The Miami Herald exposed a vast criminal network and a government cover-up – but why the silence elsewhere?
When Julie K Brown of the Miami Herald approached a former police chief of Palm Beach, Florida, in 2017, hoping to get him to open up about his investigation of the child sex crimes for which the wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein had been fleetingly jailed a decade earlier, she was surprised by how unresponsive he was.
Michael Reiter told Brown he had been down this road many times and was sick of it. As Brown recalled in a WNYC interview last month, Reiter said he had talked to many reporters and told them precisely where to find damning evidence against Epstein. But nothing ever came of it.
“He was convinced that a lot of media had squashed the story and he was fed up,” she said.
Reiter warned Brown what would happen were she to continue digging: “Somebody’s going to call your publisher and the next thing you know you are going to be assigned to the obituaries department.”
Brown did not heed his warning. She flung herself at the investigation and eventually persuaded Reiter to go on record. Her resulting, award-winning three-part series last November exposed a vast operation in which 80 potential victims were identified, some as young as 13 and 14 at the time of the alleged abuse. She persuaded eight to tell their stories.
Brown also exposed a government cover-up in which Epstein got away with an exceptionally light sentence that saw him serve only 13 months in jail. She discovered that a “non-prosecution agreement” had been negotiated secretly in 2008 by the then top federal prosecutor in Miami, Alexander Acosta, that gave Epstein and his co-conspirators immunity from federal prosecution.
In 2017, Acosta was appointed by Donald Trump as labor secretary, a post that ironically is responsible for combating sex trafficking.
The media’s handling – or mishandling – of the Epstein affair is a story of extremes.
It is a heartwarming success story, of how one intrepid reporter pierced the veil of secrecy and found the truth. Brown’s coverage has had consequences: Epstein was arrested last Saturday and indicted on new sex trafficking charges by New York prosecutors who praised her work. In the fallout, Acosta was forced to resign.
But there is also a less cheerful narrative. Why did the police chief’s appeals to the media fall on deaf ears? Why would so many years pass before the shocking extent of Epstein’s crimes and Acosta’s sweetheart deal were revealed by a local newspaper with severely limited resources?
In fact, the two extremes of the story are directly linked: Brown told WNYC one of the reasons she began looking into Epstein was that she was puzzled about the public silence surrounding him.
“There really was nobody pursuing this at all,” she said. “That was one of the things that intrigued me about this case. Why isn’t anyone standing up and screaming?”
‘I believe him … I’m Canadian’
That silence stretches all the way back to 2003, when Vicky Ward wrote a profile of Epstein for Vanity Fair. During her reporting, she was introduced to a mother and her two daughters from Phoenix, Arizona who alleged Epstein assaulted the girls, one of whom was 16 at the time.
Ward told the Guardian she spent a lot of time with the family discussing whether they should go public.
“They were frightened,” she said. “The mother told me that every night when she walked the dog she looked over her shoulder.”
Eventually, the women agreed to go on the record, Ward said, and when Epstein was told about their accounts he went “berserk”. Epstein had already threatened to get a witch doctor to put a curse on Ward’s unborn children – she was pregnant with twins at the time – and now he campaigned to stop Vanity Fair publishing the allegations, even turning up unannounced at the office of the then editor, Graydon Carter.
Publication was delayed, then Ward was told the paragraphs on the abuse of the women had been deleted.
“I was extraordinarily upset,” she said. “I asked the women what they were going to do and they said they would lick their wounds and retreat, as this was exactly what they feared would happen.”
Ward believes Carter caved under Epstein’s pressure. She recalls confronting the editor about the excised paragraphs, and said she has a note in her archives that has Carter saying: “I believe him … I’m Canadian.”
Carter remembers events very differently. In his account there were legal issues around the women’s stories that prevented publication, most significantly that the women themselves were unwilling to go on the record.
In a statement to the Guardian, Carter said: “I respected the work Vicky Ward did at Vanity Fair but unfortunately her recounting of the facts around the Epstein article is inaccurate. There were not three sources on the record and therefore this aspect of the story did not meet our legal and editorial standards.”
Ward says she has documentary evidence that shows the women were emphatically prepared to go public, including fact-checkers’ and legal emails to Epstein from Vanity Fair asking for his response to the allegations made by both sisters.
The Guardian spoke to the mother of the girls, Janice Farmer. She said all three did speak to Ward in 2003 and told her on the record what Epstein had done, including allegations he had invited her youngest daughter, then 16, to his New Mexico ranch and molested her.
“I was hesitant to go public because I was worried about the safety of my daughters – by that point I didn’t trust Jeffrey at all,” Farmer said. “But I did want him to be exposed.”
She said she recalls vividly agreeing with Ward along with her daughters for their stories to be told in her Vanity Fair profile. She also said she recalls vividly her reaction when she learnt that part of the piece was not to be published.
“I felt angry,” she said. “I felt like Jeffrey’s money, power, connections – whatever – had been put into play.”
There is another complicating element to the story. In 2011, after Epstein had gone to jail, Ward wrote a blogpost for Vanity Fair. In it she used language that was strikingly uncritical of Epstein, referring to him as “not without humor” and praising him for being highly knowledgable.
She referenced Epstein’s sex crimes as “sexual peccadilloes” and referred to her 2003 Vanity Fair profile of him, saying it had alluded to his sexual relationships with young women but “didn’t really go there, focusing instead on … how Jeffrey made his money”.
The piece went on: “This is not to say I didn’t hear stories about the girls. I did. But, not knowing quite whom to believe, I concentrated on the intriguing financial mystery instead.”
The Guardian put this blogpost to Ward and she said she regretted writing it. At that point, she said, the victims she had interviewed were not willing to talk. But nonetheless, “this blog did not need to be written – here I am toeing the Vanity Fair party line”.
‘My journalism benefited from #MeToo’
Fast forward to 2007, when Acosta reached his bizarrely lenient plea deal with Epstein. By then, investigators had identified 35 potential victims who said they had been lured into Epstein’s Palm Beach mansion and sexually assaulted.
Yet records obtained by the Miami Herald showed prosecutors led by Acosta actively worked with Epstein’s attorneys to minimize media coverage.
One of Acosta’s prosecutors wrote in an email to Jay Lefkowitz, an Epstein lawyer: “On an ‘avoid the press’ note … I can file the charge in district court in Miami which will hopefully cut the press coverage significantly. Do you want to check that out?”
That Acosta felt that he had to resign on Friday was an indication that the collective failure of US media to grapple with a story of serial sex trafficking and abuse that had been hiding in plain sight for years no longer holds true. In the wake of Brown’s exemplary reporting, the rest of the American media has fallen in line. Acosta paid the price.
That may in part be thanks to the #MeToo movement that had not erupted when Brown began her investigation but did draw attention to her work when it was published. As she told MSNBC after Epstein’s arrest last weekend: “My journalism benefited from #MeToo as we [started] giving these cases much more scrutiny.”
Mary Angela Bock, associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s school of journalism, said #MeToo had dented the prevailing patriarchy that has existed in newsrooms for decades and that had led to sexual crimes being overlooked as merely “the way of the world”.
“#MeToo has led to greater awareness among journalists that this is not OK,” she said. “This is not ‘boys being boys’. This is rape and sexual exploitation of children.”
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