Ethics Train Wreck Analysis: The Richard Jewell Case

“Richard Jewell,” Clint Eastwood’s excellent but much maligned film about a historical episode with many ethics twists and turns, is extremely accurate and fair in all respects, except for the glaring exception of the screenwriter  Billy Ray’s representation that reporter Kathy Scruggs obtained the information that Jewell was under suspicion by the FBI in exchange for one night stand with the agency’s lead investigator. This was the point where the Richard Jewell Ethics Train Wreck of 1996 acquired a car containing the 2019 movie “Richard Jewell.”

Let’s look at those other cars.

I. Jewell

Jewell was a socially awkward, lonely, obese man who lived with his mother. He was in many ways a stereotypical misfit with low  self-esteem, who developed ambitions about becoming a law enforcement officer, a job that would would provide him with the respect and power that he lacked and wanted. The film begins with Jewell’s stint as an office supply clerk in a small public law firm, where he becomes friends with attorney Watson Bryant. Jewell quits to pursue his dream of becoming a law enforcement officer, and Bryant, in saying good-bye, asks his friend to promise that if he ever acquires the authority he seeks, he won’t become a jerk, and abuse it.

This was a real life conversation. Bryant recognized that Jewell was a border-line Asperger’s sufferer, whether or not he knew the name or the clinical condition, and exactly the kind of personality who should never be given a shield and a gun.

Jewell took a job as a campus security officer at Piedmont College, and rapidly realized Watson Bryant’s worst fears by reacting to his authority by abusing it, being over-zealous and generating an unusual number of complaints from students. Jewell was fired, but the need for security personnel at the upcoming Atlanta Olympics gave Jewell another chance at some authority at least. He probably shouldn’t have had such a chance. Jewell was not a man who should have been in the security field or the law enforcement field; his judgment was poor, and his emotional problems made him a bad risk.

Thus the conditions for the ethics train wreck were put in place. It was up to moral luck whether hiring Richard Jewell would turn out to be a disaster, or a  fortunate near miss. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely, a classic example of a bad decision having a good result—at least for a while.

2. The Bomb

In the early morning of July 27, 1996, Jewell, now working in Atlanta’s Centennial Park as part of the Summer Olympics security force, noticed an abandoned backpack by a bench. Over-zealous, officious and a fanatic about following procedure, Jewell insisted on reporting the pack as a “suspicious package,” despite the chiding of his colleagues, who wanted to take it to Lost and Found. If, as was overwhelmingly likely, the backpack had been just a backpack, Jewell probably would have been mocked. But again moral luck took a hand. He was right. It was a bomb. Jewell and other officers began clearing the area, and the bomb went off, killing one victim, Alice Hawthorne, and wounding many, still  far less serious damage than what might have occurred had Jewell not been so scrupulous in his discharge of his duties.

3. The Hero, the Scapegoats, and the Tip
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How I Boarded The “Richard Jewell” Ethics Train Wreck

It is unusual to see an ethics train wreck continue to  roll along to the extent that it affects the movie about the ethics train wreck, but that was what happened with the Richard Jewell saga. Remember the definition of an ethics train wreck: an episode in which virtually everyone who becomes involved in it, however tangentially, becomes entangled in ethics mistakes and misconduct. The  “Richard Jewell” Ethics Train Wreck (or the Richard Jewell Ethics Train Wreck) even yanked me on board.

I’ve already written about the film, directed by Clint Eastwood and a 2019 holiday bomb (no pun intended). My focus then was on the single unethical feature of the screenplay, its unfair portrayal of the real-life Atlanta-Constitution reporter, the late Kathy Scruggs, who broke the FBI leak that the security guard who had become a national celebrity by detecting the deadly pipe bomb that had exploded at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics  was suspected of making the bomb himself. Though film reviewers usually register few rejections when films smear the deceased in pursuit of a more compelling narrative, “Richard Jewell’s” claim that Scruggs traded sex for the leak walked into the #MeToo buzzsaw, and on that basis alone, Clint’s movie was trashed  by reviewers and pundits alike.

Me Too, and I hadn’t seen it. I wrote in part,

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?… 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….

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.

Gee, the seats on the “Richard Jewell” Ethics Train Wreck are so comfy, and the fare on the snack car is excellent! Continue reading

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.

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