In 1996, security guard Richard Jewell swiftly and wrongly went from hero to suspect after discovering the backpack bomb that directly killed one person and injured over 100 others at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. If not for Jewell alerting authorities and helping to clear the area, things could have been much worse.
When the FBI started investigating Jewell as a potential suspect in the following days, news organizations began accurately reporting that shift in the investigation. It was, after all, their job to report on the ongoing case. That’s what journalists do.
But as former CNN investigative producer Henry Schuster outlines in a recent Washington Post OpEd, the ensuing media frenzy — based on ultimately circumstantial law enforcement theories — quickly outpaced the established facts of the case and left an imperfect hero’s reputation in tatters. There’s a lesson of caution here for all of us that strive to keep the public informed, particularly at a time when information and misinformation move faster than ever before.
According to Schuster, “Jewell might have been the first victim of the 24-hour cable news cycle.” Schuster described the unrelenting attention Jewell received from the media and FBI alike as both “relentless” and “wrong.” And with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear he’s right on both counts.
This injustice is the driving force behind director Clint Eastwood’s newest film, “Richard Jewell,” a project that aims to restore its main character’s name and right this wrong in the court of public opinion. Jewell was eventually exonerated by the FBI and went on to sue several news organizations, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. While others settled, the Journal-Constitution did not and the libel case against it was eventually dismissed because the underlying reporting — that Jewell was under investigation by authorities — was accurate.
In promoting the film, Eastwood has said he felt this was “a story that needed to be told.” This may be true — not only to once again set the record straight for Jewell’s legacy (he died in 2007), but to emphasize the responsibility and potential pitfalls that accompany the necessary work of breaking news.
“We in the media got it wrong, even though our reporting was right,” Schuster continued in his OpEd. “There’s the paradox: Jewell really was the FBI’s main suspect. Yes, the FBI has a lot to answer for, but this is about our responsibility.”
Eastwood’s movie offers an important opportunity to reflect on the responsibilities of reporting, that extend to both the audience and the people being covered. Unfortunately, the filmmakers, in their attempt to correct the record for Jewell, apparently have not extended that same careful concern for facts and legacy related to another real-life character.
The movie has faced deserved criticism for its portrayal of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs who first broke the story about the FBI investigation of Jewell. In the movie, Scruggs is depicted as offering sex in exchange for information about the FBI investigation, which the paper has called “entirely false and malicious” and “extremely defamatory and damaging.”
Several of Scrugg’s friends and former colleagues have pushed back against this depiction of the reporter who died in 2001, saying it undermines her legacy as a dedicated and skilled professional.
Warner Brothers, which produced “Richard Jewell,” has similarly pushed back against the paper’s claims, calling them “baseless” and noting that the movie is “based on a wide range of highly credible source material” and carries a disclaimer that certain events and characters have been dramatized (our own disclaimer: we haven’t seen the movie ourselves).
There was sure to be some dramatization. The film, like many others, after all, is a work of art based on a true story rather than a work of pure documentation. But the filmmakers did a disservice to Scruggs and their own message by unnecessarily and unfairly playing into an unfortunate and inaccurate stereotype of female reporters using sex to get information. Her friends and colleagues recognize that Scruggs had a wild side, but that is a far cry from the journalistic malpractice the movie depicts.
The inaccurate, fast-moving narrative that hit Jewell after his heroism in 1996 should be instructive to all of us striving to find and understand the truth. The filmmakers deserve credit for bringing that story to the big screen. But they similarly deserve criticism for failing to apply the lesson of caution and fairness evenly to everyone involved in the unfortunate case.