Home Freedom of the Press Richard Jewell and the Boundaries of Artistic License

Richard Jewell and the Boundaries of Artistic License

When media and entertainment titans battle one another over the truth – and challenge each other on First Amendment protections of free speech and a free press – things can get awfully strange, and, at times, very ugly.

Let’s start with film director Clint Eastwood’s latest critically acclaimed movie about Richard Jewell and the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.  The recently released movie, Richard Jewell, recounts how Jewell, a temporary security guard at Centennial Olympic Park (the heart of the Olympic village), noticed a suspicious backpack in an area where thousands of people were attending a concert.  He alerted law enforcement authorities. And Jewell and the police rushed to clear the area.  

The bomb, filled with shrapnel, exploded.  One person was killed. More than a hundred were injured.  Still, Jewell and others were largely successful.

By his quick action, Jewell undoubtedly saved lives.  He became an overnight celebrity, appearing on NBC’s Today Show, among other programs.

Shortly thereafter, the FBI pegged Jewell as a potential suspect in planting the bomb.  

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its dogged reporter, police beat journalist Kathy Scruggs, uncovered this fact and reported it.  Her reporting that Jewell was a suspect was true. It was based on law enforcement accounts.

And that sent the nation’s media into a frenzy.  Jewell was incessantly hounded, including by the nascent cable news networks and other media.  They staked out Jewell at the apartment he shared with his mother. It was a circus.

In hindsight, it was unfortunate.  Disastrously so for Jewell.

Jewell was ultimately absolved of any responsibility in the bombing just weeks after the explosion.  But the negative media exposure left him a broken man. 

Perhaps rightly, Jewell sued multiple media outlets, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for defamation.  Many of the outlets settled out of court. Maybe they got some facts wrong. Or maybe their insurance companies didn’t want to pay the cost of protracted litigation and wanted quick settlements.  

But the Journal-Constitution held firm.  The paper was represented by two highly respected media lawyers in the Atlanta community.  Ultimately, the newspaper won the court battle, on the grounds that its reporting was substantially true, or, if parts of the newspaper’s reporting were in error, they were published without recklessly knowing they were false.

Eastwood has wanted to tell this story for quite some time apparently.  And he has done so with a formidable cast, including Academy Award-winning actress Kathy Bates, as Jewell’s mother.  As is his prerogative, Eastwood comes at the story from his conservative political bent. His antagonists in this story are the FBI and the media, two entities that have been especially demonized in today’s toxic political environment.  

But the story takes a harder turn of late.

Despite critical acclaim, the movie has prompted some sharp criticism over its retelling of actual events.  In particular, Eastwood and his collaborators have been chastised for the manner in which the movie portrays the media, and, especially, reporter Scruggs.  (Scruggs died in 2001 at age 42; Jewell died in 2007.) The movie strongly implies that Scruggs got the scoop that Jewell was a suspect by offering sex to an FBI agent. 

The newspaper and its parent company, Cox Communications were so incensed at the film’s depiction of itself, and journalists in general, that they did what some might consider the unthinkable.  They hired one of the most renowned – and often despised in media circles – plaintiffs’ defamation attorneys in Los Angeles, Martin Singer. Singer wrote a scathing seven-page letter to Eastwood and Warner Brothers demanding that the studio insert a “prominent” disclaimer acknowledging that scenes in the movie were “imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license” in its portrayal of certain events and characters.

Singer and the Journal-Constitution have threatened to sue.  They won’t do it. But just by the fact that the paper hired Marty Singer to threaten a lawsuit against another media entity has left many First Amendment lawyers scratching their heads.  “What are they thinking?” is a common refrain.

Warner Brothers’ response was equally baffling.  “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,” Warner Brothers said in a statement. “[The movie] focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.”  Never mind that the Journal-Constitution successfully defended its reporting in court.

As for the implication that Scruggs behaved grossly unethically, the paper was outraged.  “That never happened,” wrote AJC editor-in-chief Kevin Riley in an op-ed published recently in The Washington Post. “It’s just one of the film’s many phony cheap shots at journalists.”  Riley’s ultimate decision to pen his own editorial is a much more sober path than commencing a lawsuit.

Filmmakers who produce movies “based on actual historical events” are entitled to some factual latitude and artistic license.  And newspapers and reporters who feel wrongly maligned are – like anyone else – entitled to challenge the fictitious elements of a filmmaker’s story.  Let the war of words rage on. But stop the nonsense of suing over it. As journalist Robert Richards said in Slate, “It’s perfectly reasonable to support the AJC’s anger with Richard Jewell for the liberties the film takes in the service of drama and its agenda.  But those who value the press should think twice before cheering the paper on in any potential lawsuit.  When journalists try to quash speech, even risible speech, no one wins.”

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