No filmmaker knows quite how to push the collective buttons of the American media like Clint Eastwood. He does it purposefully, deliberately and even at almost-90 years of age, artfully. His choice to release a new biopic about Atlanta-bombing-hero-turned-suspect-turned-victim Richard Jewell at this particular moment is a blatant shot across the bow at a corporate media that sees itself as the flawless hero in a tale of them versus Donald Trump in a struggle for the American soul. The media has seemingly played right into the narrative trap Eastwood has set, by casting themselves as the real victim of a vicious smear machine in the story of Richard Jewell.
Eastwood seems to be reminding the Jim Acostas and Brian Stelters who proclaim daily they are not fake news, that in fact, fake news didn’t start with Donald Trump. Nor did the media going its way to target innocent people, such as the Covington Catholic schoolboys, who lack millions in the bank to defend themselves, unlike the New York Times or Washington Post. Richard Jewell isn’t just a biography, it’s a reminder about why the media are no longer trusted, and how they haven’t learned any lessons.
The excuse for going after Eastwood this time is the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the reporter for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution whose work targeted Jewell for the bombing. In the film, there’s a scene apparently (I say apparently because, much like Joker, a swath of journalists are jumping to conclusions on the content of the film rather than waiting to see it, of course) where the Scruggs character, played by Olivia Wilde, hints at offering sexual favors to an FBI source in return for details regarding Jewell and the case. The current editors of the AJC are even threatening Warner Brothers with a lawsuit citing defamation unless a disclaimer is added to the front title cards of the film: something that already exists, and has already existed in the credits of just about every single biographical film ever made. But that’s not good enough.
This plot device of course has Twitter journalists raging mad about something they describe as a ‘sexist trope’, which ‘doesn’t even happen at all’. Except it has happened, and as recently as two months ago. 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 tbh like what does Hollywood think journalism is???’ By the end of the night on Monday, ‘Eastwood’ was the top trend in the United States.
Susan Fowler apparently doesn’t read her own newspaper, which just last year reported on the three-year affair between (surprise), New York Times reporter Ali Watkins and James Wolfe, a senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a frequent source for her stories. In October of this year, an employee of the United States Defense Intelligence Agency was arrested for leaking classified material to two reporters, one of which he was involved in a romantic relationship with (this was allegedly CNBC reporter Amanda Macias.) It should be noted that both Watkins and Macias are still employed by the Times and CNBC. Not only does it appear the practice of sleeping with sources for information is more than a mere trope, it seems it’s something not punished by newsrooms.
That being said, there is nothing to suggest Kathy Scruggs slept with sources for stories (more on that in a moment). Nor is there the suggestion that all female reporters engage in such practice: the smart ones at least don’t. But to claim wholesale that the Zoe Barnes Tactical School of Political Blogging is nothing but a Hollywood myth is silly, and these deeply concerned journalists on Twitter know it.
A further dead giveaway at how confected the outrage around Richard Jewell: another film is being released on the exact same day, with fictional depictions of well-known real-life female journalists — and we are yet to hear a peep about accuracy from those it portrays.
Bombshell tells the story of Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly at Fox News during the downfall of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly over accusations of sexual misconduct in 2016. It stars both Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron in scary head-turning likeness roles, and several other Fox News personalities, past and current, are depicted as well. The film is almost certainly a brainstormed Hollywood work of mostly-fiction but is about Fox News and therefore the depictions of Kelly and Carlson are allowed without a hint of indignation. Two films, with somewhat-fictionalized portrayals of journalists…but Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and lionized an American war hero. Eastwood has since been branded a sexist, racist and a misogynist by our young media betters, who apparently lack the basic wherewithal to Google who won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2005, or at the very least to sit down and watch Changeling or Gran Torino.
Creative license is always taken in biographical films. This isn’t breaking news. But because this time the character at the heart of the controversy is a journalist, all stops must be taken to stop Eastwood from telling his story, from his point of view, and journalists must be made to be the real victims of the Jewell saga and the film. It’s a recipe for a guaranteed box office hit for Eastwood, just as Joker was.
I for one would like to believe this plot decision was made on purpose by Eastwood to give the AJC a hint of the medicine they attempted to give Richard Jewell, or that the Washington Post, New York Times and CNN gave Nicholas Sandmann.
The AJC was the only news outlet who refused to apologize for their coverage of Jewell, and instead of settling with him, waited him out until his death in 2007. When the Atlanta-Journal Constitution apologizes to the family of Richard Jewell, perhaps only then should Eastwood offer his own concession.