The Media Today

The broader lessons of the MIT Media Lab’s Epstein scandal

September 9, 2019

In mid-August, Joi Ito, the now-former director of MIT’s ostentatiously futuristic Media Lab, posted an apology. Ito admitted that he had taken money—for the Media Lab and for his own private ventures—from Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and alleged child sex trafficker who had just killed himself in jail; Ito had visited several of Epstein’s residences and invited Epstein to MIT. Predictably, the apology was not the end of the matter. The following week, The Boston Globe reported that Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, which works on social justice-informed approaches to information ecosystems, plans to sever his ties to the Media Lab because of the Epstein donations; Zuckerman confirmed the story, writing on Medium that it’s hard to do work centering marginalized voices “with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly.” The same day, J. Nathan Matias, a visiting scholar at the Media Lab, announced, also on Medium, that he will follow Zuckerman out the door. His reasoning was similar to Zuckerman’s.

MIT’s Epstein scandal continued to fester as Ito clung to his job. Last Wednesday, Ito was reportedly the picture of pained contrition as he addressed an all-hands meeting at the Media Lab—“I’m part of the problem when I thought I was part of the solution,” he said—but he insisted that he should stay on and help make things right. According to the MIT Technology Review’s Angela Chen and Karen Hao, the meeting took a dramatic turn when Nicholas Negroponte, who cofounded the Media Lab in the ‘80s, said unprompted that he had advised Ito to take Epstein’s money, and would give the same advice today. (Negroponte later clarified that his remark was based on “what we knew then”—Epstein was convicted of sex crimes involving a minor in 2008—and that the newer sex-trafficking charges against Epstein would have changed his judgment.) Participants in the meeting reacted angrily. Kate Darling, a research scientist at the Media Lab, twice told Negroponte to “shut up.”

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Ito was reportedly furious with Negroponte; nonetheless, as Chen and Hao wrote, Negroponte’s comments had the potential to “shift a narrative that, at least in public, has primarily blamed Ito for working with Epstein,” by broadening its focus. So much for that. Late Friday, Ronan Farrow, a prolific scourge of compromised people, reported in The New Yorker that Ito had been more aggressive in soliciting checks from Epstein than was previously known, and had worked to conceal Epstein’s identity in internal records because Epstein was blacklisted in MIT’s donor database. (These revelations contradicted assurances that Ito had given in the staff meeting.) Farrow also wrote that Epstein apparently helped broker anonymous donations to the Media Lab from others, including Bill Gates (Gates denies this) and Leon Black, founder of the private-equity firm Apollo Global Management. (Apollo is bankrolling GateHouse’s takeover of Gannett, and is working to build out other media investments.) On Saturday, Ito resigned. He also stepped down from the boards of the Knight and MacArthur foundations (both of which previously stood by Ito), as well as from the board of The New York Times Company.

This story, nonetheless, is much bigger than Ito. For one, it continues the push for accountability that has resulted from recent reporting on Epstein; after Epstein killed himself, victims and commentators worried that justice had eluded them again, but justice has begun to reverberate through Epstein’s past networks. And the Media Lab scandal re-ups the periodic, broader conversation about the sorts of people top universities take their money from: in recent times, MIT alone has accepted donations from the Kochs, other fossil-fuel companies, and the government of Saudi Arabia. (Last year, after the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was tortured and murdered by the Saudi regime, an internal report concluded that MIT had no “compelling case” to cut its ties to agencies of the Saudi state.) As Kara Swisher writes for the Times, the tech industry has similarly tough questions to answer. “I get that not every fortune is clean… But if you can’t manage to say a hard no to those responsible for the dismemberment of a journalist or to a predator of young girls, I am not sure what to say.”

Darling, the Media Lab researcher, perhaps put it best. “If we end this with one person falling on their sword, nothing will change. There is so much work to do to fight the systemic problems at the Media Lab, MIT, and beyond,” she tweeted following Ito’s resignation. “Today we grieve, tomorrow we roll up our sleeves.”

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Below, more on the MIT Media Lab scandal:

  • Lab in the media: The Epstein story drove some sharp, broader criticism of the Media Lab over the weekend. For Slate, Justin Peters, who had some dealings with the institution in the past, claimed a corporate “moral rot” lies behind the Media Lab’s glossy self-presentation. And Business Insider’s Erin Brodwin reported that a Media Lab agricultural initiative “is scraping by with smoke-and-mirror tactics.”
  • Redeeming pariahs: Last week, Anand Giridharadas, a former columnist at the Times, was among those to distance himself from the Media Lab; he previously agreed to be a juror for its “Disobedience Award,” but stepped back. On Friday, Giridharadas slammed Ito and the Media Lab on Twitter.
  • The Times angle: Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, suggested on Twitter that the Times may have sat on some of the information published by Farrow and The New Yorker because Ito was a board member of its parent company. Rosen was informed that this wasn’t true; he posted a correction and apologized.

Other notable stories:

  • Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the Times journalists whose blockbuster story on Harvey Weinstein ignited the #MeToo moment in 2017, are out with She Said, a book about their reporting, Weinstein, and the “complicity machine” that aided his crimes; they report, for example, that the lawyer Lisa Bloom told Weinstein she would plant stories damaging the reputations of his accusers. “Kantor and Twohey instinctively understand the dangers of the Harvey-as-Monster story line—and the importance of refocusing our attention on structures of power,” Susan Faludi writes in her review for the Times. The Post’s critic Carlos Lozada calls the book “an instant classic of investigative journalism.”
  • Are Trump’s attacks on the press getting worse? In recent days, amid general cries of “fake news,” the president shared videos mocking CNN, one of which shows the network’s logo superimposed on a car as it crashes and explodes; assailed “Obama flunky Peter Baker” of the “Failing New York Times”; and called for Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker, of the Post, to be barred from the White House grounds because “their reporting is so DISGUSTING & FAKE.” Trump took issue with Rucker and Parker’s story, now over a week old, chronicling the president’s “lost summer”; Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, and her deputy, Hogan Gidley, responded with a parody article, The Washington Post’s lost summer,” that ran on Thursday in the Washington Examiner. Trump repeatedly tweeted the link. The president will soon have another way to reach his fans: his 2020 campaign is launching an app, Politico’s Anita Kumar reports.
  • In an essay for The New Yorker, the author Jonathan Franzen asks: “What if we stopped pretending” that we can avert the coming climate apocalypse? A number of experts accused The New Yorker of indulging “climate doomism”: the environmental scientist Jonathan Foley called Franzen’s article “shallow, poorly researched, self-indulgent… Probably one of the worst climate pieces I’ve ever read outside the denier’s camp.”
  • On Friday, ThinkProgress, an independent news site linked to the Center for American Progress, effectively shuttered after management failed to find a buyer. The domain will continue to exist, but will be folded into CAP as a platform for academic writing; per The Daily Beast, a dozen ThinkProgress staffers have lost their jobs. On Twitter, several commentators accused the Democratic Party establishment of failing ThinkProgress.
  • Some hopeful newspaper news, for a change: The Compass Experiment, a project founded by McClatchy and Google, announced the launch of Mahoning Matters, a news site in Youngstown, Ohio, that will fill part of the void left by the recent closure of The Vindicator; three former Vindicator staffers have come on board. Elsewhere, Janesville, Minnesota, has a local paper again after nine years without one. And in Arkansas, the Helena-West Helena World found a buyer, sparing it from GateHouse’s plan to shutter it.
  • For CJR, the journalist and poet Alissa Quart argues that the press should consider using radical new forms and language to break free of the frameworks imposed by our leaders. “Let’s turn to activist and reported poetry, create tweetstorms as journalism and protest, assemble more unedited audio clips of utter societal cruelty—children crying when removed from their parents. We could even project information onto buildings.”
  • In Canada, the Vancouver Sun apologized for a column arguing that the country “should say goodbye to diversity, tolerance, and inclusion”; editors retracted the piece, but not before it had run in the print edition. Postmedia, the Sun’s increasingly right-wing owner, disowned the column, too—but its author, Mark Hecht, says he was inspired to submit his piece after reading similar columns in the paper.
  • For The Guardian, Jane Martinson assesses the unflinching support of the Telegraph, a conservative newspaper in the UK, for the hardline agenda of Boris Johnson, the British prime minister who formerly worked at the paper as a reporter and columnist; the Telegraph has been refashioned as “the Daily Boris,” Martinson writes. (ICYMI back in June, I profiled Johnson’s career as a journalist for CJR.)
  • And the Trump administration will pay for “influential” British journalists to tour American farms, a bid to allay fears among British voters that a proposed trade deal with the US would compromise food-safety standards. (“Chlorinated chicken,” which is allowed in the US but not in the UK, is especially controversial.) BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano has more.

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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.