The Richard Jewell media debacle was a watershed moment in American journalism history. Although getting stories wrong or slanting them to reinforce reader biases is now an everyday practice, Jewell was the first victim of the journalism trend where being first is more important than being right. “Richard Jewell,” a movie directed by Clint Eastwood that opens tomorrow dramatizes how Jewell was wronged by the media, most notably the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Jewell was a security guard at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park who heroically saved lives after a bombing during the 1996 Olympics. For a brief moment, the FBI mistakenly believed Jewell planted the bomb; the AJC got wind of the story and rushed out a special edition fingering him as the lead bombing suspect. The rest of the media piled on, and Jewell’s life was forever ruined. He died from diabetes medical complications 11 years later. He was 44.
The movie couldn’t come at a worse time. The media’s public approval ratings are at a record low, and as much as reporters try to spin it or deceive their readers, this week’s Justice Department Inspector General report makes clear that most reporters were duped by FBI chief James Comey and his aides. Eastwood’s movie will educate the public how the media enables, rather than guards against, prosecutorial wrongdoing or excess.
Understandably, journalists want to discourage people from seeing Eastwood’s movie because it will heighten the public’s growing distrust and dislike of reporters. The media’s line of attack is that Eastwood’s movie portrays one of the AJC reporters who broke the Jewell story as having slept with her FBI source, a detail that has never been reported. Journalists are crying sexism because the reporter in question was a woman who died in 2001 and can’t defend herself.
It’s possible researchers for the film uncovered the detail during their own investigation. It’s also possible that the producers took some artistic liberties to make the film more compelling, as is common in Hollywood. Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is based on disputed source material, but that hasn’t stopped critics going gaga about the movie. Similarly, “The Big Short,” the acclaimed movie version of Michael Lewis’ bestseller about the misfits who profited from foreseeing the housing and mortgage bubble, also takes some factual liberties.
The AJC is trying to discredit Eastwood’s movie by demanding that Warner Bros. post a disclaimer saying the newspaper’s reporter never slept with her source. The newspaper retained bulldog attorney Marty Singer who sent one of his infamous legal missives to the studio saying it is “entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging” to suggest the AJC reporter slept with her source.
The idea that reporters sleep with their sources is not one the “Richard Jewell” producers pulled out of thin air. Moreover, the once questionable practice is no longer a firing offense.
The New York Times employs a reporter who slept with a source, and CNBC employs one as well. Even the Wall Street Journal, which adheres to higher standards of ethics and fairness, has dealt with the issue. Sleeping with sources is such a time-honored journalism practice the defunct website Gawker in 2009 published a primer on the conflicted romantic exploits of New York Times reporters. Ironically, Dee Dee Myers, Warner Bros.’ head of worldwide PR and public affairs and Bill Clinton’s former press secretary, is married to Todd Purdum, the Times’ former White House correspondent.
It’s noteworthy the AJC hired Singer, who is the attorney of choice for wayward celebrities when reporters get wind of their embarrassing antics and CEOs who send dick pics. Any Hollywood reporter worth their salt has received one of Singer’s emails or letters warning them of the legal hell that awaits them if stories they are pursuing are published. It’s telling the AJC is using an attorney best known for intimidating reporters and getting their stories killed. Funny how the media doesn’t hide behind the First Amendment when their reputation is on the line.
Singer, who in 2017 reportedly was charging $950 an hour, also is a notable choice given the media’s embracement and promotion of the #MeToo movement. I’m just going to link to the L.A. Times’ lawyered story on this issue given that the newspaper received multiple threatening notices from Singer before publishing it.
The AJC’s legal challenge to Eastwood’s movie is consistent with the publication’s handling of the fallout from its Jewell reporting. Unlike other publications, it refused to legally settle with Jewell despite its coverage being the most damaging to him. It’s an arrogance pervasive throughout the corporate media.
Lawyers for MSNBC are defending a defamation lawsuit filed against the network and its anchor Rachel Maddow by arguing that Maddow’s on-air comments aren’t meant to be taken “literally.” NPR hasn’t responded to an Oct. 2 letter from Indiana Congressman Jim Banks requesting a retraction of a report saying he lied during an interview, despite his claim the allegation is false. NPR is government-funded, so a Congressman is especially entitled to a response.
Fortunately, there are still some legacy journalists remaining willing to admit mistakes. One of them is Henry Schuster, who was an investigative producer for CNN during the Olympics bombing and regrets his role in ruining Jewell’s life. “Someone else’s guilty plea and several court settlements didn’t give Jewell his good name back,” the award-winning producer reflected in a Washington Post op-ed. “Maybe the film finally will.”
It speaks volumes about the myriad journalists looking to discredit Eastwood’s film and encouraging readers to boycott it. I hope it’s a blockbuster and serves as a wakeup call to the dwindling few who still take “literally” everything they read or hear in the media.