COUNTERPOINT: Maybe Journalists Aren't the Real Heroes of the Epstein Case

11 years later, firefighters arrive at the scene

July 10, 2019

There are few things professional journalists love more than a compelling story that highlights the importance of professional journalism. The recent arrest and indictment of elite pedophile Jeffrey Epstein is, apparently, one of those stories.

Many journalists took to the popular social networking website Twitter to express their professional pride at the words of U.S Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who said his team of federal prosecutors was "assisted by excellent investigative journalism" in a Monday press conference.

Berman isn't wrong. Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown did remarkable work digging into Epstein's previous encounters with law enforcement, including the controversial sweetheart plea deal he received in 2008, which resulted in Epstein spending just 13 months in a private wing of the Palm Beach County Jail on a "work release" program that allowed him to leave the premises for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

Practically every legal mind agrees on the absurdly unprecedented nature of the leniency Epstein's all-star defense counsel were able to obtain for their wealthy, well-connected client. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that prosecutors broke the law by failing to inform Epstein's victims of the agreement.

Epstein's plea deal was just as absurd—and apparently illegal—when prosecutors signed off on it 11 years ago. Epstein began serving his sentence on June 30, 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis and a contentious presidential election. Brown, according to the Associated Press, began her investigation in January 2018:

The Herald's story, which Brown spent 18 months on, came as news organizations are finding that investigative work helps them stand out and is rewarding in a rough business climate. Recent examples include stories looking into Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, Donald Trump's behavior before and during his presidency and sexual misconduct by public figures.

"It used to be said in this business that we couldn't afford to do investigative journalism," said Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post. "Now we have to do investigative journalism. First of all, it's at the core of what readers expect of us and increasingly, it's at the core of our business model as well."

So, what changed? As you might have noticed, there is a common thread among the examples of investigative journalism's resurgence: The election of Donald Trump. The Epstein case is no different. More than a decade after his conviction, the presumably newsworthy story of a wealthy, well-connected financier credibly accused of serially abusing underage girls as part of an international sex-trafficking operation was given new life around the same time that an angle involving the Trump presidency emerged. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta approved Epstein's plea deal while serving as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

This is not to diminish the effort Brown and the Herald put in to bringing this story to light. It's great journalism. More accurately, it's great local journalism, conducted by serious reporters who don't attend White House Correspondents' Dinners or appear on TV every night. But the Epstein story, and other investigations into powerful creeps such as Harvey Weinstein, contains as many if not more examples of journalistic failures as it does of journalistic successes.

Some of these failures we know about. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter axed credible accusations regarding Epstein's relationship with underage girls from a 2002 profile piece after Epstein objected. Journalist Michael Wolff tried to write a puff piece designed to "rehabilitate" Epstein's image (bad journalism) that was ultimately scrapped due to "fact-checking" issues (better journalism). Other examples may eventually come to light.

The Harvey Weinstein saga is similarly marred by instances of journalists and media executives declining to investigate or publish credible accusations of criminal behavior. Equally perverse is the fact that Weinstein and Epstein were able to avoid scrutiny for years after their sexual deviancy was acknowledged as an "open secret" among their peers.

Perhaps that's more of an indictment of our cultural and political elites than it is of a media establishment that prides itself on "punching up" and holding these powerful individuals to account. There is plenty of condemnation to go around, and plenty of failures to answer for. Acosta and many others should be held to account. For example:

Bharara makes a good point. Perhaps it's something he could have looked into when he was U.S. Attorney for the South District of New York from 2007 to 2017, the very office responsible for the new charges brought against Epstein after all these years.

It's great that journalists have discovered a newfound zeal for investigative reporting under President Trump, who was elected in no small part thanks to the endless, ratings-friendly media coverage he received from the moment he announced his candidacy. All the better if it helps bring about some long-overdue justice for Epstein's victims, the real heroes of this story.

Instead of patting themselves on the back and basking in the professional glow of Julie Brown's hard work, or roaming the Capitol building asking random GOP congressmen if they think Acosta should resign, our national media might themselves start digging into the Epstein story, to which terms like "conspiracy" and "collusion" seem slightly more applicable than to anything that happened between the Trump campaign and Russia.