A war of words erupted Monday between The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Warner Bros. over “Richard Jewell,” a new Clint Eastwood-directed film that depicts the newspaper’s reporting after a bomb exploded at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
The movie, which opens Friday and tells the story of how Richard A. Jewell, a security guard, was wrongly suspected of planting the bomb, includes the apparently fabricated detail of a reporter’s offer of sex with a federal agent in exchange for a scoop.
Monday morning, The Journal-Constitution and its parent company, Cox Communications, sent the studio, Eastwood and several other figures associated with the film a letter threatening legal action unless a disclaimer in the film and a public statement by the studio acknowledged that “some events were imagined for dramatic purposes.”
“It is highly ironic that a film purporting to tell a tragic story of how the reputation of an F.B.I. suspect was grievously tarnished appears bent on a path to severely tarnish the reputation of The A.J.C.,” the letter said.
Monday evening, Warner Bros. struck back in a statement. “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,” it said. “ ‘Richard Jewell’ focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.”
A disclaimer at the end of the film says it was “based on actual historical events.” It adds, “Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.”
The July 1996 bombing killed one person (another died of a heart attack) and wounded dozens. At issue is the film’s depiction of how The Journal-Constitution broke the news, a few days later, that the FBI’s initial lead suspect was Jewell, who discovered the bomb.
While Jewell was indeed the FBI’s lead suspect, there was never enough evidence to charge him, he was later cleared, and another man eventually confessed. The film focuses on Jewell and a lawyer of his as they fight to prove his innocence in the face of an unmoved FBI agent and a media frenzy.
Kathy Scruggs, the lead reporter on the Journal-Constitution article revealing Jewell’s status as the lead suspect, is portrayed by Olivia Wilde. The film shows her approaching an FBI agent in a bar and eventually coaxing the tip that Jewell was the prime suspect after offering him sex.
The newspaper’s letter labeled this account “false and defamatory” and noted that the 1997 Vanity Fair article on which the film was based never alluded to its happening. Scruggs died in 2001.
The movie also implies that the newspaper did not sufficiently confirm its article with sources. While the article did not attribute the scoop, under a newsroom policy of not referring to anonymous sources, the letter said the newspaper had held the article for a day while it received confirmation from additional sources.
Some contemporary observers argued that the media sensation that quickly enveloped Jewell was unseemly and misguided, even accounting for the FBI’s interest in him. Last week, a former CNN producer expressed regret for the way Jewell, who died in 2007, had been covered.
The film may be primed to become a point of contention in the culture wars. Eastwood, the Oscar-winning actor and director, is a prominent conservative, who contributed a memorable performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention. The two primary antagonists of his latest film, the FBI and the news media, are among President Donald Trump’s most prominent targets for criticism.