Ms. Geek Speaks: No Time for Villains or the Tragedy of Richard Jewell and Kathy Scruggs

No Time for Villains or the Tragedy of Richard Jewell and Kathy Scruggs

Who doesn’t love a good villain? Villains are the staple of comic books and fairytales although lately efforts have been made to understand the psyche of villains as in the new movie, “Joker” or the continuing saga of “Maleficent.” This likely won’t work with some real villains such as Hitler who in US discussions has, with Nazism, because a logical fallacy (argument ad Hitlerum or ad Nazium), but in incidents like the ones portrayed  in “Unbelievable” and “Richard Jewell,” what the audience doesn’t need is a villain.

The biographical drama “Richard Jewell” is based on a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner (“American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell”) and oddly, a new book that was published the same month that “Richard Jewell” made its world premiere, “Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle,” by Kent Salwen and Kent Alexander. Salwen was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal. Kent Alexander is a former US Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. He was serving in that capacity during the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Brenner is an investigative journalist who has written The New Yorker and the Boston Herald. She has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“Unbelievable” is an American drama web television miniseries based on the 2015 new article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong which was originally published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project. Miller is an investigative reporter and war correspondent. Ken Armstrong is a senior reporter for ProPublica and has written for the Chicago Tribune. Miller and Armstrong won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2016 for the article. Armstrong was previously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting (with Michael J. Berens) in 2012.

The Atlanta Olympics and the 24/7 News Cycle

CNN founded on 1 June 1980, was the first 24-hour cable news channel.  Based in Atlanta, CNN missed the Lake Placid Olympics (13-24 February 1980), but was ready for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. That was the Olympics where Officer James W. Pearson seemingly disarmed a bomb meant for the Turkish Olympic athletes, but later confessed to planting the device. Fox News was founded on 7 October 1996. MSNBC, the offspring of a partnership between NBC News and Microsoft, began in 15 June 1996. Fox missed the Atlanta Olympics, but not MSNBC.

The 24/7 news cycle is augmented by the rise of the Internet. America Online (AOL) began in 1991 and Earthlink was founded in 1994 and began offering dial-up service in 98 cities in 1994. At the time Earthlink was based in Pasadena (and would later merge with the Atlanta-based MindSpring). MindSpring had begun taking paying customers in 1994. The news and gossip aggregation website, the Drudge Report was launched in 1995 and soon followed by others.

The Atlanta Olympics was the first US Olympics that would come under the full effects of the 24-hour cable and internet news cycle. The so-called CNN effect of global mass media was further enhanced by the entrenchment of a global cadres of journalists in Atlanta to cover the Olympics.

Forensics  and Profiling 

The Atlanta Olympics were also before the advent of general familiarity with forensics. “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” would premiere until 6 October 2000 and the CSI effect would creep the US popular culture.

“Quincy, M.E.,” had already ended, running from 1976-1983. “Crossing Jordan” wouldn’t begin until 2001 (ending in 2007). The crime procedural dramedy, “Bones,” wouldn’t premiere until 2005. The crime procedural that bases its investigations on profiling, “Criminal Minds,” would start the same year, 2005.

Profiling had only begun in the late 1970s according to Netflix’s “Mindhunters,” which shows the stumbling blocks as what would become the Behavioral Science Unit forms. The first season covers the 1977 to 1980. The second season covers 1980 to 1981. In the background of both seasons is the presence of Dennis Rader, the BTK Strangler. He wouldn’t be caught until 2005, but he serves as a counterpoint to the mistaken notions of the main characters Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). In Season 2, Tench expresses mistaken assumptions about BTK–that such a man can’t be holding down a steady job, have his own family or attend church.  Rader was married with two kids and a church leader.

The profiling of bombers was more problematic. In this foray into profiling, James A. Brussel was part showman, part psychiatrist. He may have pioneered the science of profiling with a spectacular start when he helped with the Mad Bomber.  The Mad Bomber “hid 33 bombs in public spaces in New York City,” beginning in 1940. When the newspapers published the profile summary, the police were “inundated with false leads,” but eventually they did find George Metesky through personnel files. Metesky was a former employee of Con Edison and it was a Con Edison clerk Alice Kelly who identified the files based on similar wording to published Mad Bomber writings.

If you recall, it was linguistic idiosyncrasies that helped identified another infamous bomber.  Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” whose bombs killed three people and injured 23 between 1978 and 1995, was identified when his brother, David, recognized his writing style from the 35,000-word Unabomber manifesto. Kaczynski was arrested on 3 April 1996.  The same year and only a few months before Eric Rudolph set off the bomb in Olympic Park.

As portrayed in “Criminal Minds,” profiling is a team effort. In pursuit of the Austin bomber, retired FBI agent Mary Ellen O’Toole told NPR in reference to the case, “One of the major components, foundations of an FBI profiler, is that you have multiple people who are consulting on the case. That’s what they have down in Austin … because one person may see something that another profiler may not.”

Either way, in 1996, profiling had yet to consider data from major decades long cases of people who had successfully eluded capture  (i.e. BTK or the Unabomber) and this is troubling when one considers the authority given the initial FBI profile that Richard Jewell supposedly fit.

The Sexualized Female Trope

The film “Richard Jewell” and its portrayal of a real female journalist, Kathy Scruggs, depends upon a trope that had already become a point of contention just last year and in the wake of #MeToo seems remarkably tone deaf.  In “The Atlantic,” Sophie Gilbert writes about “Sharp Objects,” whose character Camille is sent to investigate a series of murders, but “she ignores multiple potential sources. She’s permanently inebriated. She breaks ethical boundaries and lies to her editor about them. She rarely documents any of her interviews.” If that wasn’t bad enough, “Camille slept with someone who’s 18 years old, a murder suspect, and one of her primary sources.” Gilbert continues, “Hollywood is stuck on the idea that female journalists are having sexual relationships with their bosses, their sources, or both.” As examples, she cites Zoe Barnes in “House of Cards,” Heather Holloway in “Thank You for Smoking” and, even the grown-up Rory Gilmore, who “slept with a source, in this case someone dressed as a Wookiee at a Star Wars convention.”

Deanna Pan, writing for the Boston Globe, adds a few more examples and calls this a “lazy cliché.” She also quotes Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, who notes that “the ubiquity of these sexist and sexualized stereotypes about women in media has real consequences for female reporters, who regularly face gender-based harassment and abuse while doing their jobs.”

If timing is everything, then the film “Richard Jewell” has notably bad timing. It comes out at about the same time as “Bombshell.” “Richard Jewell” had its world premiere on 20 November 2019 at AFI Fest but was released in the US on 13 December 2019.  “Bombshell” was also released on 13 December 2019 and is about female personnel at Fox News and their allegations of sexual harassment against founder Roger Ailes.

During an AFI Fest adjacent panel discussion,  Clint Eastwood emphasized that his reason behind taking on “Richard Jewell” was a pursuit of the truth, that is not a principle that he or the writer Billy Ray or even actress Olivia Wilde applied to Scruggs.

A Question of Craft

On the Monday before the “Richard Jewell” world premiere at AFI Fest, a special AFI Fest breakfast panel discussion, “Framing Female Stories/Impact of ‘Unbelievable’ ” looked at the craft of writing. Susannah Grant and executive producer Sarah Timberman discussed their decisions on the Netflix miniseries as AFI alumna Tessa Black, the first director of the Nancy Malone Women’s Initiatives, moderated. “Unbelievable” is a Netflix miniseries about a woman who was raped, reported it, but was later charged and convicted of false report. Subsequent rapes by the same perpetrator ultimately revealed that the woman had been telling the truth.

Timberman said that Grant “writes with compassion for characters,” and while there were “easy targets in this story” who would have been “easy to vilify” that wasn’t what they wanted. “The cops who got it wrong.” Timber said, “It would have been really easy to make them the bad guys. The lead detective got it really wrong” and yet he is portrayed as a “fundamentally decent human being who was poorly trained” and “who made terrible mistakes with devastating repercussions.”

Grant explained that “from the source material this detective,” the one that the character is based on said, that “the day he discovered Marie had not been lying was the worst day of his life.”  In the end, “that’s so much more interesting than someone who just doesn’t care about the person” and it’s “so much more interesting to watch.” Grant said that writing a good script is “about basic character and understanding.”

The source material for “Unbelievable” was written by two men. The published source material for “Richard Jewell” is a woman. Reading that article one doesn’t get the feeling that Scruggs was ethically challenged. More recent articles have defended Scruggs. Her roommate Penny Furr told Variety that Scruggs “didn’t understand how the police could have gotten it wrong. But what she printed was true. Jewell was a suspect. She never said he did it or not. She never said he was guilty.”

Kathy Scruggs’ older brother Lewis Scruggs Jr. told Variety, “Any insinuation that she would trade sex for scoops is just wrong and I pity the poor fool who would suggest that. She had big hair, wore short skirts, smoked cigarettes, and cussed like a sailor. She was no saint, but she always told the truth. I’m glad she didn’t live to see her good work taken down the wrong road.”

Kathy Scruggs and Richard Jewell spent their final years entwined in a legal battle. Jewell died in 2007 at 43. Scruggs had already died at 42 in 2001 from a drug overdose. Jewell’s case against the Atlanta Journal Constitution was lost on appeal. In 2011, the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded:

Richard Jewell is unquestionably a tragic figure. Here is a man whose valor and quick thinking catapulted him from obscurity to beloved national hero almost instantaneously, who then saw those universal accolades vanish in the blink of an eye. All of a sudden, Jewell was the mistaken villain, forced to endure unfathomable media and law-enforcement scrutiny, as well as rampant media speculation that he may have committed the very crime he had so bravely attempted to thwart. And while Jewell’s good name was eventually cleared, he and his family suffered tremendously as a result of this ordeal. For that, we have the greatest sympathy.

Yet the court found:

Rather, a reasonable reader would have understood that version of the August 1 article to be a report on the information gathered during the very early stages of an ongoing investigation. And, as previously noted, the record supports the accuracy of the report at the time it was published.

Had director Clint Eastwood, writer Billy Ray and even actress Olivia Wilde approached Kathy Scruggs with compassion and in depth research, instead of falling back on a lazy cliché, “Richard Jewell” might have been a tale of two different tragedies and generated a discussion about the 24/7 news cycle, the CNN effect and what a reasonable reader should do and the laws that could have been enacted to protect limited purpose public figures from the growing social media lynch mobs.

Paul Walter Hauser’s performance as Richard Jewell is affecting and gives one pause to wonder that annoying habits or personality traits may become the source of salvation in the right situation. Hauser’s Jewell is an imperfect hero, deviating greatly from our notions of how a hero looks and acts. In contrast, Jon Hamm as the fictionalized FBI agent Tom Shaw is the more stereotypically heroic figure, one that ultimately betrays the real hero, but Tom Shaw and his family and friends don’t suffer the consequences because Shaw is not a real person. The villainy is reserved for Scruggs and Scruggs alone to bear.

The CNN Effect: Journalists and Journalism

According to Investopedia, the CNN Effect is  “a theory that 24-hour news networks, such as CNN, influence the general political and economic climate. Because media outlets provide ongoing coverage of a particular event or subject matter, the attention of viewers is narrowly focused for potentially prolonged periods of time.”

With the rise of real-time news media and the Internet, the traditional hierarchy ladder of news reliability has been thrown to the ground. Radio was and still can function as real time news, but because of its immediacy, it was also the least accurate and less likely to be written down and thus falling under the slander as opposed liable laws. Television then followed. Newspapers once had two editions–morning and evening. Daily news was deadline driven and the most reliable news before the deadline. Radio, television and newspapers could offer news magazines–more deeply investigated and verified reports. Long form journalism in magazines looked to draw sources together and propose a more complex and factual look at events.

With the 24/7 news cycle, most media–radio, newspaper and magazines have an online form. News can be added at any time. The Internet has made the news agencies more equal–a ladder fallen down sideways, and yet the drive to be first, to get the scoop remains the same. The result is the margin for error increases across the board.

In his 2005 study, “The CNN Effect: The Search for a Communication Theory of International Relations,” Eytan Gilboa noted “that global television networks, such as CNN and BBC Worid, have become a decisive actor in determining policies and outcomes of significant events” and he concluded that “we don’t know enough about how different audiences living in different cultural, economic, and political environments interpret a message that is broadcast globally by the global networks.”

The CNN Effect has affected the work of editors and journalists.

Global networks increasingly use overseas video from sources they know very little about; editors push reporters to broad- cast pictures even if they don’t have all the facts and may not be familiar with the context of events; and joumalists confuse reporting and personal opinions by making instant judgments and openly supporting a side to a conflict.

Another problem is that the Internet and social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), have increasingly become the source of real time news. Investopedia notes:

The CNN effect is a specific instance of a media effect and the cable news channel it is named for has since been eclipsed by the Internet and social media as the key source for real-time information.

While Scruggs wasn’t found at fault by the Georgia courts. Richard Jewell sued NBC and the New York Post, settling out of court. The AJC stuck it out and was vindicated, Scruggs was vindicated, but the Richard Jewell case should give both journalists and readers pause for what it implies today. The Georgia court considered what a reasonable reader would conclude, but with the Internet and social media, we’ve seen the rise of the unreasonable reader.

The Rise of the Unreasonable Reader

The unreasonable reader might have once been alone or at least felt alone, but the Internet has given them a voice, a means of finding a group and even organizing. Consider Pizzagate, when a 28-year-old father of two from Salisbury, NC arrived at the Comet Ping Pong restaurant trying to free children from a sex slave ring run by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Once trolls were only something that hid under bridges or inhabited myths and legends, but now they are everywhere. Merriam-Webster defines a troll as “a person who intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content.” There is a lot of disruptive content being posted online, some of it by news websites that may even at times break news. The Drudge Report began as a weekly subscription email in 1995, but is now a website. It broke the Monica Lewinsky story, but the original owner Matt Drudge characterized himself as a purveyor of gossip. The Drudge Report was one of the website who promoted the Pizzagate story.

The late Andrew Breitbart (1969-2012) revealed the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, but also played a central role in the 2010 firing of Shirley Sherrod, Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture,  as a result of an edited video posted on his website. The video clips made Sherrod, who is black, sound racist toward a particular white farmer. picked up the story as did, among others, the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s website. The story was already being spread by blogs.  The AJC reported Sherrod stating the  comments were “misconstrued” after a phone interview. CNN and AJC would later get quotes that would support Sherrod’s version from the farmer in question who considered Sherrod a friend for life. Sherrod would later sue Andrew Breitbart for defamation and false light, settling out of court after his death.

In today’s world where the CNN Effect is driven by social media, where Breibart’s continuing legacy of Breibart News, the questions that Richard Jewell’s experience could have addressed include not only the responsibility of journalists and how journalism needs to change in the wake of a 24/7 news cycle, but also the role of the readers. The Netflix miniseries “Don’t F**k with Cats” underlines the need for listen for the reasonable voices and to fight against the dark emotions of anger and outrage. Action can be taken, but will those actions be reasonable?

In the current climate of bloggers and purveyors of rumors and gossip, no doubt in a similar situation of Richard Jewell, Jewell’s problematic employment history would have come under scrutiny. One can go from hero to zero quickly.  Increasingly viral news thrusts people into the spotlight, either by their own unintentional actions such as posting on social media or becoming the subject of a social media post. Journalists may then attempt to put such stories in context.

Both “Richard Jewell” and “Unbelievable” came to the screen with the help of journalists at a time when journalists have been plagued with cries of “fake news” and been labeled “the enemy of the people.” Under our current White House administration, belittling and confrontational insults have become the presidential style.  This is a classic us-against-them scenario, but the world is not strictly black and white. The film “Richard Jewell” fits into this mind set–the audience needs a villain and Scruggs becomes the unrepentant villainess. Yet this is no time for villains.

As “Unbelievable” suggests, sometimes good people with good intentions make mistakes. They suffer; they might change. While we must confront problems and recognize them in order to resolve them, that doesn’t mean we have to be confrontational. Resolving problems doesn’t mean we have to divide people into heroes versus villains, black hats versus white hats. Calm, compassionate, respectful and rational discussions can also resolve differences.  That concept was present in another biographical drama, Netflix’s “The Two Popes,”  and, on a smaller scale, in an award-winning documentary, “I Am Not Alone.”

The Two Popes,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, screened on November 18 at AFI Fest and is mostly a series of conversations between Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the future Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins). Bergoglio represents change. He was the first Jesuit priest, the first New World priest and the first non-European since the West Asian Gregory III from the 8th Century to become pope.

“I Am Not Alone” was given the AFI Fest Audience Award and looks at how one man with a backpack walked across Armenia in 2018 and in 40 days inspired people to join together for a Velvet Revolution. The man, Nikol Pashinyan, was a journalist and editor, and he led protests that eventually led to the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan during his third term as prime minister.

If the film “Richard Jewell,” had approached both Jewell and Scruggs with equal scrutiny and compassion, we might have been led to a discussion about problems with profiling, reasonable and unreasonable readers and the changing nature of both journalists and readers. With the CNN Effect now driven by social media, the responsibility of reasonability falls upon both journalists and readers. One must read carefully and closely and consider their sources. Everyone on social media becomes a disseminator of news. And at a time of such heightened divisiveness, this is no time for villains, but a time for compassionate and respectful conversations.

Ballad of Kathy Scruggs

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