired attorney Martin “Marty” Singer, whose clients have included Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Cosby, to press Eastwood and Warner Bros. to add a disclaimer to “Richard Jewell” emphasizing that it altered facts for dramatic purposes. Riley provided the Reporter with a copy of the letter sent by Singer, which threatens legal action for libel.
“The film falsely portrays the AJC’s reporters, and Kathy Scruggs in particular, as unethical, unprofessioanl and reckless… The AJC’s reporter is reduced to a sex-trading object in the film,” the letter reads in part. “… Such a portrayal makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned offering sexual gratification to sources in exchange for stories. That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging.
“This is particularly so in today’s ‘Me Too’ environment and ‘cancel culture,’ in which the public is quick to blindly blackball anyone and anything merely accused of participating in or condoning sexual exploitation in the workplace, even if such an accusation is fictional and false,” the letter continues.
The letter further accuses the film of falsely portraying the AJC’s reporting as inaccurate and malicious. “The AJC’s writers were and are professionals who follow accepted journalistic standards,” the letter says. “They have been the recipients of multiple Pulitzer Prizes during the paper’s 150-plus-year history. It would be a travesty if this film’s plot was contrived to profit by manipulating the facts to defamatory affect, causing devastating harm to the reputations of the AJC and its hard-working journalists.”
According to Entertainment Weekly, Warner Bros. responded with a statement saying the movie is based on “highly credible source material.”
“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,” the studio said in the statement, according to Entertainment Weekly. “‘Richard Jewell’ focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name. The AJC’s claims are baseless and we will vigorously defend against them.”
Riley did not comment further beyond providing a copy of the letter. The AJC, Warner Bros. and Singer’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Update: This story has been updated with information about the contents of the AJC’s letters and comment from the Springs Cinema & Taphouse owner Brandt Gully.