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

Sundown Ethics, 2/20/2020: Post Nevada Debate Mourning Edition

I hope you had a nice day…

The reaction among the Facebook Borg after last night’s car wreck of a debate was interesting; very muted, subdued, remarkably few comments regarding the debate, some denial, and some epicly stupid comments. I use four classes of the Deranged on Facebook: there are four or five genuine friends who are in clinically dire condition but who also don’t take serious disagreements personally. There are the inexplicable Facebook Friends who I don’t care if I upset them or not, or, franfly, if I ever see r hear from them again. Then there are nice people who I like and respect when they aren’t reciting back resistance talking points drilled into their brains like in a Mengele experiment. I leave them alone, even when one of them writes something unbelievably stupid. Today’s example: the kind, funny, brilliant actress and teacher who wrote, “Bernie and Warren are not extremist left. Sorry. They demand systemic change to support the people.” I had to wrestle myself to the ground not to respond to that one. And she’s a teacher.  Any more questions about why so many twenty-somethings are hypnotized by Sanders’ Bolshevik leftovers?

In the fourth class are strangers who are friends of friends. I randomly pick off a few of these every day for fun and practice.

1. Speaking of denial: here’s a Twitter exchange passed along by Arthur in Maine:

On the related topic of Bernie supporters’ often ugly rhetoric, it is amusing to read the same people who have used the actions of most extreme of President Trump’s supporters to characterize him protesting that Bernie bears no responsibility for his followers’ misconduct. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Titanic Ethics”

Michael West has written a remarkable Comment of the Day in several respects. For one thing, it is a comment on a post that is almost eight years old, a record for Ethics Alarms. For another, he becomes the first commenter to comment on the same post under two different screen names. Finally, there is the fact that his point is one with historic validity, yet seldom if ever mentioned by the many critics of James Cameron’s  epic yet intermittently ridiculous film, including me. Follow the tag: there are a lot of  references to “Titanic” here.

One note in prelude to Michael’s essay: the cruel misrepresentation he alludes to can be partially laid at the now dead feet of Walter Lord, who wrote the influential and popular account of the Titanic’s sinking, “A Night To Remember.” It is an excellent account, but he decided to use Charles John Joughin as comic relief, and the  movies, including the one based on his book, distorted his portrayal, which itself seems to have been unfair.

Here is Michael West’s Comment of the Day on the 2012 post, “Titanic Ethics”

How about every Titanic movie’s depiction of Charles John Joughin?

Verdict: Unethical.

Joughin was the lead baker on board the Titanic. Built big and stout as a bull according to most who met him.

When he first heard the Titanic was going to go down, on his own initiative, he rallied the baking crew to gather what bread they could to distribute ample loaves to every lifeboat anticipating they may be afloat for awhile before rescue — something like 40 pounds of bread per boat. Several witnesses and his own testimony recount that he took multiple trips to help guide passengers from below decks up to the boat deck. He proceeded to a lifeboat, which he had been earlier commanded to be a crewman for (either tilling it or rowing, I’m not sure), only to discover another crewman had taken his spot. He didn’t protest, though he could have, so he helped load that boat and then went back to find more passengers below decks. After realizing there’d not be enough life boats and that many people would have to swim for it, he began to throw as many deck chairs into the water as he could as flotation devices, later he mentioned he hoped he could possibly find one of them after the ship went under. When the ship made its final plunge, he found himself standing on the back of the Titanic riding it into the icy waves. In the water, which was so cold, most people died of hypothermia within fifteen minutes…most much sooner than that, Joughin treaded water and swam for a remarkable one and a half to two hours before finding the upside-down collapsible commanded by Lightoller. Naturally, given Joughin’s luck thus far, the collapsible had no more standing room, so he had to float to the side for a bit longer before another lifeboat came by and picked him up. 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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Fairness To Pete Buttigieg

Yeah, this kind of thing does not engender trust…

Yikes. Just as he is surging in the Iowa polls, “It” guy Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s campaign organization made an epic botch of sufficient scope as to raise competence, honesty and responsibility questions.

On October 24, Buttigieg released an op-ed claiming more than 400 South Carolinians had endorsed his “Douglass Plan for Black America.”  The mayor of South Bend  has a strained relationship with African Americans, so this was obviously an important initiative. The problem: the three black politicians listed at the top of his press release never endorsed his him, and while the campaign had implied otherwise, 40 % of the endorsement names listed were not black but white. “There is one presidential candidate who has proven to have intentional policies designed to make a difference in the Black experience, and that’s Pete Buttigieg. We are over 400 South Carolinians, including business owners, pastors, community leaders, and students. Together, we endorse his Douglass Plan for Black America, the most comprehensive roadmap for tackling systemic racism offered by a 2020 presidential candidate,” the press release read.

The Intercept interviewed the three black politicians and determined that none of them endorsed Buttigieg. Only one of the three endorsed his plan, which includes reparations for slavery.

Incredibly,  Buttigieg’s campaign sent out an email telling black politicians they needed to opt out if they did not want their name on the endorsement list. That’s outrageous. No candidate can assume an affirmative endorsement because an individual doesn’t explicitly deny one. Continue reading

Incompetent Elected Official, Unethical Quote Of The Week, And Ethics Dunce: Democrat Rep. Mike Quigley (IL) [UPDATED]

And let me add, 

KABOOM!

“And, if gets to closed primer on hearsay, I think the American public needs to be reminded that countless people have been convicted on hearsay because the courts have routinely allowed and created, needed exceptions to hearsay…Hearsay can be much better evidence than direct … and it’s certainly valid in this instance.”

—-Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), making an ass of himself, misinforming the public, but nicely illustrating the lack of integrity and honesty at the heart of the current Democratic impeachment inquiry.

And how proud Loyola Law School must be to have graduated this idiot!

The Honorable Rep. is trying, I assume, to slide by the fact that much of the testimony being presented against the President is hearsay, which means, “not valid evidence.” There is a good reason for that: when what someone else says is repeated by another party as evidence of the proof of the statement’s truth, it obviously cannot be given much weight. For one thing, the actual speaker cannot be cross-examined, making the admission of such a statement as evidence reversible error. A witness can testify to what he or she heard someone else say, but that’s not hearsay.  The testimony is good evidence that the statement was made, just not that the speaker was necessarily telling the truth.

However, nobody, and no legal authority, rationally believes that “hearsay can be much better evidence than direct.” The statement is ridiculous on its face. It literally means that it is better to have someone who heard a statement testify that the statement was true rather than have the individual who made the statement.

Nor do courts “routinely” create exceptions to the rule against hearsay. The exceptions are old and well-established, and have not changed or had additions in many decades.

Here is the list from the Federal Rules of Evidence: Continue reading