Alan Dershowitz and the wheel of pain

Attorney Alan Dershowitz speaks during a news interview outside of Manhattan Federal Court on March 6, 2019, in New York. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

1: A Man Accused

Alan Dershowitz won’t hang up the phone. He’s breathing heavily into the receiver. It’s August 10, the morning Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell. At first Dershowitz wants to go off the record, and I agree. He doesn’t say anything interesting, just the same protestations that he’s made on Twitter and television for years. But when I start asking questions, he begins to berate me. “We’re on the record now,” I tell him. “You don’t get to insult me off the record.” 

So he begins breathing into the phone. He will not hang up. He does not know what to say. 

“If you don’t want to talk, you can hang up,” I say. “But I am not going off the record if you are just going to call me ‘fifth rate.’”

Silence. Breathing. “I won’t have it written that I hung up on a reporter!” He’s shouting. We do this a couple more times. I take notes. He’s livid that I won’t go off the record. He threatens to sue me. Tells me I am a nobody. My tape recorder is somewhere at the bottom of my purse. 

I am talking to Dershowitz because Michael Sitrick, a crisis PR guy who has worked with Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly, thought I should. Sitrick is a fixer who has made a name for himself cleaning up the messes of rich and powerful men (and some women, too). 

Dershowitz is the high-profile lawyer who worked for Epstein. He has also been accused of having sex with an underage girl at Epstein’s mansion. Dershowitz is outraged by that allegation and has been asserting his innocence for more than five years, to anyone who will listen. Two days before Sitrick reached out to me, New York magazine ran a story about Dershowitz, “Alan Dershowitz Cannot Stop Talking.”

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But it’s worse now, because Sitrick and Dershowitz are convinced that the New Yorker, which published a damning profile of Dershowitz in late July, is targeting him because of his pro-Israel views. He says the reporter on the story, Connie Bruck, is after him. 

“Mike, am I the lead steer?” I’d asked Sitrick when he called. The “lead steer” is Sitrick’s idea that all it takes to change the direction of a media stampede is for one journalist to take a contrarian view of the story. It’s a theory that holds well for ranchers trying to redirect a stampede. And it’s worked for Sitrick, who has orchestrated positive press for some odious clients.

When I asked Sitrick if I am the lead steer a laugh was his only answer.

ICYMI: The #MeToo story BuzzFeed, NYT and more didn’t want to publish

 

2: The Media

One of the reasons Dershowitz is so scared is that the New Yorker has come to dominate the #MeToo story. Investigations by Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer about Harvey Weinstein marked a turning point. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the New York Times were first, technically, but the New Yorker helped catch the zeitgeist. After Weinstein went down, it felt like man after man followed. There were stories about Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, and Louis CK, among dozens of others. The New Yorker shared a Pulitzer with the Times for its work. 

No walk of life was untouched. There was the “Shitty Media Men” list, where Moira Donegan codified the whisper network and sparked a lawsuit that continues to drag on. (The lawsuit was filed by Stephen Elliott, someone I used to work with and for at The Rumpus. I tweeted about his horrible treatment of me and I felt like I had shown the whole world the throbbing mangled mess of my insides.)

It was a black hole of pain that sucked us all in. Either we were complicit or we were victims. Either we had been groped by bosses or furtively worried we’d done the groping. Or maybe worse, that we had seen it and done nothing. Or maybe we had, as Farrow reported in his piece on Joi Ito at the MIT Media Lab, willfully ignored the facts in pursuit of money. In group text messages and in private groups on Facebook, women shared repressed memories of childhood, college, abusive partners. A media man I dated once told me he and his friends had plans if they were ever “#MeTooed.”

“Why would you need a plan? Just don’t harass people,” I said.

He shrugged. “You never can tell what will happen.”

It didn’t take long for people to say, “We’ve gone too far.” In fact, I heard the phrase, “#MeToo has gone too far” from a powerful person in publishing at a party in Washington, DC in October 2017, the same month that the Weinstein stories broke. That’s how long it didn’t take. The cry of cancelled men was that they supported #MeToo, it’s just that the movement got things wrong in their case. 

ICYMI: Meet the 26-year-old who has been laid off three times

 

3: The Accusation

The first time I talked to Alan Dershowitz was July 29, the day the New Yorker published its piece. The story was damning. It outlined darker points of Dershowitz’s career: rhetorically advocating sex with minors, his relationship with and vigorous defense of Epstein against allegations of rape and sex trafficking. The story also noted that Virginia Roberts Giuffre accused Dershowitz of participating in Epstein’s sexual cabal. Dershowitz responded by attacking Giuffre in the press. In April, Giuffre had filed a defamation suit against Dershowitz.

Giuffre told the New Yorker, “Jeffrey got away with it, basically. And Dershowitz was one of the people who enabled that to happen … Dershowitz thinks he’s a tyrant and can get away with anything. And I wanted to say, I might be as meek as a mouse, but I’m going to hold you accountable.”

On that day in July, Dershowitz seems subdued over the phone. He just wants a fair chance. What he really wants is vindication. But he won’t get that, he suspects, because he’s bold, he’s a liberal who supports Donald Trump. He supports Israel. He’s a victim here. The real victim. 

He accuses Bruck of using a conspiracy website, Rense.com, as her source for some of the allegations in her piece. (The New Yorker declined to make Bruck available to speak on the record, but the magazine did say she had a more authoritative source than Rense.com.)

Dershowitz then tries to poke holes in Giuffre’s motivations. He says that she wants money. Dershowitz brings up the fact that he believes he is being targeted by David Boies, a lawyer who himself has been accused in the New Yorker of contracting a private investigative firm called Black Cube in an effort to block the magazine’s reporting on Weinstein. 

Dershowitz lobs a series of details. Did I know that another woman who claims that she was forced to have sex with Dershowitz at Epstein’s command, Sarah Ransome, lied and said she had a sex tape with the Clintons?

I did know that, because it’s in the New Yorker profile. In fact, so are the details about Dershowitz filing a complaint with the New York bar against Boies and the fact that the complaint was dismissed. It’s an old tactic, lobbing detail after detail after detail at the media until they are overwhelmed. Sitrick does this, too. He calls it the wheel of pain.

In the world according to Dershowitz, he is a victim. But how can he be a victim when he has the power and the money and the platform. Media outlets cover his every tweet. He has a book which will be out on November 19, proclaiming his innocence and blaming instead the #MeToo movement for his trials. And I am covering this story now because a powerful man called me about his powerful friend. How many stories are made like this? A cycle of media and power, we listen because he yells. He yells because we listen. And whoever gets to shout the loudest is the winner. 

You have power and money, I point out to him. You have media coverage, how are you the victim?

“If a powerful woman were raped and she had powerful friends, would they say ‘it’s hard to conceive of you as a victim’? I mean, this is an attempt to destroy my life and my career and my family. Of course I’m a victim. Of course I’m a victim. I’m a victim with resources, and that’s exactly the kind of victim who should fight back.”

“Are you comparing yourself to a rape victim?”

“I’m not making that comparison.”

“You just said that if a powerful woman was raped…”

“I’m saying that anybody who’s a victim of a crime should be speaking out. Let me tell you, if you haven’t experienced four and a half years of being falsely accused of the most heinous crimes imaginable, then it’s very, very hard to be sympathetic, and I understand. But what’s happened to me over the past four and a half years, I’m not comparing it to rape, I’m not comparing it to murder. I’m not comparing it to any other crime. I’m saying it is an extraordinarily serious crime, and a crime that victims should speak out about.”

Dershowitz later threatens to sue me if I use information he insists is off the record. He will have a lawyer email my editor. They will have a phone call.The lawyer will argue that I am a liar. It doesn’t work—this time. 

 

4: The Plan

In 2011, Michael Sitrick sued Jeffrey Epstein, over an unpaid bill for PR services. In that lawsuit is a detailed outline of services rendered

It’s a plan that shows a comprehensive outline of reporters who were contacted about stories and who reached out for interviews. The idea was this: connect with reporters, offer access, overwhelm them with data, threaten their access if things go sideways, go over their heads. That is how men like Epstein went unchallenged for years. How a journalist can know something, but never be able to say it. On August 22, NPR’s David Folkenflick detailed how Epstein allegations went unreported by Vanity Fair. The story alleges that Epstein pressured the magazine’s editor, Graydon Carter, and that Carter caved.

 

5: The Conspiracy

If #MeToo is a conspiracy, as Dershowitz and so many other cancelled men suggest, the question is, who is conspiring? Carter was once quoted as saying, ”You think you’ve arrived … I hate to break it to you, but you’re only in the first room. It’s not nothing—don’t get me wrong—but it’s not that great, either. Believe me, there are plenty of people in this town”—he means New York—“who got to the first room and then didn’t get any further.” 

So who is in the room? In my first call with Dershowitz, he denies knowing Sitrick, even though Sitrick set up the call. I point out that they’d worked on two cases together that I knew of: Sholom Rubashkin, a jailed meat packing executive, and Harvey Weinstein. Later, Dershowitz says in an email that he and Sitrick were work acquaintances, nothing else. When I ask Sitrick about that, he mentions that maybe they’d hung out socially once or twice, but Dershowitz was just a friend.

I find most conspiracies to be intellectually lazy. My father likes to say, when faced with a conspiracy theory, “I have a hard time believing all those idiots could agree on something so complicated.” 

But the more I read about Dershowitz, and talk to him, the more I begin to think about how power is exercised. How would someone feel if they were suddenly kicked out of one of those special rooms, after being inside for so long?

F. Lee Bailey is one of the names that recurs in my research. He and Dershowitz worked together on the O.J. Simpson defense team. Bailey is now disbarred. I call him and ask him what he thinks about Dershowitz. Is there a conspiracy? He doesn’t talk long and won’t commit to a full-conspiracy theory for either side, but he notes that sexual assault allegations are one of the arrows “they” shoot at you to bring you down. Who is “they”?

He has to go and can’t answer.

One week after I talk to Bailey, Epstein commits suicide in jail. A whole new host of conspiracy theories emerge. There doesn’t seem to be an end.

 

6: The Media

Fact-checking a story is reporting in reverse. It’s the checker’s job not only to follow up with sources, but also to help find new ones. It’s a crucial step. The New Yorker explains that a lot of reporting happens in the process of checking. That process with Dershowitz was off the record. 

At first, Dershowitz says, he will show me emails that prove the fact-checking process on Bruck’s piece was faulty. None of the documents arrive. But there is more, he tells me, tiny little details that he questions, elements of the story that he says weren’t given enough time. What about his work for charity? He’s throwing everything at me and, eventually, a call with my editor. 

It’s all sound and fury. Of course, reporting is not infallible. Trial by media is a chaotic scramble of piecing facts together. All you need is one person influential enough to believe you. One steer. 

 

7: The Point

In our first conversation, I ask Dershowitz why he wants to talk. What is he going to tell me that hasn’t already been said before over and over? What is the point? “I will keep talking,” he says, “until I die, and then my children will do it for me!”

That’s the point. 

It’s a Trumpian ethos. A constant cry of victimhood from the highest echelons of power. The never ceasing voice, shouting and shouting. If you listen you’ll forget the point. If you listen and always react, it’s hard to hear anything at all.

ICYMI: Why the left can’t stand The New York Times

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @lyzl.