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Clint Eastwood’s much buzzed-about film Richard Jewell — based on the life of the man falsely accused of the bombing during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics — opens Friday, but it’s already received plenty of criticism for its portrayal of real-life reporter Kathy Scruggs.
Scruggs, played in the film by Olivia Wilde, was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story that Jewell, a security guard, was under investigation by the FBI as the lead suspect in the bombing. Jewell was later exonerated and the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, was convicted and is serving a life sentence.
In the film, Scruggs apparently offers to have sex with an FBI source (played by Jon Hamm) in exchange for information. Problem is, there’s no evidence to suggest the real-life Kathy Scruggs did that.
Scruggs, who died in 2001, can’t defend herself — so her newspaper is. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, through its legal team, sent a letter to Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray, and Warner Bros., demanding a disclaimer be added to the movie, beyond the boilerplate "the film is based on actual historical events" included at the end of the film.
Fictionalized versions of true-crime events take artistic liberties all the time, but the "creative licence" argument might hold more water if this was, in any way, a creative choice and not an extremely tedious one.
Here, again, a female journalist has been reduced to one of the laziest movie tropes: that lady reporters are ambitious, ethically bankrupt women that can only get hot scoops by using their hot bods. Anything for a story, right?
We’ve seen this trope many times, in many places — including in prestige, critically acclaimed television series such as Netflix’s House of Cards (Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara) and HBO’s Sharp Objects (Camille Preaker, played by Amy Adams).
In 2005’s Thank You For Smoking, Katie Holmes plays Heather Holloway, a reporter who has a fling with a tobacco spokesman and publishes their pillow talk as an exposé — and then is demoted to "weather girl" (tropes on tropes!) In 2015’s Trainwreck, Amy Schumer plays a magazine writer who ends up sleeping with her profile subject. There’s also Sally Field in 1981’s Absence of Mallice, Maggie Gyllenhaal in 2009’s Crazy Heart, Rosario Dawson in 2014’s Top Five, to name but a handful.
"We don’t need movies lionizing us as saints. But would it kill Hollywood to give us one grown-up Rory Gilmore?" New York magazine’s Marin Cogan lamented back in 2015.
Well, Netflix did give us a grown-up Rory Gilmore in 2016 with Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, and what did she do? She slept with a source.
Of course, these are all fictional characters. Kathy Scruggs is not a fictional character.
"Such a portrayal makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned offering sexual gratification to sources in exchange for stories," the newspaper’s letter reads.
"That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging."
As much as I relish being told to relax because it’s just a movie, depictions of journalists matter — especially now, when contempt for the media is rampant.
You’d think, from movies, that sleeping with sources was ubiquitous, as much a part of the job as drinking too much coffee and cringing over the sound of your own voice on tape. It’s not. And when a film is based on true source material, the matter gets even trickier: viewers already have to parse what’s real and what’s not.
I’m not the first person — this week, even — to point out how this journalism trope is sexist and damaging for real-life female reporters, who face everything from propositions from sources who have seen one too many of these kinds of movies to undue suspicion that they must have slept their way to a big story or a plum newsroom role. How else could they have gotten where they did?
And real women already face sexism within this profession. Female television journalists often receive unsolicited feedback on their haircuts or lipstick choices or glasses or baby bumps; a reader once told me that the column photo in which I’m smiling is "much better."
Female journalists who work in radio or podcasts are criticized for the way their voices sound.
Female entertainment journalists are often regarded as little more than groupies with notebooks. Positively review a man’s work? You must have a crush. Negatively review a woman’s? You must be jealous.
Women are harassed and assaulted for trying to do their jobs, whether its getting your butt slapped live on air by a youth minister while trying to cover a marathon (as what happened to American reporter Alex Bozarjian just last week) or being told to "stick to covering home and garden."
For too many years, mastheads and corner offices at major publications were dominated by men, as were the arenas of news and political reporting.
As the #MeToo movement made patently clear, too many women were forced to accept sexual harassment and assault as part of the job.
I’m not the first person ‐ this week, even ‐ to point out how this journalism trope is sexist and damaging for real–life female reporters, who face everything from propositions from sources who have seen one too many of these kinds of movies to undue suspicion that they must have slept their way to a big story or a plum newsroom role.
Besides, the Richard Jewell case is already plenty interesting without the addition of the (deeply uninteresting) Sexy Lady Reporter. And it is possible to make a movie about real-life journalism without it.
Take Spotlight, the 2015 film about the Boston Globe’s award-winning investigative team that uncovered systemic sexual abuse of children at the hands of Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area.
The team’s lone woman (of course), Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams, wasn’t made to sleep with anyone in the fictionalized account. She just... did her job. Imagine.
That film took home the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.