In 2005 in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, visitors view the “Quilt of Remembrance” memorial marking thefatal bombing during the 1996 Olympics. AJC FILE PHOTO
Photo: JOEY IVANSCO
Photo: JOEY IVANSCO

Opinion: Drama shouldn’t recast this truth

I had been in the newsroom a few years by the time Kathy Scruggs arrived. Until then - 1986 - it had been stodgy and drab, a shirt-and-tie kind of place.

No longer. Kathy burst into our newsroom in an explosion of color, energy and expletives.

She was born to become a great cop reporter at a big city newspaper. She was irreverent, savvy and relentless.

As far as I know, she and Richard Jewell were in the same room only once – during a deposition in Jewell’s libel lawsuit against this newspaper. I doubt they spoke.

Yet, Richard and Kathy are joined forever by the infamous act that bent the arcs of their lives.

Tragically, neither lived to see the end of the drama ignited by the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, 1996.

And neither is around to contest the way they will be portrayed in an upcoming film directed by Clint Eastwood.

In full disclosure, I was the editor Kathy phoned after a source told her that investigators were focusing on Jewell in their frantic search for the bomber.

At first, her tip seemed ludicrous: Jewell was the security guard who had been celebrated as a hero for raising the alarm about a backpack left near a performance stage in the park. He had moved quickly to clear the area before the three pipe bombs packed with nails exploded, killing one and injuring more than 100 others.

But Kathy’s source was compelling, and the source offered a detailed rationale to explain how they landed on Jewell. We sought and obtained independent verification before publishing the story saying Jewell was the focus of investigators’ attention.

Before the Olympics, I was aware of Kathy but hadn’t worked with her. She had become a nearly legendary police reporter. For nearly seven years, I had been covering Atlanta’s bid for the Games and then the preparations after the city’s surprise victory.

Always in the hunt for news, Scruggs became a regular at Manuel’s Tavern, the storied Poncey-Highland establishment that was an after-hours police haunt. She drank and bantered with the cops, pressing them for gossip and scoops – something male reporters (including this one) did for decades at other tables at Manuel’s. Still do.

Kathy was pretty, and she knew it. She had a raspy voice and wore short skirts and revealing tops. She used bawdy banter as a weapon.

Even so, it would be wrong to reduce Kathy to a sex kitten with a notebook. She was so much more.

In the months before Opening Ceremonies, I was elevated to editor of the non-sports stuff. Kathy was on my team covering security.

I worry about Eastwood’s version of Kathy. It would be so easy to play Kathy as a love interest, as something less than the competent reporter she was. Movies often reduce complex people to types. This leaves little space for nuance.

I’ve read a 2015 version of the script by Billy Ray, a respected screenwriter who I’ve met. Ray portrays Jewell as the hapless innocent hounded after the bombing by the venal FBI and incessant media.

I know the film isn’t a documentary, yet the script gives me pause — one scene in particular. After the bombing, Kathy meets a police source in the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel. He’s had too much to drink. Predictably, she’s in a short skirt and barely buttoned blouse.

“I hope you’re not driving,” she says.

“You wanna loosen me up or don’t you,” he responds. “Actually, don’t answer that — your skirt tells the story.”

The scene gains the feel of soft porn — her hand on his lap, lips moistened, blouse unbuttoned — with him ultimately spilling the beans.

I take some comfort in knowing that Olivia Wilde, an actor whose lineage suggests sympathy for reporters, is playing Kathy. Her mother, Leslie Cockburn, is a producer at “60 Minutes.” Her father, Andrew Cockburn, is a respected writer and an editor at Harper’s magazine. Wilde’s heart, if not her script, seems to be in the right place.

I take less comfort in Eastwood’s casting Jon Hamm, who made his name playing a 1960s lothario in the TV series “Mad Men.” Hamm will play the FBI agent who leads the charge against Jewell.

Can Eastwood resist the urge to suggest a romance between his gorgeous leading man and woman?

I worry about Jewell as well.

He was very Southern, somewhat unsophisticated and extremely earnest. These aren’t traits that Hollywood has a track record of venerating.

In the 2015 script, Jewell is portrayed as a man-boy who dreams of being a cop but also spends way too much time playing video games at his mom’s place. In an early scene he is ridiculed by two frat-boy lawyers who make fun of him because of his comicly methodical plans to become an FBI agent.

“But cop-cadets have to do a mile run, don’t they? ‘Cause uh…” A sly and cruel reference to Jewell’s portliness.

Everyone laughs but Jewell.

Wouldn’t it be the irony of ironies that a film meant to vindicate Jewell also reduces him to an unflattering type, even makes fun of him?

If we all learned nothing else from the story of Richard Jewell, it is that you never reduce people to profiles or stereotypes. In the eyes of some at the FBI, Jewell in 1996 fit the profile of a wannabe cop willing to kill people with a bomb to gain attention. Could they have been more wrong?

Will Hollywood also slip him into a convenient profile?

Again, this is no documentary. But should a film be fair? While the media in general and AJC in particular are portrayed as a horde fueled by shoddy police work at the FBI, it ignores a key point: The press worked hard to expose the holes in the FBI’s theory. It was an AJC reporter, Bill Rankin, who first wrote that it would have been impossible for Jewell to have been in the park and simultaneously been at a payphone a few blocks away placing a 911 call to warn about the bomb.

After the Olympics, I didn’t see much of Kathy. In 1999, I moved to England as the newspaper’s European correspondent. Kathy was plagued by illness, but stayed on the job. Some of her friends believe she was never the same after the Olympic ordeal. She died alone in 2001, just a few weeks from her 43rd birthday.

Jewell was 44 when he died in 2007. He lived his dream of becoming a police officer, and at his death was a deputy sheriff in Meriwether County.

Jewell’s name was cleared of any remaining hint of suspicion two years earlier when Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing. The federal government apologized, and he was officially declared a hero by the state of Georgia. He made an appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and put in a couple of cameos. He lived the life of a hero.

His lawsuit against the newspaper, in which I was a defendant, was dismissed in 2011. The Georgia Court of Appeals concluded “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published — even though the investigators’ suspicions were ultimately deemed unfounded. …”

Maybe the worst offense of the script is a scene that has Kathy suggesting to Jewell’s lawyer that she had made a mistake. Kathy never doubted that she got the story right.

The court’s decision came 15 years after Kathy called me with her tip. She and her reporting partner, Ron Martz, never revealed their sources, even though both were threatened with jail. The sources remain confidential to this day.

When the movie debuts around the end of the year, the truth of Richard and Kathy will be replaced forever by Eastwood’s dramatic vision. I hope he takes his duty to them seriously

It is probably foolish for me to hope he will portray them as what they really were: two hard-working people who did their jobs forthrightly and did them very well.

Bert Roughton Jr. is the retired senior managing editor and editorial director for the AJC. He can be reached at

ajcbroughton@gmail.com.

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