Days ahead of its release, Richard Jewell, a new, Clint Eastwood–directed movie about the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996, is the subject of hordes of criticism, all laser-focused on a brief scene that doesn’t even involve the film’s title character. In the scene, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who covered the FBI’s suspicion that Jewell was the bomber, attempts to sleep with FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) in exchange for information about the investigation. Shaw, a serious gentleman dedicated to his job, declines, saying: “Kathy, you couldn’t f— it out of them. What makes you think you could f— it out of me?”
Creatively speaking, this is boring as hell; if you’ve seen one movie in which a lady reporter tries to use her feminine wiles to get The Scoop, you’ve seen them all. And, factually speaking, it’s not true. It never happened. Scruggs died in 2001 and can’t debunk this herself, but her former employer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is defending her reputation in absentia. In multiple statements and reports, the newspaper maintains that Scruggs never tried to barter sex for information, and certainly never did this while covering the Jewell investigation. The newspaper even sent a letter to this effect to the film’s creators and to Warner Bros., asking that they acknowledge the fictionalization of certain events, and add a disclaimer.
I don’t know how “movies get made,” but adding a disclaimer seems easy enough to do, since the movie isn’t even out yet. But Warner Bros. appears to have no intention of changing anything, and is instead doubling-down, saying that it’s ironic that a newspaper that once ran incorrect reports about Jewell (this is true, but Jewell’s lawsuit against the paper was resolved years ago) is so intent on clearing its own reporter’s name. “‘Richard Jewell’ focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name,” the Warner Bros. statement reads. “The AJC’s claims are baseless and we will vigorously defend against them.”
So, OK, sure; Warner Bros., a big studio, won’t buckle. Quelle surprise! What’s odder, though, is that Wilde, who recently directed the acclaimed “feminist high school movie” Booksmart, is doubling-down, too. In a red carpet comment to a Variety reporter, Wilde asserted that the people who are mad about the implication that a respected female journalist tried to fuck a source are the real problem, because they’re reducing a complex woman to her sexuality. “I think it’s a shame that [Scruggs] has been reduced to one inferred moment in the film,” Widle said. “It’s a basic misunderstanding of feminism as pious, sexlessness. It happens a lot to women; we’re expected to be one-dimensional if we are to be considered feminists.”
*Spits water on computer screen, pauses, drinks more water, spits again* What?!? Wilde went on to say she did lots of research and respects Scruggs’ hustle (however unethical and fake it was, I guess?). “She was incredibly dogged and intrepid,” Wilde said. “She was famous for getting to crime scenes before the police. She was very successful as a reporter. She was also a woman working in the news in 1996; yeah, she had relationships with people she worked with.”
There is a difference between “had relationships with people she worked with” and “tried to hump people she worked with.” I know celebrities live coddled lives, but it seems like Wilde would know about this distinction, and care about it.
It’s irresponsible to incorrectly assert that a journalist who was ultimately very good at her job (even the Georgia Court of Appeals agrees with this) was so horny (or just horny for a scoop) that she crossed one of the most basic ethical lines in her industry. Sure, a small percentage of Richard Jewell’s audience will be people who have read articles like this one and are now aware of what the movie got wrong about Scruggs. But a much larger percentage will be people who don’t follow a bunch of pissed-off journalists on Twitter, and who will accept the attempt at sexual quid pro quo as fact. That’s a huge bummer; the idea that female reporters are willing to trade sex for tips makes already tenuous interactions even more difficult, and only impedes the reporting process.