Clint Eastwood’s ‘Richard Jewell’ Is at the Center of a Media Storm

ATLANTA — Clint Eastwood received a standing ovation on Tuesday when he was introduced by the Georgia House speaker, David Ralston, for the red-carpet premiere of “Richard Jewell” at the Rialto Center for the Arts in downtown Atlanta. The audience broke into applause again at the climax of the fact-based film Mr. Eastwood directed about the security guard who was suspected by the F.B.I. of planting a bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

The reaction was a contrast to how the film was received Wednesday at a screening arranged by Cox Enterprises, the owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, at a theater near the newspaper’s headquarters. During a scene in which a Journal-Constitution reporter is shown offering sex to an F.B.I. agent in exchange for information — a scene the paper has called “false and defamatory” — an audience member hissed.

The film shows Kathy Scruggs, a law enforcement reporter, sidling up to the F.B.I. agent at a bar days after a pipe bomb packed with nails had exploded at Centennial Olympic Park in the city’s downtown area, causing two deaths and injuring 111 people. “Give me something I can print,” says Ms. Scruggs, who is played by Olivia Wilde.

The agent is played by Jon Hamm. Using crude language, he implies that he would not give her the name of the leading suspect in the bombing even if she were to have sex with him. After the reporter’s hand climbs up his thigh, he relents, saying the F.B.I. was looking into Mr. Jewell, a man who had been hailed as a hero in news reports for his discovery of the bomb, a heads-up move that led to the clearing of the park, greatly limiting casualties.

The movie, which is being released on Friday, depicts the reporter as grateful for this piece of information. “Want to get a room, or just go to my car?” she asks.

In most respects, “Richard Jewell,” based on a 1997 Vanity Fair article, “American Nightmare,” and a recently published nonfiction book, “The Suspect,” is faithful to the events it describes. But the scene in which Ms. Scruggs, who died in 2001 at age 42, trades sex for a scoop did not appear in either the article, by Marie Brenner, or the book, written by Kent Alexander, the United States attorney in Atlanta at the time of the bombing, and Kevin Salwen, a journalist who was based in Atlanta for The Wall Street Journal.

As the movie shows, Mr. Jewell was indeed a suspect, and The Journal-Constitution reported that fact in a front-page article. After a CNN anchor read the story aloud on the air, other networks and newspapers joined the media herd. The suspect, who was never charged, spent his days holed up in his apartment as reporters staked him out, an ordeal that ended only when he was exonerated three months after the bombing.

In 2005, Eric Robert Rudolph, a serial bomber, confessed to the crime. Mr. Jewell died in 2007, a symbol for those who have faced trial by media during the 24-hour news cycles that came about when cable television was on the rise, a syndrome that prefigured the rushes to judgment of the social media era.

Tom Johnson, who was the president of CNN at the time of the bombing, said the news media’s handling of the story was regrettable.

“We were almost saying that he was guilty,” he said in an interview. “Nobody wrote that, but the unbelievable amount of coverage that was being given to Richard Jewell and the way in which all of us were trying to investigate it and report on it — it was incredibly complex, but it was unsettling.”

(The New York Times played down Mr. Jewell’s status as a suspect at the time in an article that focused on the media reaction, cautioning that there was not enough evidence to charge him.)

Mr. Eastwood’s film, written by the veteran screenwriter Billy Ray, follows the standard practice for movies based on real-life events by taking liberties with certain facts to speed the story along. But it uses Ms. Scruggs’s real name while giving a new one to the F.B.I. agent, raising the question of whether the filmmakers risked damaging the reporter’s reputation in their efforts to convey how Mr. Jewell lost his.

This week, The Journal-Constitution sent a letter to Warner Bros. and the filmmakers, hinting at legal action for what it characterized as a defamatory depiction of Ms. Scruggs and an incomplete portrayal of how the paper arrived at the article naming Mr. Jewell as a suspect.

“For a film that purports to be about the besmirching of someone’s reputation to proceed to smear Ms. Scruggs and the paper she reported for in this manner is highly offensive,” said the letter, which was also signed by Cox Enterprises, the owner of the newspaper and one of the country’s largest cable companies. Cox hired the litigator Martin D. Singer, known for his work on behalf of celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Bill Cosby, to represent the paper.

Warner Bros. fired back with a statement that said, “It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast.”

Weeks before the film’s release, The Journal-Constitution published an article headlined “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs.” It described a “hard-charging” police reporter who used “salty language,” wore “short skirts” and did not leave crime scenes “until her notebook was full.” The article also said the film version of Ms. Scruggs “veers from reality, according to people who knew and worked with her, in suggesting she landed scoops by offering to sleep with sources.”

The film’s bar scene has turned a cinematic examination of privacy, due process and the excesses of the news media into a target for critics who have called it the latest example of Hollywood’s sexist take on women in journalism. The trope of female reporters sleeping with sources or story subjects has appeared in the HBO limited series “Sharp Objects,” the Netflix show “House of Cards” and the movie “Thank You for Smoking,” among other productions.

Kelly McBride, a onetime police reporter who is the senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports journalism, said the portrayal of Ms. Scruggs did not reflect reality.

“It is so exceedingly rare,” she said. “And yet this male-dominated world of Hollywood needs to cast female reporters as subject to the whims of nature.”

“I think Clint Eastwood is showing his age, frankly,” she added of the 89-year-old director.

Critics have noted that a film focused on a low point for law enforcement and the press was directed by a prominent conservative at a time when President Trump has vilified the F.B.I. as an arm of the so-called deep state and has repeatedly called the news media “the enemy of the people.”

In the Vanity Fair article, Ms. Brenner wrote that an unnamed staff member at The Journal-Constitution referred to Ms. Scruggs as a “police groupie.” But the article did not report that she had used sex to learn that Mr. Jewell was a suspect or had a sexual relationship with any F.B.I. agent on the case.

Ms. Scruggs shared a byline for the July 1996 article naming Mr. Jewell as a suspect with Ron Martz. In an interview, Mr. Martz, who spent 26 years at the paper before leaving in 2007, said that he had not been contacted by anybody working on the film and that its portrayal of his colleague was false.

“She could be flirtatious, but she wouldn’t have done that sort of thing, because she was very conscious of her role as a reporter and she wanted to be known as a top-notch reporter,” he said.

He added, “That sort of portrayal of her, it’s an insult not only to her, but to just about any other woman who’s been a reporter.”

At an awards-campaign talk in Los Angeles last month, the film’s screenwriter, Mr. Ray, said he had spoken with people involved in the case. “I will stand behind every word of the script,” he added.

Ms. Wilde defended the role in a thread she posted on Twitter on Thursday in which she expressed support for journalists and said that, in her understanding of the role, Ms. Scruggs and the F.B.I. agent “were in a pre-existing romantic relationship, not a transactional exchange of sex for information.” While the movie shows the pair having an earlier acquaintance, there is no indication that their relationship was romantic.

Mr. Alexander and Mr. Salwen, the authors of the book that served as source material, met with Mr. Eastwood over the summer.

“We realized we had the same motivation,” Mr. Salwen said. “This is the story of a man who should have a statue for the lives he saved, but, instead, this unsung hero is misunderstood.”

The book refers to Ms. Scruggs’s “reputation” for sleeping with sources but reports that she got the tip about Mr. Jewell from someone in the Atlanta police department before having it confirmed by the F.B.I. agent. In a statement, the authors said: “We have been asked repeatedly whether we found evidence that Scruggs traded sex for the story. We did not.” They declined to discuss their input on the bar scene.

After the screening held for Journal-Constitution staff members on Wednesday, Ken Foskett, an investigations editor at the paper, interrogated the authors of “The Suspect” in a question-and-answer session. The film is fair in its treatment of Mr. Jewell, Mr. Foskett said, but not Ms. Scruggs.

“Why are the liberties taken with her?” he asked. “That’s my question. And why is that defensible?”

“I will leave that to Warner Bros.,” Mr. Salwen said.

The discussion also went into the question of whether the newspaper had been right, in the weeks after the bombing, to report that Mr. Jewell was the leading suspect and to describe him as someone who “fits the profile of the lone bomber.” (A libel lawsuit filed against the newspaper was dismissed in 2007.)

“I think it’s worth addressing the broader criticism, regardless of what the movie got right or wrong,” Meris Lutz, a reporter at the paper, said. Of the bar scene, she added: “It felt so unnecessary. If they had cut that, I don’t think it would have affected the movie at all.”

Brooks Barnes contributed reporting from Los Angeles.