Clint Eastwood’s latest film Richard Jewell has sparked controversy after the director chose to include a storyline where real-life journalist Kathy Scruggs appears to trade sex for story tips. Olivia Wilde plays the critically-acclaimed, and deceased, journalist and has now spoken out on her feelings about Scrugg’s representation in the film.
The new movie focuses on security guard Richard Jewell, who discovered a backpack filled with bombs and alerted the police about its location during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Jewell was vilified and accused of placing the bomb himself, an accusation he was later cleared of by authorities. Scruggs was a writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time of the bombing and was the first journalist to write about Jewell as a possible suspect. In Eastwood’s new film, it’s suggested that Scruggs traded sexual favours with the FBI in order to obtain information about Jewell, a storyline that the late journalists’ friends and former co-workers vehemently deny (Scruggs died in 2001 at age 42).
While walking the red carpet during the 2019 Gotham Awards on December 2, Wilde commented on the controversy and said she had a great amount of respect for Scruggs. “She was also a woman working in the news in 1996; yeah, she had relationships with people she worked with. That’s pretty common in any industry. I don’t see the same thing happening to Jon Hamm’s character, who arguably does the exact same thing. I have nothing but respect for Kathy Scruggs, she’s no longer with us, so I feel a certain amount of responsibility to protect her legacy and tell people: ‘Back off. Don’t reduce her to this one thing.’”
Wilde’s comments did little to satisfy the film’s critics, who feel that Scrugg’s memory has been degraded by the film.
Weird defense from Olivia Wilde here. Sleeping with a source is a very basic violation of journalistic ethics. Pointing that out is in no way prudish or anti-feminist. pic.twitter.com/pTtQyhNAsh
— Rachel Morris (@RachelMorris) December 9, 2019
Dear @oliviawilde, you & Eastwood don’t get to make up a completely unethical relationship between female reporter and source and then call complaints about that sexism. That’s top top-shelf gaslighting https://t.co/2y6lIblaER
— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) December 9, 2019
Olivia Wilde is attempting to claim that criticizing this false story line is attacking women’s sexual liberation, which is frankly bullshit. This isn’t a fictional character. This is a real journalist having her autonomy removed post-mortem.
— Charlotte Clymer🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) December 10, 2019
I’m sorry, @oliviawilde, but recycling the tired trope that female reporters exchange sex for tips is not thumbing your nose at “feminism as pious sexlessness.” It’s grossly inaccurate and extremely harmful not just to female reporters, but any woman in the workplace. https://t.co/S4nj3O1XTW
— Maria Cramer (@NYTimesCramer) December 9, 2019
More recently, Wilde posted a series of tweets clarifying her comments. Calling Scruggs “bold, smart, and fearlessly undeterred by the challenge of being a female reporter in the south in the 1990s,” Wilde made her feelings on the controversy clear. “Contrary to a swath of recent headlines, I do not believe that Kathy “traded sex for tips”. Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had. That would be an appalling and misogynistic dismissal of the difficult work she did.”
My previous comments about female sexuality were lost in translation, so let me be clear: I do not believe sex-positivity and professionalism are mutually exclusive. Kathy Scruggs was a modern, independent woman whose personal life should not detract from her accomplishments.
— olivia wilde (@oliviawilde) December 12, 2019
Wilde tweeted that from her understanding, the sexual relationship between Scruggs and the FBI agent in the film was romantic and preexisting and not transactional. Wilde felt that she while she couldn’t speak for the creative decisions made by the filmmakers, she felt that it was important for her to share her personal take. Wilde ended her Twitter thread by adding “I realize my opinions about Kathy, based on my own independent research, may differ from others involved with the film, but it was important to me to my my own position clear.”
On December 9, the paper where Kathy worked issued a letter to Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray and Warner Brothers demanding that the film include an addendum stating that artistic liberties were taken with Kathy’s storyline. “The AJC’s reporter is reduced to a sex-trading object in the film,” reads the letter. “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. That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging.”
Jewell ended up suing many outlets who reported that he was a suspect in the bombing, including the AJC, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was the only newspaper that didn’t settle. According to Scrugg’s friend and co-worker Tony Kiss, that’s because of Kathy’s professionalism. “The court found that what Kathy reported was true at the time she reported it,” Kiss told the Independent Mail. “He (Jewell) was a suspect at the time she reported that he was.”