What are the journalistic lessons of the Jeffrey Epstein saga so far?
The first is undoubtedly the importance of local and regional newspapers; and conversely, how foolish we are to watch helplessly as they shrivel and die.
The hero of this unhappy saga, aside from the brave women who came forward with their stories of abuse and intimidation, is the Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, who stuck with this story for two years, winning the confidence of the women and exposing the shocking sweetheart deal that Epstein’s lawyers cut with then-federal prosecutor Alex Acosta as well as the attempt by the office of Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., to reduce Epstein’s sex-offender status.
Brown’s doggedness is even more impressive for its relative rarity. I’ve written here recently about the dangers our democracy faces from the hollowing out of almost every local newspaper in America. Not even Miami, a big, cosmopolitan, coastal city, is immune to this trend. Its parent company, McClatchy, laid off 425 people in 2008–09 alone. Everybody else took pay cuts. Since then, according to a 2018 Columbia Journalism Review profile, the paper has lost many senior reporters and editors not only to The New York Times and The Washington Post as has always been the case, but also to small startups, nonprofits, and the ever-lurking PR firms. Massive increases in web traffic will never make up for lost print advertising and paper subscriptions, and the result is the disappearance of the thing that makes the paper valuable in the first place: news.
Since the layoffs, the Herald has moved toward what it terms an “audience engagement” model, meaning it is trying to figure out what people want to read and then allow that agenda to drive its articles. That might explain why the (remaining) newsroom erupted in cheers when Brown’s Epstein expose displaced a story about farts on its “most read” standings. Human-interest stories have always been part of the menu of any news publication, but the danger today is that clickbait strangles the news people need to know. CJR reports that a journalist named Lance Dixon left that paper last year after having been assigned to cover local government in North Miami and Coral Gables, which have little in common and are nowhere near one each other. Following his departure, his beat was dropped, and a single Herald reporter was assigned responsibility for 30 towns and cities. Imagine how much local news those residents are getting. And perhaps more significantly, imagine how much fun it must be to be a corrupt official in one of those places without a watchdog keeping an eye on the people’s tax money.
According to the Pew Research Center, America’s newspapers lost 47 percent of newsroom employees between 2008 and 2018 and now Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith tells us that the level of attrition in the news business regardless of platform had its worst quarter since 2009 (with a booming economy and stock market, it must be added). While the loss of Mad magazine has inspired most of the tears among baby boomers recently, the loss of The Vindicator—Youngstown, Ohio’s 150-year-old newspaper—ought to be the real wake-up call. It served a metro area of more than half a million people, making it the largest in the country to lose its only daily paper. And it’s not like it’s the owner’s fault. They’ve lost money for 20 of the past 22 years and received no interest from potential buyers. The economics are just not there for most newspapers, and we are about to enter a golden age of corporate, personal, and political corruption as a result.
Ironically, on a day when the Times was playing catch-up on the Epstein story, it ran another inside the paper on the way the Chinese Communist Party has succeeded in expanding its own opportunities for corruption by getting rid of nettlesome news as well. The Chinese press is now said to be “almost entirely devoid of critical reporting” today, owing to the fact that “under President Xi Jinping, such journalists have all but disappeared, as the authorities have harassed and imprisoned dozens of reporters and as news outlets have cut back on in-depth reporting.” What the Chinese accomplish through Communist repression, America achieves through capitalist indifference.
A second significant lesson of the Epstein story are its revelations about how wealthy and well-connected people use the power of their money and mutual associations to control their media coverage. Why did Graydon Carter, then editor of Vanity Fair, take the accusations of molestation out of a profile in 2002? Was it really, as he says, because it hadn’t been nailed down? Why did Michael Wolff make an “agreement that all fact questions would go through Epstein and only Epstein,” for a New York magazine piece? And why is the lawyer Alan Dershowitz still fighting for his “brilliant” and “irreverent” friend and client, going so far as to write a public letter to the Pulitzer Committee calling the Miami Herald series “fake news and shoddy journalism”? It does make one wonder if Epstein’s true power lays in his ability to implicate or reward other rich or influential people.
But it also lays bare a common problem in reporting on wealthy, well-connected, and heavily lawyered people. They can threaten expensive lawsuits, engender damaging personal and political attacks, and undermine relationships with funders or advertisers. All this can make publishing unflattering stories simply not worth the trouble. After all, it didn’t cost Vanity Fair or New York anything to not publish stories that Epstein was an alleged child rapist. But it could have cost them plenty if they had. (Just ask all the reporters who tried to chase down the Harvey Weinstein story for years before it finally surfaced.)
The fact that Brown had to break through so much bullshit and that we are only now learning just how many important people and institutions kowtowed to this monster is perhaps the most glaring (and revolting) evidence we’ve seen so far that, as Senator Elizabeth Warren puts it, “the system is rigged.” And by allowing local newspapers to die of a combination of starvation and inattention, we invite even more egregious corruption in the future.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that Epstein’s lawyers struck a deal with the office of Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. The district attorney’s office attempted to reduce Epstein’s sex-offender status in court but did not strike an agreement with his lawyers. A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that Alexander Acosta was a judge when he agreed to a deal with Epstein’s lawyers. He was the US attorney prosecuting the case.