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Dec. 10, 2019, 8:45 p.m. EST

Atlanta newspaper criticizes Clint Eastwood’s reporter portrayal in Olympic bombing film ‘Richard Jewell’

Editor Kevin Riley says there’s no evidence the late Kathy Scruggs committed the breach of journalistic ethics implied in film

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By Associated Press


Associated Press/Warner Bros.
Director Clint Eastwood speaks with actor Paul Walter Hauser as they work during the filming of the movie "Richard Jewell." When a bomb exploded in a downtown Atlanta park midway through the 1996 Olympics, it set news reporters and law enforcement on a collision course that upended the life of a security guard, turning him from hero to villain overnight.

After a bomb exploded in a downtown Atlanta park midway through the 1996 Olympics, a security guard initially cast as a hero was recast as a villain virtually overnight. More than 20 years later, a movie to be released later this week, “Richard Jewell,” explores the roles played by law enforcement and the media in the guard’s ordeal.

Now the movie is drawing its own share of criticism.

Kevin Riley, the current editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is disputing the film’s depiction of the newspaper’s reporting and decision-making processes, especially the portrayal of reporter Kathy Scruggs, who the movie implies traded sex with an FBI agent for a tip on the story.

In an op-ed , Riley wrote that there’s no evidence Scruggs committed the breach of journalistic ethics implied in the movie and disputed implications that the newspaper’s reporting was sloppy.

In an interview with The Associated Press, director Clint Eastwood dismissed the criticism of his movie, which is based on a 1997 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner , by saying the paper likely is looking to “rationalize” its actions.

Jewell’s saga began on July 27, 1996, when he spotted an abandoned backpack during a concert in Centennial Olympic Park shortly before 1 a.m. and helped clear the area as federal agents determined it contained a bomb. The explosion about 20 minutes later killed 44-year-old Alice Hawthorne of Albany, Georgia, and injured 111 people, some of them seriously. A Turkish television cameraman died after suffering a heart attack while running to film the explosion’s aftermath.

Jewell, who likely helped prevent many more casualties, was initially hailed as a hero but a few days later was reported to be the focus of the FBI investigation, and the public quickly turned on him.

The park reopened within days, the games continued and Jewell was publicly cleared three months later. But he grappled with the fallout for the rest of his life, and Atlanta lived with the fear and unease of a bomber still at large.

A new book, “The Suspect,” attempts to bring clarity to the aftermath of the bombing. Its authors were in the thick of it: Kent Alexander was the U.S. attorney in Atlanta when the bombing happened and Kevin Salwen led The Wall Street Journal’s southeastern section.

In the frantic days after the bombing, Scruggs confirmed with law enforcement sources that the FBI was focusing on Jewell. The paper published that information three days after the explosion and scores of reporters descended on the apartment complex where Jewell lived with his mother, leaving them feeling as if they were under siege for months.

Jewell had made clear his dream of working in law enforcement and was endlessly mocked as an overzealous but bumbling wannabe cop.

It’s easy to say in hindsight that the investigation focused too heavily on Jewell, Alexander said. But some of Jewell’s actions and tips from people who knew him raised serious questions, the former prosecutor said. There was also the memory of a police officer at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles who was celebrated for disarming a bomb until it emerged that he’d planted it.

Doubts about Jewell’s guilt surfaced quickly, especially once it became clear he couldn’t have made a 911 call reporting the bomb from a pay phone blocks away.

In late October 1996, Alexander took the unusual step of sending a letter to one of Jewell’s attorneys saying Jewell was not a target of the investigation.

“His name had been so badly muddied and tarnished that it just seemed like we should do something, so I did,” Alexander said.

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