Woman reporter portrayed as tired trope in new Eastwood film “Richard Jewell”

In the new film “Richard Jewell,” reporter Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde) meets an FBI source (played by Jon Hamm) in a bar. She presses him for information on a suspect in the Atlanta Olympics bombing. 

The FBI agent gets annoyed with her persistence. She puts her hand on his upper thigh, leans in, and he whispers the information: “We’re looking at the security guard.”

Then she asks him if he wants to get a room or go to her car. “This is happening?” he asks. “Yeah, this is happening,” she replies.

This scenario never happened, friends, family members and former co-workers told the The Atlanta Journal Constitution, where Scruggs was a police reporter. 

In 1996, Scruggs broke the story that the FBI was investigating security guard Richard Jewell. But she never had sex with her sources to get information. Scruggs died in 2001 at age 42, so she cannot defend herself over the Clint Eastwoood-directed film, which opens Dec. 13 in theaters. The AJC has asked for a disclaimer to be placed on the Warner Bros. film, explaining it falsely portrays the newspaper and its employees.

The screenplay, written by Billy Ray, is based largely on a Marie Brenner-authored Vanity Fair story, “The Ballad of Richard Jewell.” Nothing in the 1997 original story mentions Scruggs trading sexual favors for information. Brenner describes Scruggs as a devoted police reporter with a “hard edge” who got a scoop from her sources and reported it.

Olivia Wilde depicts the character as a dogged reporter who is loud and assertive and at one point hides in the backseat of Jewell’s lawyer’s car, which also never happened. Though the film’s title is “Richard Jewell,” it’s really the story of an eccentric lawyer defending his innocent rube client against the evil FBI and nefarious media.

The portrayal of Scruggs follows a long line of unfair depictions employing a tired, old trope that women use sex to get ahead. The film offers a misogynistic view of women journalists, but also makes all journalists look bad, as if we breach ethics on a daily basis. Reporters are consistently shown in packs, harassing and hurling questions and accusations at Jewell, his lawyer, and even his poor mother (played by Kathy Bates). 

Emily White, a communications director for a Texas school district, studied film representations of women journalists from the 1930s to present-day while in her master’s program. She found that films feature female journalists according to “male-driven ideals.” From Sally Field’s character in “Absence of Malice” in the 1970s to Kate Mara’s character in the recent “House of Cards,” women in movies breach ethics—in these cases by having sex with sources.

“In reality, no journalist does that,” White said in an interview. “It’s the most far-fetched behavior for a journalist.”

She said such portrayals damage all journalists’ reputations, especially in a climate in which they are routinely demonized.

 “Tons of studies that show how the public has lost faith in journalism, especially since the 2016 election,” she noted. “When you see depictions in entertainment, they are implanted in your mind: the media begins to look unethical. But the vast majority of journalists are doing their best, minimizing harm, following ethical codes and reporting the news.”

Olivia Wilde has defended her portrayal of Scruggs, saying that she never intended to insinuate that journalist had to use her sexuality to get information (even though that is what the character does). Wilde also added the perplexing comment, “it’s sort of a misunderstanding of feminism for women to be pious and sexless.” Her comments conflate ethics and sexuality. 

Still, Wilde is not responsible for this slandering of a woman; the director (Eastwood) and the writer (Ray) are. The film, which could have been a compelling portrayal of an innocent man accused of an awful crime, instead is a black-and-white evil vs. good story, with journalists and the FBI as villians. 

Sam Rockwell, who plays Jewell’s lawyer, Watson Bryant, seems to be reprising his role as George W. Bush in “Vice,” judging by his accent. The rogue lawyer wears cargo shorts and backward baseball caps and has a bumper sticker in his office that reads “I Fear Government More than I Fear Terrorism.”

At the end of the film, when the true bomber, Eric Rudolph, is caught by the FBI and pleads guilty, no one mentions that he is a white supremacist domestic terrorist who bombed abortion clinics and a lesbian bar in the name of religion. 

“Richard Jewell” could have been a great and nuanced film about the dangers of getting an investigation wrong and causing harm to a man and his family. The journalists could have been shown discussing the ethics of publishing information from law enforcement sources that turns out to be inaccurate — conversations frequently had in newsrooms. The film also could have made the point that the AJC in 2011 was cleared by the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled that the articles reported the truth at the time they were published. Instead it maligns a dead journalist, repeats sexist tropes, and makes a complex issue into a simplistic yarn that recycles negative platitudes about journalists and FBI agents.

Tracy Everbach, Ph.D., is a former newspaper reporter and currently a professor in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Her research focuses on depictions of gender and race in mass media.

Image by Marco Verch via Flickr.

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