Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest puts a Miami Herald story back in the spotlight

The week after Thanksgiving, a package published by the Miami Herald made national headlines. Julie K. Brown, an investigative journalist at the paper, reported that, in 2007, lawyers for Jeffrey Epstein—a super-rich New York financier accused of cultivating a network of underage girls and coercing them into sex acts at his Palm Beach mansion—cut an extraordinary, secret plea deal with federal prosecutors in Miami: in return for a mere 13 months in the county jail (with work-release privileges), the government would grant Epstein immunity from federal charges and effectively curtail an FBI probe into his potential accomplices. Epstein’s victims would be kept in the dark about the deal until it was too late for them to appeal it; one official even offered to help Epstein’s team “avoid the press.” Allegations against Epstein have long been newsworthy, but Brown’s reporting added a fresh new angle. The plea deal was signed off by Alexander Acosta: then the US attorney in Miami, now Trump’s labor secretary.

As is common these days, the story quickly slipped down the news cycle: as Brown told CNN’s Brian Stelter yesterday, “it’s very difficult when you do a case and you get a big splash… and then it kinda drops off the media radar.” But Brown—who, with colleagues, had already identified 80 potential victims, tracked down 60, and persuaded eight to talk to her, all while plowing through a decade of public records—did not give up. Below the daily tumult of the Trump era, her reporting has had ongoing impact. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle—including, prominently, Ben Sasse, Republican senator for Nebraska—have continued to promote the story. In February, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into Acosta’s role in the plea bargain; the same month, a federal judge ruled that elements of the deal were illegal.

ICYMI: Coverage of a sex crime opens debate about revealing identifying details in the press

On Saturday, we saw the biggest development in the Epstein story since Brown’s story first dropped. The Daily Beast’s Pervaiz Shallwani, Kate Briquelet, and Harry Siegel reported that Epstein was arrested on landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Per the Beast, the charges relate to sex trafficking; according to The New York Times’s Ali Watkins and Vivian Wang, they focus on alleged crimes at Epstein’s home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The indictment will likely be unsealed today, with Epstein set to appear in court in the Southern District of New York. Suddenly, Epstein is back in the national eye in a big way. On Twitter, media-watchers credited Brown for putting him there. Her work is a powerful example of the clout local news organizations can wield.

Hopefully, Epstein’s arrest will presage a more concerted push for accountability in the national press than we’ve seen since November. As many outlets have noted, Epstein had a coterie of powerful friends including Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, and Trump; in 2002, Trump told New York magazine that Epstein “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” What else did the president know? Alan Dershowitz—a frequent pundit in mainstream and conservative mediahelped broker Epstein’s plea deal. And Acosta—whose nomination to the cabinet was a spark for the Herald’s story—has kept his job. Under Trump’s presidency, sharp, sustained reporting has led senior officials including Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, and Ryan Zinke to lose their posts. It’s not the media’s job to hire and fire cabinet secretaries, of course, but Acosta clearly merits similarly aggressive scrutiny, especially given that trafficking issues are in his purview. As Catherine Rampell, a Washington Post columnist, pointed out on CNN, Acosta’s Labor Department has moved to stall a visa program for victims who help officials catch traffickers. Acosta, Rampell argued, is “not only letting one bad guy go, which is what he did a decade ago, he’s potentially enabling and encouraging many, many more sexual predators to go free.”

As with any story about abuse, victims’ stories should be central to this push for accountability. Brown began her reporting before the Harvey Weinstein story sparked the #MeToo movement, but that context looms large regardless: as she wrote in her original November story, “at a time when Olympic gymnasts and Hollywood actresses have become a catalyst for a cultural reckoning about sexual abuse, Epstein’s victims have all but been forgotten… [They] are still fighting for an elusive justice that even the passage of time has not made right.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

On Saturday, one of those victims, Michelle Licata, told Brown “Oh my God. Finally, finally, finally! Justice!” There’s still a way to go. But if and when justice—finally—is done, a local newspaper and its dogged reporter will deservedly take much of the credit.

Below, more on the Epstein story:

  • Here’s the thing: Earlier this year, Brown visited New York to receive a Polk Award for her Epstein reporting. While she was in town, Brown took Alec Baldwin behind the story in an interview on Baldwin’s WNYC show, Here’s the Thing. “I compare what I did in this case to what a cold-case detective does,” Brown said.
  • Here are the things: Last year, a federal court in New York rejected the Herald’s motion to unseal secret documents in a civil case, settled in 2017, related to allegations that Epstein and an associate ran an international sex-trafficking operation. Earlier this year, an appeals court took steps toward unsealing the documents; last week, it finally ordered that 2,000 pages be released. News organizations including the Post and the Times pressed for the release, too, as did Mike Cernovich, a right-wing blogger.
  • Dersh’s role: Dershowitz also asked for some of the records to be unsealed; earlier in the year, he argued that the press should be barred from a hearing related to their release. As the Epstein story has unfolded, Dershowitz has loudly defended himself in the media. In April, he wrote a public letter to the administrators of the Pulitzer Prizes asking them not to reward Brown’s “fake news.”
  • Appealing to vanity: In 2015, Vicky Ward wrote, for The Daily Beast, that Graydon Carter, then the editor of Vanity Fair, excised allegations that Epstein tried to seduce two young sisters from Ward’s 2003 profile of Epstein; when Ward asked Carter why, he reportedly replied that Epstein “is sensitive about the young women.” A Vanity Fair spokesperson said “Epstein denied the charges at the time and since the claims were unsubstantiated and no criminal investigation had been initiated, we decided not to include them.”


Other notable stories:

  • Last month, immigration lawyers’ dire observations from inside a US border station in Clint, Texas, helped drive the treatment of detained migrant children at the border back to the top of the news cycle. Yesterday, The New York Times and the local El Paso Times jointly published a deeper piece based on dozens of interviews about the facility. Border Patrol leadership, the papers report, “knew for months that some children had no beds to sleep on, no way to clean themselves and sometimes went hungry.” Trump—who also lit into NBC, CNN, Brian Williams, and even Fox yesterday—called the Clint story “phony and exaggerated.”
  • Last week, ProPublica reported the existence of a secret Facebook group in which Border Patrol agents joked about migrant deaths and shared sexist memes. On Friday, CNN’s Geneva Sands and Nick Valencia unearthed vulgar and explicit posts in a second group with apparent ties to Customs and Border Protection agents, including jokes about separating families at the border. Facebook said it removed some of the offending content; nonetheless, as CJR’s Mathew Ingram wrote last week, the regulation of private groups poses a “broader—and growing—problem” for the platform.
  • On Friday, the White House Correspondents’ Association elected Steven Portnoy, a reporter with CBS News Radio, as its president for 2021–22. (The WHCA elects presidents two years in advance: once the incumbent, Olivier Knox, steps down, ABC’s Jonathan Karl will serve into 2020, followed by the AP’s Zeke Miller into 2021.) Portnoy beat out the Post’s Toluse Olorunnipa, HuffPost’s S.V. Date, and write-in candidates including Michael Wolff. In June, the Post’s Paul Farhi examined Portnoy’s pitch.
  • For CJR, Sherrell Dorsey reports that much of the press does an inadequate job covering Black-owned tech businesses. “Historically, mainstream business publications have failed to contextualize Black entrepreneurship,” Dorsey writes. “Insufficient coverage of Black business leadership—particularly in the technology space—furthers the trope that Black people are only successful in entertainment and athletic industries.”
  • After Thursday, the Chicago Defender, a historically influential African-American newspaper, will no longer publish a print edition. “Being a digital-only outlet will help us reach people who live on the West Side or South Side or south suburbs, giving people what they need when they want it,” Hiram E. Jackson, CEO of Real Times Media, which owns the Defender, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It makes us more nimble.”
  • The Times’s Marc Tracy reports that Mad Magazine—the irreverent, Alfred E. Neuman-adorned humor publication founded in 1952—is “effectively dead”: future issues will publish archive content, with new material appearing only in year-end specials. Mad “has steadily lost readers and relevance, a victim of its own success, as its skeptical, smart-alecky sensibility became dominant in American popular culture,” Tracy writes.
  • Earlier this year, a woman in Spain killed herself after an old sex video she’d taken circulated widely at her place of work. For CJR, Meaghan Beatley charts the coverage in Spanish media, and the debates that ensued. “How can the media humanize victims of sexual violence without inadvertently doxxing them—revealing key identifying details—or facilitating access to sensitive material, like a sex tape?” Beatley asks.
  • And Emily Tamkin, CJR’s public editor for CNN, assesses the network’s sparse coverage of Sudan, where the military has cracked down on protests since the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir. “As I was first writing this, the CNN homepage featured a story about a couple who crossed Times Square on a high wire,” she writes. “If that’s considered news but political protests in Sudan aren’t, don’t we need to reconsider what news really is?”

ICYMI: The Problem with ‘Fixers’

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.