A Dead Cat, A Lawyer's Call And A 5-Figure Donation: How Media Fell Short On Epstein
A coterie of intimidating lawyers. A deployment of charm. An aura of invincibility. A five-figure donation to a New York Times reporter's favored nonprofit. A bullet delivering a message. Even, it is alleged, a cat's severed head in the front yard of the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair.
Such were the tools the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein is said to have used to try to soften news coverage and at times stave off journalistic scrutiny altogether.
Before his death earlier this month, Epstein owned the largest townhouse in Manhattan, little more than a mile from many of the nation's leading news organizations. He counted a former and a future president among his friends. He partied with royalty and supermodels. He was said to advise billionaires.
Epstein killed himself, authorities say, in federal prison as he faced criminal charges alleging sex trafficking of underage girls, some as young as 14, in his mansions in New York and Florida. And yet with a few notable exceptions, the national media infrequently covered Epstein's behavior and rarely looked at the associates who helped him evade accountability for his actions — at least, not until the Miami Herald's Julie K. Brown's investigative series late last year.
"We count on the press to uncover problems, not merely to report on when problems have been prosecuted and when people have been indicted, but to uncover problems before they reach that stage," says David Boies, an attorney for several of Epstein's accusers. "And here you had a terrible problem. A horrific series of abuses."
Boies' firm helped file lawsuits in 2015 and 2017 for clients alleging that Epstein and his associates had sexually trafficked underage girls, at his various homes. The suits were publicly available documents but received little attention in the press.
"We spread them out in two public complaints. We would go to the media to try to explain what was going on," Boies tells NPR. "With the exception, really, of the Miami Herald and the Daily Beast, prior to the arrest [of Epstein this summer] there was almost no substantive coverage."
In some cases, Epstein successfully scared off some accusers and struck confidential settlements with others, making it harder for reporters to get them to recount their experiences on the record.
Journalists who have tracked the story say attitudes in society at large and newsrooms themselves shifted with the #MeToo movement that burst forth in the fall of 2017. Some of those cases involved prominent actresses who command resources and media attention.
Some critics of the press's performance say ruefully there may have been a class element at play. As described in court documents, Epstein and his associates recruited young women from working-class backgrounds and disrupted families.
"We need to look at ourselves, too," the Miami Herald's Brown tells NPR. "We need to understand why this wasn't scrutinized in this way before."
Separate instructive episodes stretch from 2003 to 2018 and involve three major American media outlets — Vanity Fair, ABC News and The New York Times. And taken together, they may help illuminate Epstein's drive to avoid tough journalistic scrutiny and the media's reluctance to take the story on.
Early one morning in the winter of 2003, Vanity Fair Editor-in-Chief Graydon Carter arrived at his magazine's offices to find an unexpected visitor standing alone in the reception area behind its glass doors. It was Jeffrey Epstein.
In 2002, Carter had read a gossip item in the New York Post's Page Six column and decided to assign a reporter to answer the pressing question: Who exactly was Epstein and why was he flying former President Bill Clinton and other celebrities around on his jets?
Under Carter, Vanity Fair was known for eagerly dissecting the nation's elites and just as eagerly rubbing shoulders with them.
People had gossiped about Epstein's influence and his sexual appetite. Also in 2002, future President Donald Trump told New York magazine: "It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side."
Carter assigned the reporter Vicky Ward to write the story. This summer, she told NPR's Morning Edition she wanted to pinpoint the source of Epstein's wealth and to figure out why very young women were always spotted around him.
Ward interviewed two sisters, Maria and Annie Farmer. They alleged Epstein and his former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, lured them into his orbit for sexual exploitation. (Maxwell denies this and all related allegations.)
Maria, an aspiring artist, alleged Epstein and Maxwell sexually assaulted her together in an Ohio apartment. Annie was just 15 years old, the sisters allege, when Epstein sexually assaulted her at his vast New Mexico ranch. (Maria later detailed these allegations in an affidavit for a lawsuit filed in 2019.)
And so that morning when Epstein had materialized at the magazine's offices, he was there to press Carter not to devote any attention to Epstein's apparent interest in very young women.
"He was torturing Graydon," says John Connolly, then a Vanity Fair contributing editor, who reported on crime and scandal.
Epstein beseeched Carter and berated him, Connolly says, that morning and subsequently, in a flood of phone calls. Epstein denied to Carter any misconduct and wanted him to steer away from the subject.
In March 2003, Vanity Fair did publish Ward's piece. Titled "The Talented Mr. Epstein," it took a tough look at Epstein's lavish lifestyle and questioned the origins of his fortune.
It did not report the Farmers' accusations of abuse.
In a statement, Carter says Vanity Fair takes its legal obligations seriously, especially when the subject is a private person rigorously protected under libel laws.
Carter previously told The Hollywood Reporter that Ward did not have three sources on the record, which he said he considered necessary for the story. This week, Carter amended that: He says Ward did not have three sources that met the magazine's "legal threshold."
For the first time, in comments to NPR, Maria and Annie Farmer are publicly confirming they gave interviews to Ward. They say they both spoke about their abuse on the record, by name, back in 2002. Their mother, Janice Farmer, tells NPR she did too. And she says they were crestfallen Vanity Fair didn't report their allegations.
"We decided to share our story about Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell with a writer for Vanity Fair in 2002 because telling other people what happened to us, as we had already done, did not lead to either of them being held accountable," they wrote in a statement for this article. "We spoke on the record. Our mother spoke on the record."
"It was terribly painful," the Farmer sisters wrote in a statement for this article. "We hoped the story would put people on notice and they would be stopped from abusing other young girls and young women. That didn't happen. In the end, the story that ran erased our voices."
Boies, a lawyer for the Farmer sisters, says the omission made it more difficult to get victims and witnesses to speak out. "I think it helped create the impression among many of the victims that the media was under Epstein's control, that Epstein had all this power," he says.
Soon after publication, Connolly says, Carter called to share an ominous development: a bullet placed right outside his front door at his Manhattan home.
"That wasn't a coincidence," Connolly says.
Even in the absence of any evidence Epstein was involved, Connolly says, both Carter and he considered the bullet a clear warning from Epstein. Another former colleague, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalls receiving an anguished call from Carter linking the bullet to Epstein. (NPR asked Carter repeatedly over the course of a week for his recollections of the bullet incident along with other elements presented here. After this story was broadcast and posted, his spokeswoman wrote to say Carter recalled the bullet appearing in 2004, not 2003.)
In 2006, federal authorities compiled accusations against Epstein in Florida. Connolly says he headed south to see if there was a story there for Vanity Fair.
As Connolly pursued interviews with women who had worked for Epstein, he says, Carter called him once more. The editor had found another intrusion, this time in the front yard of his Connecticut home: the severed head of a dead cat.
"It was done to intimidate," Connolly tells NPR. "No question about it." (Others who worked for Vanity Fair at the time said the cat's head was the talk of the office.)
Connolly tells NPR he voluntarily decided to stop pursuing the subject for the magazine. He later wrote a nonfiction book about Epstein with the bestselling crime novelist James Patterson.
In statements to NPR, Carter says the magazine never held back on reporting on Epstein because of any sense of threat.
Although federal investigators had identified nearly three dozen victims, Epstein's legal team was able to strike a controversial deal letting him plead guilty to reduced state charges of soliciting prostitution from a teenager.
After release from jail, Epstein was accepted back into society by many leading social figures in Manhattan and beyond. He donated generous amounts to top scientists and scholars at Harvard and MIT and became a philanthropist for leading institutions of art and music.
In 2010, a group of media heavyweights joined a dinner in honor of Britain's Prince Andrew. It was arranged by a Hollywood publicist and hosted by Epstein at his Manhattan townhouse. Attendees included ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos and CBS anchors Katie Couric and Charlie Rose.
The next year, Ward posted an essay about Epstein and his circle. In that 2011 essay, she referred glancingly to Epstein's "sexual peccadilloes."
And Ward wrote about Maxwell in glowing terms as "always the most interesting, the most vivacious, the most unusual person in any room. I've spent hours talking to her about the Third World at a bar until two a.m. She is as passionate as she is knowledgeable. She is curious."
Ward concluded: "In this city, money makes up for all sorts of blemishes."
In March 2014, a society photographer captured a snap of Maxwell as a guest at a black-tie party held after the Academy Awards in Hollywood. The party was sponsored by Vanity Fair. It was hosted by Graydon Carter.
In recent months, a photograph of Virginia Roberts Giuffre has ricocheted around the world. It shows a young woman with a broad smile on her face, and Prince Andrew's hand rests on her hip next to her exposed midriff. The prince is smiling too.
Giuffre is about 17 in the photograph, taken in 2001 at Maxwell's London home. Other pictures of Giuffre published by tabloids are from a party for the supermodel Naomi Campbell. Epstein and Maxwell stand just a few feet from Giuffre in pictures from that night.
Giuffre had become part of Epstein's household. Her presence at Campbell's party, Giuffre later testified, was part of a six-week trip Epstein took her on throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. After a later party she attended for Campbell, she said, Epstein told her to have sex with a businessman, and she said she performed a sexual act upon him. Epstein later procured her for sex with other associates as well, she said, Prince Andrew among them — a charge he and Buckingham Palace sharply reject.
Maxwell had come across Giuffre while the younger woman worked at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, according to allegations in court documents. Giuffre was a locker room attendant there. Maxwell spied her reading a book about anatomy and massage therapy as she happened by.
In May 2009, Giuffre sued Epstein and accused Maxwell of recruiting her to a life of being sexually trafficked while she was a minor. She alleged it took years to escape. (Maxwell rejects her allegations.)
In 2015, the ABC News team of Amy Robach and Jim Hill secured an interview with Giuffre. In a sequence of events confirmed by the network, producers paid for Giuffre and her family to fly from Colorado, where they lived, to New York City and put them up at the Ritz-Carlton hotel on Central Park South. Robach and her news crew interviewed Giuffre on tape for more than an hour about Epstein and his entourage.
"At the time, in 2015, Epstein was walking around a free man, comparing his criminal behavior to stealing a bagel," Giuffre writes in an email to NPR. "I really wanted a spotlight shone on him and the others who acted with him and enabled his vile and shameless conduct against young girls and young women."
"I viewed the ABC interview as a potential game-changer," she writes. "Appearing on ABC with its wide viewership would have been the first time for me to speak out against the government for basically looking the other way and to describe the anger and betrayal victims felt."
The story never aired. And Giuffre has said she was never directly told why.
ABC News would not detail its editorial choices.
One ABC News staffer with knowledge of events says the network received a call from one of Epstein's top lawyers: Harvard law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz. And Giuffre and her lawyers placed great significance on that call.
Dershowitz had been part of the powerhouse legal team that earlier kept Epstein from facing serious federal charges in Florida, which also included former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr and renowned Miami defense attorney Roy Black.
Dershowitz tells NPR he intervened after learning ABC was on the brink of broadcasting its interview with Giuffre. He says he believes he spoke with two producers and a lawyer within the same 24-hour period.
"I did not want to see [Giuffre's] credibility enhanced by ABC," Dershowitz says.
In a December 2014 court filing in another accuser's lawsuit, Giuffre had alleged Dershowitz was among the prominent men Epstein had instructed her to have sex with when she was a teenager. In early 2015, Dershowitz had rejected her account out of hand in his own court filings. (The nature of his denials were such that Giuffre sued Dershowitz for defamation earlier this year. Dershowitz has asked the court to dismiss that lawsuit.)
By September 2015, ABC soon had another possible news hook. Giuffre filed a defamation lawsuit against Maxwell in which she alleged specifics of just how, in her account, she was recruited and abused by Epstein and Maxwell. (Maxwell, again, denies those claims.) Boies, who represents Giuffre, told the Miami Herald that case was settled in 2017.
ABC episodically covered the various lawsuits. Yet it did not broadcast the interview with Giuffre.
"I found [Giuffre] to be very truthful and credible," says the Herald's Brown, who interviewed her several years later for the paper's coverage. "There were other things in the record that supported her story. So I didn't have any qualms about it."
Brown said a fear of being sued was a constant for reporters on the Epstein story.
The network says its decision not to broadcast the interview four years ago reflected proper journalistic care.
"At the time, not all of our reporting met our standards to air, but we never stopped investigating the story," ABC News spokeswoman Heather Riley said in a statement sent to NPR this week. "Over the past year we have put a whole team on this investigation, which will air in the coming months."
The #MeToo movement has affected journalistic practices in handling such circumstances.
In October 2017, more than two years after the Giuffre interview, ABC's Diane Sawyer interviewed the actor Ashley Judd about her accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
At that time, Judd had not yet filed a lawsuit against Weinstein and he did not yet face criminal charges. Yet ABC viewers heard Judd's accusations in full.
Giuffre now lives in Australia with her husband and children.
"I was defeated, once again, by the very people I spoke out against and once again, my voice was silenced," Giuffre tells NPR. "I could not believe that a formidable network like ABC had backed down and given in."
The New York Times
Last August, reporters at The New York Times and other publications received word Tesla founder Elon Musk was relying on Epstein to advise him on whom to consider hiring as board chair or chief executive.
Editors at the Times sent business columnist James Stewart to talk to Epstein. "I wondered why would Musk, if this is true, be using a registered sex offender to recruit new members to the board," Stewart recently told The Kicker, a podcast from the Columbia Journalism Review.
Given Epstein's criminal history, the off-the-record conversation took a surprising turn. As Stewart wrote last week: "He said that criminalizing sex with teenage girls was a cultural aberration and that at times in history it was perfectly acceptable."
Yet Stewart was not the editors' first choice to interview Epstein further.
Initially, they had asked Landon Thomas Jr., a veteran financial correspondent who had been at the Times for 16 years.
Thomas knew Epstein fairly well — having first written about the financier, back in 2002, just before he joined the paper. Thomas had considered him a valued source ever since, even after Epstein's release from jail for sex offenses. Just how valued turned out to be a problem for the reporter and the paper.
This account is based on interviews with five current and former New York Times staffers with knowledge of the episode. They spoke on condition they not be directly named; while the Times confirmed the contours of the incident, it declined to authorize its journalists to comment. Thomas also declined to comment for this story.
But Thomas flagged a problem. He told his editors Epstein had been a great source for years and had become something of a friend as well. How close? Thomas had solicited a $30,000 contribution from Epstein for a Harlem cultural center, he told them.
Thomas suggested Epstein was just a source of information, not someone he would report on or investigate. His editors were aghast. They rejected the distinction he was trying to make.
And his editors benched him instantly from any professional contact with Epstein.
"Soliciting a donation to a personal charity is a clear violation of the policy that governs Times journalists' relationships with their sources," said the Times Co.'s chief spokesperson, Eileen Murphy. "As soon as editors became aware of it, they took action."
NPR found tax records that reflect a $30,000 donation in 2017 to a Montessori preschool called O'Gorman Garden in Harlem from a foundation based in the U.S. Virgin Islands that had previously been controlled by Epstein.
Colleagues pulled up his clippings. Thomas had not written frequently about Epstein. But several Times staffers say they were appalled by a piece they found.
For a 2008 profile, Thomas had traveled to Epstein's private isle in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The piece ran just before Epstein submitted to authorities in Florida for incarceration.
It included this lyrical passage: "As his legal troubles deepened, Mr. Epstein gazed at the azure sea and the lush hills of St. Thomas in the distance, poked at a lunch of crab and rare steak prepared by his personal chef, and tried to explain how his life had taken such a turn," Thomas wrote. "He likened himself to Gulliver shipwrecked among the diminutive denizens of Lilliput."
The article largely presented Epstein as someone who solicited prostitutes, not committed sex crimes against minors. (Federal agents had by then identified several dozen possible victims.)
Rereading the story in August 2018, Thomas' colleagues recalled the exclusives their paper broke that propelled the #MeToo awakening. This, they say, was an embarrassment.
By early January 2019, Thomas was gone from the Times, though the inspiration for his departure was not shared with the public.
Last weekend, the paper reported on a public apology by one of its corporate directors, Joichi Ito, who had landed millions of dollars from Epstein for the institute he leads, the MIT Media Lab. In a tweet, the paper's media editor, Jim Windolf, said that Ito had sought funds from Epstein "a few years after Epstein got out of the Palm Beach County Jail."
NPR's Cat Schuknecht contributed reporting to this story.
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