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.