There's Absolutely No Reason For Your Woman Journalist Character to Sleep With a Source

There's Absolutely No Reason For Your Woman Journalist Character to Sleep With a Source
Photo:Matt Winkelmeyer (Getty Images)

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie is called Richard Jewell, and it’s about (big surprise) Richard Jewell, the security guard who was a suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The movie, which chronicles the utter shitshow surrounding Jewell’s non-involvement in the bombing, also takes extreme dramatic license with one woman in the middle of the story.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (played by Olivia Wilde) broke the story that Jewell was under FBI investigation for a role in the bombing, which Scruggs did by reporting, along with journalist Ron Martz. In the movie version of the events, though, Wilde’s Scruggs offers to sleep with Jon Hamm’s FBI agent character to get the information. Scruggs, who died in 2001, did not sleep with someone to get the story, so the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is demanding the movie release a clear statement exonerating Scruggs.

“We hereby demand that you immediately issue a statement publicly acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters,” reads the letter — sent to Eastwood Warner Bros., and screenwriter Billy Ray — from attorney Martin Singer. “We further demand that you add a prominent disclaimer to the film to that effect.”

Variety published the letter in full here.

Kevin G. Riley, the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the paper was “disturbed” by the use of the trope of women reporters sleeping with sources. Additionally, Riley said the movie misrepresented the paper’s reporting that eventually exonerated Jewell. (Eric Rudolph was eventually found responsible for the bombing.) “The film literally makes things up and adds to misunderstandings about how serious news organizations work,” Riley told Variety. “It’s ironic that the film commits the same sins that it accuses the media of committing.”

Wilde also defended the film. “I think it’s a shame that she has been reduced to one inferred moment in the film,” Wilde told Variety. According to the same Variety piece, it’s not goddamn inferred: “In the film, after Scruggs offers to sleep with Hamm’s character, he responds: ‘Kathy, you couldn’t f— it out of them. What makes you think you could f— it out of me?’”

That seems like a pretty deliberate and clear choice.

Wilde continued, “It’s a basic misunderstanding of feminism as pious, sexlessness. It happens a lot to women; we’re expected to be one-dimensional if we are to be considered feminists. There’s a complexity to Kathy, as there is to all of us, and I really admired her.”

A great way to really admire someone is portraying them as violating the very basic ethics of their profession. Do they think no one would watch a movie about a journalist doing her job well? Spotlight, which featured journalism great Sacha Pfeiffer reporting on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clergy sex abuse, won two Oscars. One of those Oscars was for Best Picture, in case you forgot.

Furthermore, it’s ridiculous for Wilde to hide behind the idea of ~feminism~ in this instance. She — and likely Ray and Eastwood as it is their film — made a dumb and awful choice to portray a professional woman as violating her profession’s baseline ethics while at the same time propping up a cliche that hurts actual working women journalists. I don’t know how many times it must be restated: Feminism (and being a feminist) does not insulate you from criticism. It’s not “feminism” or the desire of professional women to have a “sexlessness” that’s leading to the critique of her portrayal of Scruggs. It’s the desire for accuracy and treating women like they’re actually capable people. The critique stems from the fact that this decision is a part of a long history of pop culture treating women journalists as only capable of spreading their legs.

You don’t have to jump through hoops and break your back bending backward to defend your shitty decision under the guise of feminism. It can just be a shitty decision.

Martz, who worked with Scruggs on a number of the Atlanta bombing stories at the paper, said no one contacted him about their reporting process. “If they had actually contacted me it might have ruined their idea of what they wanted the story to be,” Martz told the Journal-Constitution. “It’s obvious to me they did not go to any great lengths to find out what the real characters were like.”

In fact, when you prop up this ridiculous trope, you make it harder for actual journalists to do our jobs. Instead, we spend time explaining that no, we’re not interested in your advances, we’d really just like to talk. And Scruggs was one of the good ones, according to her former colleagues. “You rarely had to tell Kathy to go back and ask more questions,” former Journal-Constitution editor Mike King told the newspaper. “She spent a lot of time talking to cops, attorneys, prosecutors. When a crime took place, she would come back with the chatter. She was the ultimate reporter at working sources.”

There’s an argument to be made that journalists have spent too many decades removed from the public, not explaining how our work is done. But this movie is not trying to have that debate. Instead, they chose to shit on a dead woman who was good at her job.

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