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'Richard Jewell' Slammed For Its Depiction Of Reporter Kathy Scruggs — What Happened To Her?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has taken issue with the way that its former reporter Kathy Scruggs is depicted in "Richard Jewell," a movie about the 1996 Summer Olympics Bombing case. 

By Gina Tron
Olive Wilde Kathy Scruggs

In the upcoming fictional film “Richard Jewell,” based on the true events surrounding the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing in Atlanta, there are a lot of real-life people depicted unfavorably, including, most distressingly to some, journalist Kathy Scruggs.

The movie tells the story of Richard Jewell, a security guard who should have been hailed a hero after he found a pipe bomb packed with nails and screws in Centennial Olympic Park. By discovering the device and swiftly reporting it, Jewell helped ensure the area was able to be cleared enough to avoid mass casualties, although two people still died and 111 were injured when it exploded.

However, Jewell soon became a public villain when it was leaked that the FBI was investigating him (Jewell would quickly be cleared of all suspicion).

“Within days, the law enforcement wannabe becomes the FBI’s number one suspect, vilified by press and public alike, his life ripped apart,” a Warner Brothers press release obtained by Oxygen.com states. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, says it is a “story of what happens when what is reported as fact obscures the truth.”

But the truth being obscured is something that's being brought up for another reason in relation to the film: Many are furious with its depiction of journalist Kathy Scruggs, who broke the Jewell FBI investigation story.

In the film, Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde, is depicted as offering sex in exchange for information about the case from an FBI agent, NBC News reports.

The newspaper, in a letter to the filmmakers, has criticized the depiction of the reporter, indicating that there is no evidence to suggest this actually happened.

"The AJC’s reporter is reduced to a sex-trading object in the film,” the letter states, according to AJC. “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. That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging.”

The letter demands a statement “publicly acknowledging that some events were imagined for dramatic purposes and artistic license and dramatization were used in the film’s portrayal of events and characters. We further demand that you add a prominent disclaimer to the film to that effect."

Unfortunately, Scruggs can't come forward to defend herself, either: She died in 2001 at the age of 42 from an overdose of prescription pain pills, according to Poytner. In addition to suffering from depression, she had a chronic back problem.

“Her heart gave away. It was just hard living,” her brother told the AJC.

Many of her friends and family members claim the stress from the legal fallout around the Jewell case contributed to her failing health: Jewell sued the AJC, among other outlets, after Scruggs' story pinpointing him as an FBI suspect; all other outlets settled except the AJC. In 2011, the suits naming the AJC were dismissed as the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded “the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published." 

“It really, really bothered her. It was as much a contributor of her death than anything,” her brother Lewis Scruggs Jr. told the AJC. “The thing she was always proud of was the newspaper stood by her. They had her back. She really always felt like they were supporting her.”

People who knew her called her a true journalist. 

“She was the real deal when it came to being a dedicated reporter,” her family friend Edward Tolley told the AJC.

Former AJC reporter Ron Martz, who reported on the bombing along with Scruggs, said, “She was one of the better reporters I ever worked with. She was really tough and hard-nosed. When she went after a story she did what was necessary to get the story, within legal and ethical bounds.”

Her friend Susan Parke called her “luminous,” adding “she was so, so alive."

In addition to her depiction in “Richard Jewell,” out in theaters Friday, December 13, her life inspired two fictional characters. She reportedly served as the basis for a reporter in the 2003 novel “Shikar” and as a young detective in the 1997 novel “Atlanta Heat.”

Wilde has addressed the criticism surrounding the depiction of Scruggs in “Richard Jewell.”

“I have an immense amount of respect for Kathy Scruggs," Wilde told The Hollywood Reporter. "She’s no longer with us, she died very young, and I feel a certain responsibility to defend her legacy — which has now been, I think unfairly, boiled down to one element of her personality, one inferred moment in the film."

She went on to say, “I think people have a hard time accepting sexuality in female characters without allowing it to entirely define that character. We don’t do that to men, we don’t do that to James Bond — we don’t say James Bond isn’t a real spy because he gets his information sometimes by sleeping with women as sources. This is very specific to female characters, we’ve seen it over and over again, and I think that Kathy Scruggs is an incredibly dynamic, nuanced, dogged, intrepid reporter. By no means was I intending to suggest that as a female reporter, she needed to use her sexuality. I come from a long line of journalists — my mom’s been a journalist for 35 years — there’s no way I would want to suggest that."