The Media Today

Alexander Acosta’s past—and present—under the spotlight

July 11, 2019

Yesterday, Alexander Acosta, President Trump’s embattled labor secretary, hauled himself before reporters to finally answer some big questions. Acosta finds himself under siege following the weekend arrest of Jeffrey Epstein on sex-trafficking charges. In 2007, Acosta, then the top US prosecutor in Miami, signed off on a lenient sweetheart plea deal for Epstein and failed to tell Epstein’s victims about it—an illegal move, per a recent court ruling. Acosta gently (for a Trump official, at least) chided the press for overlooking facts about his handling of the Epstein case: the plea deal ensured Epstein did jail time, whereas going to court would have been “the roll of a dice,” Acosta said. He also said, repeatedly, that times have changed, as if he was talking about the 1940s, not the late 2000s.

As New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik (and many others) noted, Acosta wasn’t really addressing the media and the public, but rather the “audience of one” in the White House. According to Poniewozik’s colleagues Katie Rogers, Maggie Haberman, and Peter Baker, Trump seemed mollified by aides’ assurances that Acosta gave a good account of himself; nonetheless, there were no supportive presidential tweets in the aftermath. (In Trump’s defense, he was clearly busy thanking Jon Voight, retweeting the British troll Katie Hopkins (again), and preparing to welcome a rogue’s gallery of far-right extremists to the White House.)

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While the Viewer-in-Chief’s review isn’t in yet—at least, not publicly—reporters and commentators across the media were quick to pan Acosta’s performance. “Alex Acosta’s defense today has already started to boomerang on him,” Rachel Maddow said on MSNBC. Acosta, Maddow argued, had somehow contrived to make things even worse for himself: for example, by handing reporters a letter, from the time of the Epstein deal, showing that Acosta’s office didn’t tell victims about it because Epstein’s lawyers told it not to. In a widely quoted intervention, Barry Krischer, the Palm Beach prosecutor from the time, called Acosta’s recollections “completely wrong” and accused him of trying to rewrite history. On CNN, Jake Tapper asked Julie K. Brown, the Miami Herald journalist whose dogged reporting dragged the Epstein story back into the spotlight, whether anything Acosta just said struck her as untrue. “There were a number of things,” she said. “He managed to present it in a way that it sounds true if you really don’t read the court records and understand the sequence of events.” If the Epstein plea deal was so great, Brown asked, why did Acosta’s team work to keep it from the victims?

Despite all this pressure, Acosta obviously does not intend to jump, and there is, as yet, no clear suggestion that Trump is about to push him. That could change, particularly if the coverage continues to be bad, but for now, the White House is pushing back: earlier this week, Kellyanne Conway criticized Democrats (and, implicitly, the press) for focusing on the Trump administration rather than Epstein and his victims. As I wrote Monday, victims should be central to coverage of this episode. But coverage of Acosta’s role is absolutely about the victims. Acosta failed them, then kept them in the dark; in doing so, he served an important reminder that predators like Epstein too often operate with institutional complicity. Acosta repeatedly refused to apologize yesterday. Instead, The Atlantic’s David A. Graham writes, Acosta implicitly shunted blame for Epstein’s plea deal onto the supposed reticence of the victims.

Nor is the newly aggressive focus on Acosta limited to the people Epstein abused: Epstein’s arrest has brought scrutiny on recent decisions taken by Acosta’s Labor Department. Yesterday, The Daily Beast’s Jackie Kucinich and Emily Shugerman reported that Acosta tried to slash the budget of an agency that monitors child labor and human trafficking globally and helps tackle its causes; just last month, a deputy moved to stall a visa process for certain trafficking victims who cooperate with investigators. These policies were both raised at yesterday’s press conference. On Twitter, Asha Rangappa, a commentator and former FBI agent, re-upped her past argument that Acosta’s record on trafficking would seem to contradict Trump’s claims that better border security is needed because trafficking is such a problem.

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Scandals involving administration officials aren’t always about victims—sometimes, they’re simply about personal corruption. But policies, like the Labor Department’s moves on trafficking, have clear human consequences. Many reporters do excellent, persistent work investigating federal agencies and departments, and yet it seems, sometimes, that we only pay attention when it’s pegged to a juicier scandal. Acosta’s role in the Epstein deal, specifically, deserves close scrutiny. Whether he survives or not, the same will be true of his department’s policies going forward.

Below, more on the Epstein case:

  • A fresh allegation: NBC’s Savannah Guthrie sat down with Jennifer Araoz, a new accuser who says Epstein raped her in New York when she was 15. Araoz “never contacted the authorities to tell her story, but she says she did tell at least four people… about the Epstein encounters several years after they occurred,” Guthrie, Sarah Fitzpatrick, and Rich Schapiro report. “Reached by NBC News, all four confirmed that she told them years ago that she had been sexually assaulted by Epstein.”
  • Manhattan media remembers: Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo writes that Epstein’s arrest has put old reporting on Epstein back in the spotlight. Vicky Ward, author of a 2003 Vanity Fair profile of Epstein, alleges that Graydon Carter, then the magazine’s editor, excised allegations from her piece; New York magazine also ran a feature on Epstein, but did not run another, by Michael Wolff, because Wolff allegedly agreed that “all fact questions would go through Epstein.” In 2003, Epstein and Wolff were part of an investor group that reportedly tried to buy New York; the group also included Harvey Weinstein.
  • Just how rich is he anyway? For the Times, James B. Stewart, Matthew Goldstein, Kate Kelly, and David Enrich write that Epstein’s “‘infinite means’ may be a mirage.” News organizations have routinely described Epstein as a billionaire, but there is “little evidence” for that conclusion, the Times reports.
  • Avoiding the rabbit holes: Also in the Times, Tiffany Hsu profiles Brown, of the Miami Herald, as well as Emily Michot, a Herald visual journalist who also worked on the Epstein story. “The two reporters tried to keep costs down by renting less-expensive rooms at Airbnbs, booking low-cost flights and occasionally not filing expenses,” Hsu reports. “And they tried not to fall down any rabbit holes.”

Other notable stories:

  • In March, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro questioned Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s commitment to America; Fox suspended Pirro as advertisers fled her show. On Tuesday, Tucker Carlson mounted a similar attack: Omar, Carlson said, “hates this country” and is “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous.” Omar called Carlson a “racist fool”; advertisers “should not be underwriting hate speech,” she tweeted. Last night, Carlson doubled down: Omar “is trying to take this show off the air,” he said, insisting that his bosses have his back. Media Matters for America’s John Kerr says such comments “fit a pattern” of Fox News going after women of color in Congress.
  • In April—six months after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and amid a broader crackdown on dissent—Saudi officials privately complained to Reporters Without Borders about the country’s low ranking on the group’s World Press Freedom Index, The Guardian’s Stephanie Kirchgaessner reports. Khashoggi’s death continues to reverberate, but accountability for the Saudi regime remains elusive. The Post reported yesterday that the country’s slick Washington lobbying operation “whirs on” in spite of the killing; while there is consensus in Congress that US–Saudi relations need to be reset, there is no consensus on how to do it. At a conference in London yesterday, Amal Clooney criticized world leaders’ “collective shrug” over Khashoggi; Agnès Callamard, whose recent UN report linked the Saudi crown prince to the murder, stressed that justice must be served.
  • Sir Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the US whose scathing diplomatic missives about Trump leaked in The Daily Mail last weekend, resigned yesterday. Trump had called Darroch “a pompous fool” and “a very stupid guy,” among other things—but according to The Sun, the failure of Boris Johnson, Britain’s presumed next prime minister, to back Darroch in a televised debate on Tuesday had at least an equal impact on Darroch’s decision. In the US, Lindsey Graham, the Trump-allied senator, said he was “sorry to see” Darroch resign, adding that Darroch got “a raw deal from the press.”
  • Yesterday morning, The Wall Street Journal’s Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold reported that PG&E, a California power company, knowingly failed to upgrade power lines that risked sparking wildfires. Later in the day, a judge ordered PG&E to respond to the story “on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis”; the company now has three weeks to file “a fresh, forthright statement owning up to the true extent of The Wall Street Journal report.”
  • For CJR, Monica Busch tracks efforts in Massachusetts to establish a commission that would study “communities underserved by local journalism,” then report its findings and recommendations to the governor and state legislative leaders. “Massachusetts is not the only state whose government is taking the temperature of the local news industry,” Busch writes, referencing New Jersey. “There’s also activity at the federal level.”
  • In Mississippi, Robert Foster, a Republican candidate for governor, rejected a ridealong with Mississippi Today because the reporter the site planned to send, Larrison Campbell, is a woman: Foster’s campaign told Campbell that political opponents could take photos and use them to insinuate an affair. When Campbell’s story blew up, Foster started fundraising off of it. “My decision was out of respect of my wife, my character, and our faith,” Foster said. “The Bible teaches us to refrain from the appearance of impropriety.”
  • For CJR, Patrick Strickland reports that journalists in Greece have been physically targeted by nationalist elements at protests against a recent accord between Greece and North Macedonia, its recently renamed neighbor. “When a fracas broke out between photographers and a protester during a Macedonia rally in Thessaloniki, a demonstrator reportedly revealed a gun and threatened photojournalists,” Strickland writes.
  • And in Mexico, a news service run by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched its own fact-checking unit, Poynter’s Cristina Tardáguila reports. Independent fact-checkers aren’t happy—López Obrador, they claim, regularly misleads the public.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.