Richard Jewell

An early scene in Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell shows Watson Bryant – who would be approached by Jewell to be his attorney several years later, as he’s the only one he knew – asking Richard if he knew the meaning of “quid pro quo.” Filmed in Atlanta over the past summer, before the term became the initial angle of Adam Schiff’s and the House Democrats’ impeachment campaign against President Trump (prior to being replaced with bribery, then extortion, then treason, then obstruction and abuse of power and being too tall, as the charges continued to lose air and turn back on the accusers), it’s an unintentionally funny moment in a film that, somewhat surprisingly, delivers plenty of intentional ones. Even the decidedly bumpkinish aspiring cop Jewell, then a clerk at the Small Business Association, knew what the term meant.

If you rely on the major American media outlets for your sole news source, it’s likely you’ve never seen the video of Joe Biden, during a Council on Foreign Relations discussion in January 2018, bragging about threatening to withhold a billion dollars in military aid to Ukraine while he was Vice President unless a certain prosecutor was fired – a prosecutor who was investigating the oligarch that owned a Ukrainian oil and natural gas company, Burisma, that had put Joe Biden’s son Hunter on its board of directors for upwards of $50,000/month, even though the younger Biden had no experience whatsoever in natural gas, oil or Ukrainian business. All he had was a dad who was vice president of the United States.

On the off chance you have seen the video, you’ve undoubtedly been told over and over that what you saw and heard wasn’t what you saw and heard, and rather that Donald Trump pressing current Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to look into the circumstances surrounding Burisma, the Bidens and the prosecutor’s dismissal is a high crime worthy of impeachment, and that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine unless the investigation took place. In the end, there was no “quid pro quo,” no investigation, and Ukraine got its aid from the Trump administration.

Coincidentally, there’s also been little serious investigation from any of the big American media into horndog Hunter’s highly questionable dealings in both Ukraine and China, or his daddy’s influence on matters in those countries during his term as VP. Instead we are repeatedly told, as in this quote from the New York Times, dated Sept. 22, 2019, that “No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the [Ukrainian] prosecutor’s dismissal.” Nothing to see here. Move along.

Oh, to return to the summer of 1996, when the mainstream American media came across as merely willfully irresponsible instead of outright, unrepentantly, arrogantly dishonest.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been in a mad scramble over the weeks leading up to the release of Richard Jewell, attempting to deflect, spin, save face and circle the wagons in light of the film’s unflattering portrayal of the newspaper – in particular its reporter Kathy Scruggs – and the media in general. Played by Olivia Wilde, Scruggs is the AJC police reporter who broke the story that Jewell – who, less than three days earlier, had been celebrated as a hero after he discovered a backpack containing a pipe bomb in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park and helped clear people away from the area before it detonated during a concert there as part of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games – was considered by the FBI to be its prime suspect in the bombing. The film makes her out to be brash, tenacious, wild and sexually loose, and in a scene set in a bar she offers the lead FBI agent investigating the incident (played Jon Hamm) sexual favors in exchange for the name of their suspect.

“The AJC’s reporter is reduced to a sex-trading object in the film,” states a letter from Hollywood law firm Lavely & Singer, sent to Eastwood and Warner Bros. on behalf of the AJC and Cox Enterprises, further demanding a public statement from the filmmakers that the characterization is not factual. It goes on to say “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.”

No it doesn’t. Seriously, nowhere in the film is it implied that “the AJC sexually exploited its staff,” in fact it’s never inferred that any of Scruggs’ co-workers or supervisors were even aware of any such activity, let alone facilitated or condoned it. Nor does it reduce Scruggs to simply “a sex-trading object.”

I have no doubt that Kathy Scruggs – who died in 2001 at age 42 from an overdose of prescription pain pills, after suffering from Crohn’s disease and chronic back pain, among other things – was a top-notch crime reporter. The film, which presents her as both reckless and determined, doesn’t cast skepticism on her abilities in the newsroom. In actuality, she never revealed the identity of her Jewell tipster. Did she ever swap twat for intel on that or any story she was pursuing? I did not know her, and I certainly cannot say. For its part, Warner Bros. has issued a statement saying that “the film is based on a wide range of highly credible source material.” In one of the AJC’s preemptive strikes against Richard Jewell, in an article titled “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs” (a play on the title of a Vanity Fair article on which much of Richard Jewell is based) writer Jennifer Brett compiles a batch of testimonials about Scruggs from friends and former co-workers that paints a mixed picture. Most everyone praises her skills and vivacious personality, while there are also allusions to a wilder, more troubling side: drinking, smoking, drugs, and an incident wherein police once found a defiant Scruggs “drunk, naked and sitting in the driver’s seat” of a cab outside a Buckhead hotel at 3 a.m. Hey, sounds like someone I’d like to party with! Meanwhile, in Marie Brenner’s aforementioned Vanity Fair article, Manuel’s Tavern regular Scruggs was described by a former staff member (presumably AJC, but it doesn’t specify) as “a police groupie.” Now, I know what a groupie is in its rock ‘n’ roll connotation, and it ain’t exactly pure as the driven snow. That article was published in February 1997, while all parties involved were still alive and working, and Lavely & Singer’s stern letter to Eastwood and Warner Bros. points out that Brenner’s story did not mischaracterize Scruggs.

Kathy Scruggs may not have been a floozy, but an argument could be made that circumstantial evidence might lead a brother to surmise that she fit the profile of one. “Richard Jewell,” Scruggs and/or co-author Ron Martz wrote in the first AJC article naming the AT&T Pavilion security guard as the FBI’s suspect, “fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police ‘wanna-be’ who seeks to become a hero.”

The paper’s coverage over the ensuing days and weeks, along with that of many other media outlets, would dig into and dissect Jewell’s past and present, emphasizing anything that mocked or cast doubt on the man “once believed to be a hero.” For his part, Jewell gave them plenty to work with. He was in his early thirties, overweight and living with his mom. He spoke with a backwoods Southern drawl. He was prone to exaggerating his particular position as a law enforcer, and rubbed many the wrong way. Working as a security officer in 1990, he was arrested for impersonating a cop during an incident at the apartment complex where he lived. As a deputy sheriff in Habersham County, he crashed his police cruiser in 1995 while chasing a suspicious vehicle; the sheriff doubted Jewell’s account of the accident and demoted him. For various reasons, Jewell was asked to resign from his subsequent job working security at Piedmont College.

The press took such blemishes and hammered them home with further suppositions, hearsay, stray opinions and fantasy, yet no evidence whatsoever that Jewell planted the bomb or had anything to do with it. The AJC claimed Jewell had approached them seeking publicity in the days after the bombing, which he hadn’t. One column by the AJC’s Dave Kindred was titled “A Hero Becomes a Fool,” with Kindred comparing Jewell’s case to that of Wayne Williams. Another AJC story came with the headline, “A Bad Man to Cross on His Beat,” quoting a student at Piedmont College calling Jewell’s demeanor “very macho,” “very belligerent.” Other stories referred to him as a gun buff (he was, and what’s wrong with that?) and “zealot.” CNN had to retract a report saying Jewell was seen with a homemade bomb at his home. On NBC, Tom Brokaw stated that “the speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case. They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well.” Many reports on Jewell failed to mention that he had not been charged with anything. As always, the mockery made its way to the late-night talk shows. Jay Leno joked that “Una-doofus” Jewell bore “a scary resemblance to the guy who whacked Nancy Kerrigan.” Which is actually kinda funny in retrospect, since Paul Walter Hauser, who portrays Jewell in Eastwood’s film, played Shawn Eckardt – who with Jeff Gillooly hired the guy who whacked Kerrigan’s thigh with a police baton – in 2017’s I, Tonya. It should be emphasized that Hauser is absolutely superb in his portrayal of Jewell in Eastwood’s film, as is Kathy Bates as Richard’s mother, Bobi Jewell.

But, it’s just truly rich that the AJC – in particular current editor-in-chief Kevin Riley – is getting so bent out of shape about a movie’s possible misrepresentation of one of its onetime employees after the ways the paper misrepresented Richard Jewell. But let’s be honest: if it hadn’t been the AJC that first ran with the Jewell story, CNN or ABC or the New York Times or Channel 5 any other major or minor media outlet would have undoubtedly done it. The rush to be first with “breaking news” leads to hasty decisions, and like any of them, the AJC didn’t want to be scooped by a competing media outlet, certainly not a newspaper from another city.

And the gist of the initial AJC report, if not some aspects of the ensuing media frenzy, was factually correct. The FBI was targeting Jewell as its primary suspect, albeit wrongly. He was easy prey, a nobody. The fact that the feds exploited Jewell’s trust of and respect for law enforcement and completely upended his and his mom’s life with no hard evidence backing up their suspicions is alarming enough, but the real crime of the entire affair is that anyone from the FBI leaked or floated it to the press. I mean, that better’ve been the best pussy on the planet. If, in fact, any pussy was gotten. Which I’m not saying happened, Mr. Riley. At all. What I am saying is, for however much shit the media flung at Richard Jewell, the FBI heaped on him with a fleet of bulldozers.

So, the bad guys in Richard Jewell, as they were in the man’s life, are two once traditionally respected entities – the FBI and the press – that are generally accustomed to being portrayed as good guys, heroes. And so this irks them. But it’s now 23 years after the events dramatized in the film, and where do things stand? Have the media and the feds earned our trust and respect back?

If anything, their reps are far worse. At least it’s easier now to debunk the lies, even if they’re entrenched deeper than we ever knew. Take the FBI. The recently released report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz reveals a rash of misconduct within the bureau during the Obama administration in order to spy on then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign under the guise of alleged Russian-Trump collusion in the 2016 election, a charge which was debunked by special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation and report released in April. The IG report details 17 “serious factual errors and omissions” made by FBI agents in the process of securing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants for the spy job; the use of that ridiculous illegitimate dossier – written by former British spy Christopher Steele and funded by the Democrat party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign – to justify the warrant applications; the intentional doctoring of an email by an FBI lawyer to make former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page appear to be a Russian agent and more. Add to all of that ongoing bald-faced denials of reality by then-FBI director James Comey, and you’ve got a politically motivated disgrace where a trusted foundation once stood.

As for the mass media, they’ve become little more than a clown show. “Breaking news” is constant. With the advent of social media, “trial by media” is immediate. The leftist political bias of the overwhelming majority of cable/network news outlets and newspapers is no longer shrouded by a thin claim of objectivity, but blatantly displayed. And deception – whether by omission of key facts, or spin, or direct propaganda – is commonplace.

How many times over the past three years have you been breathlessly told by the media that Donald Trump colluded with Putin/Russia to steal the election? How many times have you been breathlessly assured that the latest “bombshell” would be the one to take the Orange Man out? How many times were you breathlessly informed that all of those women that appeared out of nowhere to derail Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment had credible testimony, when they clearly didn’t? Remember being told those teenage kids from Covington Catholic High School were Nazi MAGA bullies abusing Indians and veterans and poor Black Hebrew Israelites? Remember how many media outlets went along with the Jussie Smollett hoax while any rational human being could recognize it as bullshit from the get-go? On Thanksgiving, while Trump was making a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Newsweek ran a completely made-up story with the headline, “How Is Trump Spending Thanksgiving? Tweeting, Golfing and More.” In October ABC aired footage from a Kentucky gun range and claimed it was a Turkish attack on Syria. In June 2017 CNN aired a story stating that former Trump adviser Anthony Scaramucci was under investigation by Congress for alleged ties to Russia; he was not. NBC doctored the 911 call from George Zimmerman to make him sound racist when the network aired it. The list goes on.

It’s clear that they’re not interested in telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. If you are still putting your trust in the mainstream American media, you must enjoy being an easily led dupe. It takes effort to get to the truth during a constant barrage of lies, but if you really want to get there, it can be done to a reasonable extent. Or, you could just spark up the bong and watch another seven hours of Netflix.

Oh yeah… the movie. Richard Jewell. Is it good? Did I like it? Isn’t there supposed to be a freakin’ movie review here somewhere?

Yeah, it’s great. The performances are stellar, and I should single out Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, in addition to Hauser and Bates, for special appreciation. As a native Atlantan who lived here during that time, and watched the whole spectacle unfold that night on a little TV downstairs at the Star Bar, hoping to somehow hear word from friends who were at Centennial Park (I had no cell phone at the time), I think Eastwood captured the essence of most of it. (My pals at the park were all unscathed, btw.) My main criticism is that the sequence directly leading up to and then immediately following the detonation doesn’t really seem, to me, to realistically convey the heart-racing gravity of the situation, or the ensuing mass panic. On a lighter note, on the music side of things, I wish Eastwood had coaxed Kenny Rogers out of retirement to sing “The Gambler” rather than a far-off lookalike who still badly lip-syncs it (at least he didn’t use a plastic baby). And I wish we’d gotten a taste of James Brown, who was playing at the nearby Tabernacle (then House of Blues) when the bomb went off; Jewell, however, was working security at the stage where party band Jack Mack & the Heart Attack (correctly identified in the movie) were performing. There’s also, as I mentioned way back yesterday in the first paragraph, a fair amount of light humor in the film, particularly in the dialog between Jewell and Bryant. And it was a sweet touch putting a vintage 96 Rock bumper sticker on the back of Jewell’s pickup truck. Jewell was a fan of the station, and a friend of disc jockeys Willard and Kaedy Kiely.

Jewell died in 2007 before getting to see his story told on the big screen. I get the impression he would have deeply appreciated it, though been uncomfortable reliving it. He never really sought the spotlight after being cleared, not even writing a book about his ordeal. Instead, he worked as a police officer and sheriff in various small Georgia towns. He did live long enough to be completely exonerated when Eric Rudolph, who had been apprehended in 2003, confessed in 2005 to the Centennial Park bombing and three others, including at Atlanta lesbian bar The Otherside Lounge and a Sandy Springs abortion clinic.

As my girlfriend commented after seeing the movie, “I just want to go back in time and give [Richard Jewell] a huge hug.”