Movie Flop Ethics, Part I: “Richard Jewell” And The Alleged ‘Female Reporter Trading Sex For Scoops’ Smear

The two big flops among movies that opened last weekend were director Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” and “Black Christmas,” the second attempt to re-boot the 1976 slasher cult film. Both disasters have ethics lessons to teach, or not teach. Let’s look at Clint’s movie first.

“Richard Jewell” made lass that $4.5 million in its first weekend, and has also been snubbed by the various year-end awards. It is based on the now mostly forgotten  story of how Jewell, initially hailed as a hero for his part in foiling the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing plot,  was falsely accused  of complicity by local law enforcement, the FBI, and the news media. Conservative outlets loved the film, but the other side of the divide focused on a subplot, as the film’s screenplay  suggested that a named Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter, now deceased,  used sex to persuade a source to break the story.  The Journal Constitution has been attacking the film, denying that Kathy Scruggs would ever used he body to get a scoop. Her colleagues, friends and  family all insist that she would not have slept with a source, and reporters around the country circled the metaphorical wagons to proclaim they were shocked–shocked!—that anyone would even suggest such a thing. Jeffrey Young, senior reporter for HuffPost tweeted,  “The lazy, offensive, shitty way screenwriters so often treat female journalists infuriates me. Depicting women using sex to get stories is disgusting and disrespectful. It’s also hacky as hell. I was planning to see this movie but not anymore.’ Melissa Gomez of the Los Angeles Times wrote,  “Hollywood has, for a long time, portrayed female journalists as sleeping with sources to do their job. It’s so deeply wrong, yet they continue to do it. Disappointing that they would apply this tired and sexist trope about Kathy Scruggs, a real reporter.’ Susan Fowler, an opinion editor at the New York Times tweeted “The whole “female journalist sleeps with a source for a scoop” trope doesn’t even make any sense…”

This would be damning, except that while it may not be standard practice, there are plenty of examples of female journalists doing exactly what Eastwood’s film suggests.  Last year the Times—yes, Susan Fowler’s paper—reported on the three-year affair between  Times reporter Ali Watkins and James Wolfe, senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a regular source for her stories. In October,  an employee of the United States Defense Intelligence Agency was arrested for leaking classified material to two reporters, and he was involved in a romantic relationship with one of them. Both reporters are still employed by their respective news organizations, the  Times and CNBC, so its hard to argue that sex-for-scoops is being strongly discouraged.

As far back as “All the President’s Men,” a Washington Post reporter, called “Sally” in the movie but known to be based on Marilyn Berger, acquires information in the Watergate investigation by “having a drink” with Nixon White House aide Ken Clawson, who later begs Post editor Ben Bradley not to divulge how the Post got the information because he had “a wife and a family and a dog and a cat.”

Nonetheless, the assault on the film for the supposed slur on Scruggs specifically and female reporters in general has been relentless. It figures: the film is a strong attack on “fake news,” which has become a feature not a bug of U.S. journalism since the media’s lack of ethics wrecked Jewell’s life. Moreover, Clint, like John Wayne before him, has annoyed the liberal media with his patriotic and conservative views, never mind his lecture to an empty chair standing (sitting?) in for Barack Obama at the 2012 GOP convention. This was payback time.

So when “Richard Jewell” became the only Eastwood movie to make so little at the box office since Bronco Billy’s $3.7 million nearly 40 years ago, the left wing news media puffed up their pigeon chests with pride. ‘We GOT him!”

Well, let them feel good. I strongly doubt the average viewer passed on the film because it may have been unfair to a dead reporter. Who had the genius idea that releasing a film about the press’s abuse of a strange, sad, fat man played by an unknown actor would be a Christmas season hit? I had no interest in seeing the movie, and I’m  an admirer of Eastwood and will cheer on any further proof of how rotten our journalism has become, but why pay to see the news media falsely try to destroy a security guard in 1996 when the same institution has been trying to destroy the President of the United States for three years? Here, let me link to this again: “The Inspector General’s Report on 2016 FBI Spying Reveals a Scandal of Historic Magnitude: Not Only for the FBI but Also the U.S. Media.” Or maybe this, from Glenn Greenwald in March:

“The Mueller investigation is complete and this is a simple fact that will never go away: not one single American was charged, indicted or convicted for conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election – not even a low-level volunteer. The number is zero.Compare what cable hosts (let’s leave them unnamed) & Democratic operatives spent two years claiming this would lead to – the imprisonment of Don, Jr., Jared, even Trump on conspiracy-with-Russia charges – to what it actually produced. A huge media reckoning is owed. Don’t even try to pretend the point of the Mueller investigation from the start wasn’t to obtain prosecutions of Americans guilty of conspiring with Russia to influence the outcome of the election or that Putin controlled Trump through blackmail. Nobody will believe your denials”

So the news media was incompetent and vicious to Richard Jewell? That’s supposed to get me to the movie theater?

Nevertheless, let me be clear: I hate what the movie did to Kathy Scruggs, just as I detest it every time an individuals can’t defend themselves are lied about in a movie, misleading audiences and scarring their reputations. “JFK” told America that Lyndon Johnson was complicit in President Kennedy’s assassination; “Lincoln” falsely represented two Congressmen as racists who voted against the 13th Amendment when they had supported it, so the vote would look more dramatic. “Titanic”  showed First Officer William Murdoch taking a bribe to let a passenger on a lifeboat, ( fantasy), shooting a passenger (pure speculation), and committing suicide (denied by a fellow officer under oath at the inquest). The effect was to make millions of people think one of the heroes of the sinking was a corrupt  coward. As I wrote in one of several posts on the traditional Hollywood ethics offense,

“When screenwriters and directors assert that historical detail is a high priority, slipping in substantive distortions of the facts or manipulation of events will be misconstrued by audiences as literal truth. Then we hear the “It’s a movie!’ excuse. OK, then if it’s a movie, don’t market it as a historically accurate film.”

Unless Eastwood had strong evidence that the reporter was trading sex for information, he should not have used her name. He owes the Scruggs family an apology, and I’m glad his movie is tanking.

13 thoughts on “Movie Flop Ethics, Part I: “Richard Jewell” And The Alleged ‘Female Reporter Trading Sex For Scoops’ Smear

  1. I have a feeling “Richard Jewell” is going to be one of those DVD “hits”. I may want to go out during flu season, but at home with a bowl of popcorn….

  2. Well, I agree and disagree.

    I do agree that Eastwood was wrong to cast Scruggs as using sex to get access to information unless he has extremely compelling evidence to defend the subplot. It is wrong to tarnish a real (and even deceased) person in a movie without powerful support, even though I’ve seen it done hundreds of times before.

    On the other hand, I think it’s unfortunate that the movie isn’t doing well. Press abuse of their position in America is a very serious issue that deserves serious analysis, and even dramatic portrayal in the entertainment industry. We have seen too much unethical behavior out of the press to continue to ignore the problem, and even if this is an imperfect vehicle, it has an important message critical to the continued functioning of our Republic.

    We have seen in the impeachment episode an unprecedented assault on our Constitution by the press that depends on it for its existence. Perhaps we should hope for them to get what they want, because in the end it will be the press that winds up losing.

    But government control of information is the end of our country, and I can’t hate the press enough to ever want to see that. I’d rather put up with a press corrupted by partisan bias, given the choice between that and government control. But that bias and the abuse it creates needs to be paraded, early and often, before the American people in every conceivable form. Only that way leads to a restoration. A self-aware press industry would’ve already figured all this out, but alas, they’re too busy trying to “save” the Republic from a duly elected President.

    It’s a pity Clint couldn’t have seen how wrong it is to cast unproven or questionably-supported situations into his movie, which otherwise deals with an important topic.

    • Whether or not the Atlanta-Constitution reporter got access for the FBI profile by sex with an agent is not the most important part of the movie. The disgusting treatment that Richard Jewell endured by the media and the FBI who attempted through deception to get Jewell to wave his Constitutional Rights IS what made the movie compelling. Let the woman reporter sue for libel if there was no sex involved. The movie was well done and well worth watching.

      • Well, it is the most important part of the movie now, because unfortunately, that’s all anyone is talking about.

        I agree that objectively, it is a minor thing. But objectivity is at odds with today’s “woke” culture where the emo is the thing.

  3. This will be just another bit of contemporaraneous documentation for those studying the history of the Trump impeachment and how the press was instrumental in misleading the electorate.

    Perhaps Eastwood simply wanted to make a record of what he saw as injustice. Remind me again why we keep referring to Birth of a Nation.

  4. I haven’t seen the movie, so I am taking on faith that it is as is portrayed. However, the reporter’s defenders protest because they say that she would never have done such a thing because reporters just don’t do that, then . . . well . . . in my feeble, Rush-addled brain, that is not much of a defense, right? I wonder: Where did Eastwood come up with the story line? Did he do it for cinematic effect? If so, and there is no truth to it, then he is wrong and should be held accountable. However, if the truth is somewhat murky or questionable, then maybe he was on to something. Byt, is that not a tempest in a tea pot?

    That seems to distract from the movie’s central theme, though, which is the efforts of the media and federal investigators to destroy an innocent man’s life. Why are the reporters objecting over a red herring rather than addressing the proverbial elephant in the room? I suspect that it is because they don’t want to confront, expose, or deal with hard realities.

    jvb

    • Well, there was an FBI leak to the reporter that wrote the story that started the media frenzy. Of course the FBI team might have other reasons for unethically leaking the story than sex with an agent pursuing the case. We’ll never know for sure. However, Janet Reno profusely apologized for the team behavior afterwards.

  5. I agree with Jack: I am not paying large amounts of cash to see a movie with such a boring premise, no matter how much truth about fake news it tells.

    Sorry, movies cost a LOT and rentals are cheap.

    Full disclosure: I likely won’t rent this movie either, I have so little interest in the topic.

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