Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial release, “Richard Jewell,” has generated controversy for depicting journalist Kathy Scruggs, who broke that Jewell was the prime suspect in a bombing case, as willing to exchange sex for information.
It’s unfortunate the controversy has cast such a pall over the film, as it shifts the focus away from the central figure, Jewell, in a story that’s perhaps as relevant now as it was in 1996. Scruggs deserves a fair and honest portrayal, but so did Jewell, who endured more than unsubstantiated allegations, but also public ridicule. Media coverage of Jewell, in fact, went far beyond simply exposing him to the world—it became very personal, a form of public bullying.
In fact, one of the film’s weaknesses is that it doesn’t delve as deeply into the media’s coverage of Jewell as much as it could’ve. As the 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner on which the movie is based notes, Jewell was characterized as a “hapless dummy, a plodding misfit, a Forrest Gump,” even when initially deemed a hero.
As the film accurately recounts, Jewell had a history of heavy-handedness and taking his job as a security guard perhaps too seriously. Even as a security guard, he considered himself “law enforcement,” although the law effectively defines security guards as little more than uniformed private citizens.
But the media’s characterizations of him often went too far. Brenner delivers a run-down of the indignity Jewell was subjected to: the New York Post described him as a “a fat, failed former sheriff’s deputy,” Jay Leno wondered aloud “What is it about the Olympic Games that brings out big fat stupid guys?” and referred to Jewell as the “Unadoofus,” a reference to the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, apprehended earlier that year.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution piled on, with Dave Kindred comparing Jewell to Wayne Williams, the serial killer implicated in the Atlanta child murders of the early 1980s. Kindred also made remarks about Jewell’s weight and the fact he lived with his mother; the column was so offensive, even Kindred’s AJC colleagues were critical.
These were but a few examples of the public low blows Jewell endured. Others would call for his death and that of his mother, Bobi, from outside his apartment. Even after his exoneration, the hits just kept on coming.
Leno delivered a half-hearted apology, calling the moment “the greatest week in trailer-park history.” Remarks about Jewell’s weight, his manner of speaking, and the attribution of degrading stereotypes regarding his background seem like things the media would be careful not to indulge in, but sometimes, the rules go out the window.
A recent example of this phenomenon was seen earlier this year, when white high school students visiting the Lincoln Memorial from Kentucky were lambasted by the media for harassing a Native American man at a protest. As with Jewell, the media ran with a biased, flimsy narrative with little interest in what actually transpired, setting off a firestorm of condemnation, harassment, and even death threats against the teens.
It was another startling example of how easily the media could pick and choose its villains, heroes, and victims, and have the labels stick. Trevor Noah, for example, struggled to criticize the media’s coverage of the incident and found every frivolous reason to implicate the students as the antagonists of the story.
Apparently, being an institution critical to the defense of democracy means never having to say “sorry.” Even Henry Schuster, a CNN producer during the 1996 Olympics, admits it’s not something journalists are accustomed to doing. But the press shouldn’t expect the public’s trust nor respect unless it’s willing to take the occasional hit.
The AJC has the right to object to the film’s portrayal of Scruggs, but it can do so while acknowledging it was wrong in how it approached Jewell’s story. Running a story before the FBI made an official announcement or before all the facts were known may be common practice, but the doing the right thing is more important than getting a scoop.
The same goes for the FBI. Even if suspicions of Jewell were justifiable, the bureau engaged in practices that could’ve undermined the case’s admissibility in court. The movie touches upon some of them, but even here, it could’ve done better.
The role FBI Director Louis Freeh played in the investigation, for instance, is omitted, though he became personally involved in the case, directed the field agents’ actions from his headquarters in Washington, and assigned the case to counter-intelligence specialists, who engaged in the very practices that could’ve undermined the case against Jewell in court. Undoubtedly, accountability for case’s handling goes all the way up the FBI’s chain of command. More importantly, it became clear the FBI had only suspicions and next to nothing to tie Jewell to the Olympic Park bombing and that the investigation had been a waste.
Although not without its flaws, “Richard Jewell” is a valuable film on many levels. It captures a moment in time many Americans recall as idyllic yet was anything but. It also hammers home the powerlessness of the individual in the face of the two-headed monster: the federal government and the media.
The film’s message isn’t so much that neither is to be trusted, but for Americans to ask themselves why they should trust either institution. As “Jewell’s” Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray explained, “You have to stop thinking about the FBI and the media as institutions. The FBI and the media are groups of people who are stewards of institutions. And those people can have good or bad judgement, good or bad intentions.”
That message was relevant in 1996. It remains relevant today.