Hollywood’s woman journalist problem: Why does it endure?

Why We Wrote This

Hollywood often portrays women journalists unflatteringly. The harm may seem less when characters are fictional. But the film “Richard Jewell” implies a real reporter slept with a source. Why does this keep happening?

Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
Paul Walter Hauser (center) stars in the new Clint Eastwood movie “Richard Jewell.” The biopic about the man falsely accused of bombing the 1996 Olympics has drawn backlash for inferring that a real-life reporter slept with an FBI agent in exchange for a scoop about the case.

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Hollywood’s journalism genre has long equated a vital profession with the so-called oldest one. As far back as the 1912 silent movie “The Scoop” all the way up to television’s “House of Cards,” female reporters are often depicted as exploiting their sexuality. 

“Richard Jewell,” a biopic about the man wrongly accused of bombing the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, has resurfaced the debate over the practice, with journalists asking for more accountability. The film implies that real-life reporter Kathy Scruggs, who has since died, slept with an FBI agent in exchange for a scoop about the case. Those who know her challenge the accuracy of that accusation. Warner Bros. insists it used credible source material.

Some observers note that the public doesn’t have a lot of information about what journalists do, so Hollywood steps in to fill the void – often sexing up mundane work. Kelly McBride, senior vice president at The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization, wishes Hollywood offered better role models.  

“I grew up as a young child watching Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore and then ‘Murphy Brown’ in the 1980s. And that definitely influenced why I wanted to be a journalist,” she says. “We know from broader cultural studies that entertainment has the ability to influence public opinion.”

In Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, a journalist from The Atlanta-Journal Constitution will stop at nothing to get her story. In this case, that’s not a compliment. “Richard Jewell,” a biopic about the man falsely accused of bombing the 1996 Olympics, implies that real-life reporter Kathy Scruggs slept with an FBI agent in exchange for a scoop about the case. 

The newspaper is so incensed that it hired a lawyer to demand that Warner Bros. include a prominent disclaimer about its portrayal. Ms. Scruggs is no longer alive to defend herself.

Hollywood’s journalism genre has long equated a vital profession with the so-called oldest one. As far back as the 1912 silent movie “The Scoop” all the way up to television’s “House of Cards,” female reporters are often depicted as exploiting their sexuality. It’s a hoarier cliché than scenes of reporters meeting their sources at park benches (though that’s still an improvement over an on-screen rendezvous in a bedroom).

Those plotlines create dramatic tension. But they traffic in boilerplate scenarios that suggest women reporters are unethical, inept, and fair game for sexual propositions. Many reporters worry that pop-culture characterizations of this sort undercut public esteem of female reporters in a male-dominated industry. The harm may be less apparent when characters are fictional. But at a time of widespread distrust of media, “Richard Jewell” smears an actual reporter and may leave the impression that sleeping with sources is not uncommon. 

“It’s condescending and insulting to my profession – and grossly inaccurate, both in the specific instance of Kathy Scruggs, and in the broader instance of how women reporters do their jobs,” says Kelly McBride, senior vice president at The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization in St. Petersburg, Florida.

A need for transparency

Ms. McBride says the public often doesn’t understand how the news industry conducts its work, which she attributes to a lack of transparency. Hollywood has stepped into that information void to offer its own take. Unfortunately, the practice of journalism doesn’t easily lend itself to dramatic action. After Ms. McBride’s children saw the 2015 movie “Spotlight” – which she applauds for its representation of journalism and its female characters – their takeaway was, “All journalists do is talk on the phone.” To enliven stories, filmmakers turn reporters into immoral, self-promoting characters, says Ms. McBride. They also add sex. 

Movies and television series in which female journalists go truly off the record with their sources include “Thank You for Smoking,” “Absence of Malice,” “All the President’s Men,” “Three Kings,” “Sharp Objects,” “Dexter,” and “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.” Even Pulitzer Prize-winning Lois Lane is not above going on a date with Superman when she’s profiling him. 

“Many, if not most, of these films and programs are written by men from the perspective of the male character,” writes Martha Lauzen, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University in California, in an email. “It’s not surprising that the writers would make the male protagonist the object of the affections of a female journalist to make him appear more attractive and charismatic.”

The Hollywood trope of women sleeping with sources arose, in part, from the antiquated belief that women aren’t suited to high-level positions in journalism, says Howard Good, author of “Girl Reporter: Gender, Journalism, and the Movies.” Women were, consequently, relegated to the lifestyle pages or writing “sob sister” pieces. To this day, female journalists in hard-news jobs are often portrayed as freakish adrenaline junkies who may not be as talented as their male counterparts. (In “Richard Jewell,” Ms. Scruggs is said to “write like a brick”; a male character sneers that she’s “ambitious.”) That view of female reporters gave rise to the conceit that they have to resort to feminine wiles to get ahead.

In some quarters, those Hollywood depictions have taken hold in popular imagination. Last week, Fox News host Jesse Watters weighed in on the movie controversy by commenting that journalists of both sexes sleep with sources “all the time.” But he cited just one actual example and then tried to bolster his claim by listing several movies featuring a similar storyline. That’s not to say it never happens in real life. The true story Mr. Watters pointed to was a 2018 scandal about an affair of several years between a Senate security aide and a journalist who covered the Senate Intelligence Committee for Buzzfeed and Politico. 

Yet such cases are “few and far between,” says Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation in Washington, D.C. “What has a much, much greater impact on women journalists are the instances, especially the very well-known instances, of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual attention that women journalists get from sources or within the newsroom.” 

Indeed, the #MeToo revelations included stories of sexual misconduct allegations against the likes of former Fox News CEO and Chairman Roger Ailes. (The movie “Bombshell,” released this past Friday, chronicles some of those accusations.) Hollywood portrayals of female journalists offer the false impression that professionals are open to sexual overtures.

Characterization disputed

“Richard Jewell,” which grossed a meager $4.7 million domestically over the weekend, goes so far as to suggest Ms. Scruggs got between the sheets for the sake of her broadsheet. But those who knew her strongly dispute the characterization.

“Yes, she was colorful,” says Joey Ledford, who was Ms. Scruggs’ onetime city desk editor. “She was profane at times. She was very vivacious and striking. And there’s no question that Kathy knew what she was bringing to the table as a reporter. But I don’t think she crossed the line. And she didn’t cross the line in the Richard Jewell story.”

In a public statement, Warner Bros. defended the movie as “based on a wide range of highly credible source material.” A disclaimer at the bottom of the movie’s end credits stipulates that some characters and events were created for the purposes of dramatization.

Mr. Ledford, who has since left journalism, says she would have been “appalled” at the movie’s smear.

“I was not her editor [on the articles about the bomb], but I have a pretty good idea of who her source was in the Richard Jewell story and that gentleman had been her source for years,” he says. “She was just a tremendous reporter. She was the best I ever worked with in developing sources and working with cops.”

Ms. McBride of The Poynter Institute wishes Hollywood offered better role models. She can attest to the power of watching upstanding journalists such as those portrayed on television by Mary Tyler Moore and Candice Bergen. 

“I grew up as a young child watching Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore and then ‘Murphy Brown’ in the 1980s. And that definitely influenced why I wanted to be a journalist,” says Ms. McBride. “We know from broader cultural studies that entertainment has the ability to influence public opinion.”

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