After Jeffrey Epstein’s death, conspiracies—and journalism—flourish

On Saturday morning, ABC News reported that Jeffrey Epstein—the financier recently charged with trafficking underage victims for sex—had killed himself in his jail cell. Other outlets were quick to follow up. So were conspiracists. Baseless theories flooded the internet from every conceivable direction. On Twitter, #ClintonBodyCount and #TrumpBodyCount both trended. (Epstein was once friendly with Bill Clinton and Donald Trump; the idea is that one or the other had Epstein silenced before he could implicate them in his crimes.) A Trump-appointed housing official, a Trump-friendly Fox Business host, the former Democratic senator for Missouri, and the band that released “Pumped Up Kicks” all got in on the action. Predictably, so did the president of the United States. On Saturday evening, Trump retweeted a message baselessly linking the Clintons to Epstein’s death.

The Trump era has been marked by the proliferation of wild conspiracies—Seth Rich, Pizzagate, QAnon, the list goes on. The Epstein case has the potential, going forward, to top them all. “Conspiracy peddlers are going to use Epstein’s death to rally their political bases, smear their enemies, peddle their products and their podcasts, do everything possible except turn their attention to the victims,” Anna Merlan, who recently wrote a book about conspiracy theories, tweeted. “This is a windfall for them. It’s fucking Christmas.”

ICYMI: Our Times public editor on the readers versus the masthead

Epstein trutherism has already gone mainstream. Over the weekend, it echoed through news outlets: people close to Epstein told The Washington Post that he had been in “good spirits” lately and “expressed concern about the possibility of foul play”; an anonymous former inmate of the facility that was holding Epstein told the New York Post that there’s “no way” Epstein could have killed himself given internal precautions at the jail. (The paper ran the account verbatim.) Online, a handful of high-profile journalists speculated openly about Epstein’s demise—Joe Scarborough, of MSNBC, for example, tweeted that the circumstances were “predictably… Russian” and reeked of “bullshit.” He wasn’t alone. As The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin noted, the mainstreaming of actual bullshit was rather ironic given that it was meticulous, fact-based reporting that put Epstein in jail in the first place.

Ironic, maybe, but not surprising. In a prescient piece published last month, following Epstein’s arrest, The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins noted that the ingredients of Epstein’s case—the pedophile ring, the alleged involvement of famous people, his past lenient treatment by prosecutors—all whiff of conspiracy despite being rooted in fact. At a disorienting moment of chaos for the American body politic, “You don’t have to believe in lizard people or baby-eating politicians to understand why so many are looking at our leaders and letting their imagination run wild,” Coppins wrote. Yesterday, John F. Harris, of Politico, echoed the point: “The signature of American politics in the Trump era is a conviction—shared initially by many people who backed Trump but now embraced with similar fervor by many who loathe him—that things are not what they seem,” he wrote. Social media helped get us here, and continues to make things worse. Our information ecosystem is “deeply poisoned,” The New York Times’s Charlie Warzel writes. “The media is frequently outmatched and, despite its best intentions, often acts as an amplifier for baseless claims, even when trying its best to knock them down.”

There are unanswered questions about Epstein’s death, and they demand answers. Equally, however, there are simpler possibilities here than Trump- and/or Clinton-adjacent tinhattery. Writing for The Atlantic, Lindsay M. Hayes, of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, reminds us that Epstein is not exceptional: suicides in detention facilities often go under the radar but are common, and can generally be explained by “systemic factors”—inattention, understaffing, poor training—rather than “nefarious intent.” On Twitter, left-wing commentators, and reporters who have covered prisons, made a similar point. Yesterday, new reporting bolstered their case: per the AP, the guards responsible for Epstein have worked extreme overtime of late, due to staffing shortages.

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Conspiracy theories are flourishing because of low trust in our institutions and those who lead them. The lack of trust, increasingly, is warranted. But where conspiracies exacerbate it, journalism can work toward restoring it. The parlous state of America’s prison system is one area where reporters can help shine the light of truth. The networks that allegedly enabled and participated in Epstein’s crimes represent another. Rather than musing darkly about plots to silence Epstein, we, as journalists, should press to ensure that his silence doesn’t curtail the investigation into his misdeeds, and those of purported associates. On Friday, a court unsealed more than 2,000 pages of documents alleging misconduct not just by Epstein, but by a clutch of figures in politics and business, including Prince Andrew, the British royal. (He has denied wrongdoing.) The documents offer a very concrete place for reporters to continue their inquiries. Many people, inevitably, will lean on the crutch of conspiracy no matter what. At the very—very—least, journalists should not be among them.

Early this morning, the homepages of major outlets were already looking forward to the next steps in the Epstein case. The Times focused on Epstein’s shady finances; the Post on Ghislaine Maxwell, the socialite who has been accused of running the trafficking operation on Epstein’s behalf. (Maxwell denies wrongdoing and has yet to be charged.) The Miami Herald, the paper which forced the Epstein story back onto the agenda last year, asks what will happen to Epstein’s assets now he’s dead. Clearly, this story is far from over, and doesn’t need conspiracy to sustain it. “We have got to keep our focus on the victims,” Julie K. Brown, the chief Herald reporter on the story, told CNN yesterday. “There’s so many avenues that have yet to be investigated.”

Below, more on Jeffrey Epstein:

  • Attention, I: For the Post, Abby Ohlheiser tracks the fringe-to-Trump-to-press pipeline for conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy theories aren’t fueled by facts; they are fueled by attention,” she writes. “The media remains in a cycle: As Trump tweets or retweets, the tweets become news, Trump tweets more about the news, and the media covers those tweets, too, inevitably sharing them with the 78 percent of Americans not on Twitter.”
  • Attention, II: Like clockwork, some of the Sunday shows jumped off of Trump’s conspiracy retweet to discuss the Epstein case. On Fox News Sunday, Kellyanne Conway (who else?) defended Trump; “I think the president just wants everything to be investigated,” she said.
  • “Consequences”: One of Epstein’s attorneys blamed the media, politicians, and judges for Epstein’s apparent suicide; all have “blood on their hands,” he said. (As Brown responded on Twitter, “Epstein never ever denied what he did and once compared it to stealing a bagel.”) Epstein’s lawyers hired Michael Baden, a private pathologist (and Fox News contributor), to oversee Epstein’s autopsy, which already took place. According to the Times, New York’s chief medical examiner is confident Epstein killed himself, but will wait for more information before making her determination public.
  • Consequences: The final episode of Conspiracylanda Yahoo News podcast series examining the theories around the murder of Seth Rich, a former Democratic National Committee staffer—was a potent reminder that burgeoning conspiracy theories can have painful real-world consequences. It was released last week, and is worth a listen.


Other notable stories:

  • A team from the Times charted the “striking degree of overlap” between the rhetoric of right-wing media stars and the racist screed that a shooter posted online prior to killing 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last weekend—reporters found hundreds of references to a Hispanic “invasion” on Fox News, conservative talk-radio shows, and websites such as Breitbart. Last week, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, a host on NPR, argued in The Atlantic that the press failed to center Latinos in its stories about the El Paso shooting. “News organizations failed after El Paso because, for years, we’ve marginalized voices of Latinos in our coverage—and in our own newsrooms,” she wrote.
  • Also for the Times, Jo Becker reported from Sweden on an “international disinformation machine”—with ties to the US and Russia—that’s fueling the rise of nationalism worldwide. A constellation of murky far-right websites has propagated the idea that mass immigration has eroded Swedish culture; on at least one occasion, Russian TV crews offered to pay immigrants to “make trouble” on camera. “The distorted view of Sweden pumped out by this disinformation machine has been used, in turn, by anti-immigrant parties in Britain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere to stir xenophobia and gin up votes.”
  • For CJR, Emily Bell writes that Facebook’s reported offer to pay news organizations to syndicate their content would mark a significant shift in the platform’s DNA. “Facebook is taking something it is historically bad at—cultivating relations with news organizations—and attacking the problem with something it is extremely good at—copying and often improving features offered by competitors, in this case, Apple.”
  • Eleven current and former moderators of YouTube content told the Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin that the company plays favorites when it comes to enforcing its speech guidelines. Moderators’ “recommendations to strip advertising from videos that violate the site’s rules were frequently overruled by higher-ups within YouTube when the videos involved higher profile content creators who draw more advertising,” Dwoskin writes.
  • Kashmir is still cut off. Last week, the government of Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, moved to revoke the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, which is majority Muslim, and imposed an information blackout. With the internet down, “space has been created for the wildest rumors,” the Times, whose journalists got an inside view of Kashmir, reports. “A few small Kashmiri newspapers have continued unbowed, putting out thin paper editions… that are carefully passed hand to hand throughout the day.”
  • Last week, Ta Kung Pao, a pro-Beijing newspaper, published personal information about an American diplomat, including the names of her children, after she met with pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. The article sparked a diplomatic row between the US and China. The South China Morning Post has more. Anti-government protests continue to roil Hong Kong: today, demonstrators grounded outbound flights.
  • And in Iowa, a newspaper carrier helped save a woman from a sex trafficking ring, the AP reports. ICYMI, I dived into the unheralded—and sometimes dangerous—work of newspaper carriers for CJR’s Winter 2018 print issue.

ICYMI: The Politics of Criticism

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