The Media Ignored Jeff Epstein Until They Couldn't

Politics Features Jeffrey Epstein
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The Media Ignored Jeff Epstein Until They Couldn't

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

—Leonard Cohen

In the case of the United States vs. Jeffrey Epstein, the bare facts are easily stated. From the New York Times on July 9, 2019:

Prosecutors in New York have accused the billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls and of asking them to recruit others.

What about the facts which immediately surround the bare facts? They are easily stated, too. The Times again, from July 7, 2019:

Federal prosecutors have resurrected a federal sex crimes case against the billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein by focusing on accusations that he sexually assaulted girls at his mansion in Manhattan — more than a decade after a widely criticized plea deal shielded him from similar charges in Florida. Federal prosecutors unsealed the new charges on Monday accusing Mr. Epstein, 66, of running a sex-trafficking operation that lured dozens of underage girls, some as young as 14, to his Upper East Side home and to a mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., according to an indictment.

The same story notes that Epstein was offered a secret plea deal by federal prosecutors, “one of whom is now in President Trump’s cabinet.”

That would be Alexander Acosta, Labor Secretary, whose responsibilities include human trafficking, as Michelle Goldberg once reminded us. In a December 2018 column for the Times, Goldberg wrote that Acosta, “a rising star in Republican circles,” worked out a deal where Epstein pled guilty to two felony prostitution charges in Florida. That was in 2007. Furthermore, Goldberg writes:

Despite Florida’s strict sex offender laws, Epstein was given work-release to spend up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, in his Palm Beach office. Housed in a private wing of Palm Beach County jail, he hired his own security guards. During a subsequent year of probation, he was nominally under house arrest, but permitted to take his private jet on trips to Manhattan and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Prosecutors seem to have deliberately kept the details of the settlement from Epstein’s victims.

In the July 7 story, the paper of record notes Epstein had ties to a “wide array” of high-profile types, from “Mr. Trump to Bill Clinton to Prince Andrew.” In 2002, the story informs us, Trump referred to Epstein as a “terrific guy” who was “a lot of fun to be with,” who liked women “on the younger side.”

The Times goes on to inform us that “In the era of #MeToo, Mr. Epstein’s case had remained stubbornly unresolved.”

Why was Epstein’ case “stubbornly unresolved?” As yet another Times story notes on July 8:

Accusations of sexual predation have dogged Mr. Epstein for decades. Until his arrest on Saturday, his case had been held up as a prime example of how insulated, powerful men can escape accountability.

Why do I quote from the Times at length? Because Paste has a politics section, and where politics is concerned, the story is never about the story. Where politics is concerned, the Epstein story is not about Epstein, but what surrounds Epstein. If found guilty of these alleged crimes, Epstein becomes a subject for the American penal system, for questions of abnormal psychology, and for the study of evil.

But as far as politics goes, Epstein is a story about how our system protects powerful and wealthy people. This protection is not a bug in the system. It is a feature.

The story of Jeffrey Epstein is the best argument for why you have to have a systematic theory of politics. There have been alleged monsters like Epstein since the dawn of time. The question is not “Why do Epsteins exist?” The question is “Why are Epsteins protected?”

The accusations against Epstein are damning. As the poet wrote, this is a story everybody knows.

Everybody had heard the allegations about Epstein. Everybody had heard that Epstein palled around with wealthy and famous people. Everybody had heard about Epstein’s plane. And what allegedly happened there.

Everybody knew what had to be done with Epstein: bring him to court. Everybody knew this, just as everybody knows what has to be done in politics: reduce the power of the wealthy, bring jobs back to the country, stop droning other people, stop climate change.

The question in politics (and in the Epstein case) is: why was nothing done?

To answer that question, let me repeat my earlier question: Why do I quote from the Times at length? Because the Times represents settled, established American power. The fact of it, and the practice of it. The Times does not stand alone; it is part of a larger system. But if you want an explanation for why the Epstein story was “stubbornly unresolved,” all you have to do is search the Times for Jeffrey Epstein’s name.

In 2018 and 2019, the Times had its act together, and covered Epstein much as it learned to cover Weinstein, and Cosby. But like practically every other mainstream media platform in America, this virtuous behavior was recently learned. Before 2018, notice of Epstein was few and far between. Epstein is mentioned in 2015 stories, but it’s usually in conjunction with other Important Names: Prince Andrew, Alan M. Dershowitz, and so on.

Go back a little further, and you can feel the paper’s ambivalence about criticizing someone Very Rich. Back then, Epstein was mostly a subject for the paper’s “Dealbook” section.

From the curiously-titled “Amid Lurid Accusations, Fund Manager Is Unruffled” in 2007:

The trial of Jeffrey Epstein, an intensely private New York money manager with several billionaire clients, is scheduled for early next month in Palm Beach, Fla. But in an encounter with Philip Weiss, who profiles Mr. Epstein in this week’s issue of New York magazine, Mr. Epstein sounded remarkably relaxed for someone facing a seamy felony charge. ... Given such allegations, Mr. Weiss was surprised to encounter Mr. Epstein’s unabashed attitude first hand. “I’d expected that when [Mr. Epstein] came into the office of PR guru Howard Rubenstein, he would be sober and reserved,” Mr. Weiss writes. “Quite the opposite. He was sparkling and ingenuous.”

From earlier that year, in a July 2007 article titled “More Bad News for Jeff Epstein?” The question mark is instructive:

It was just about a year ago that Jeffrey Epstein, the reclusive financier, was being charged with soliciting prostitutes in Palm Beach, Fla. He may now have another image problem on his hands. ... It is a tantalizing nugget of information about someone who rarely discloses anything about his business or his billionaire clients. Despite his penchant for privacy, Mr. Epstein runs in prominent circles: he once flew former President Bill Clinton on his 727.

“Tantalizing nugget.” An “image problem.”

A year before, in 2006, the Times wrote a story titled “The Freedom of a 10-Digit Bank Balance.”

New York magazine’s impressionistic view of billionaires by writer Vanessa Grigoriadis is introduced with a promise that it will reveal that “even for today’s b-boys, there are some things money can’t buy.” But the article is, in large part, a list of all the things billionaires can buy — access to exclusive clubs, proximity to fashion models, ridiculously expensive Manhattan apartments and the like. ...

It goes on like that for a while. And then, in the list:

Michael Bloomberg can plunk down millions of dollars for an estate in Florida for his daughter’s equestrian training. Investor Jeffrey Epstein can run his business on a 70-acre private island in the Virgin Islands. But the article also notes that Mr. Epstein has been accused of soliciting prostitution during massages he allegedly received from teenage girls in his Palm Beach, Fla., home — suggesting that even a billionaire’s freedom has its limits. He has hired a team of high-powered lawyers to look into the backgrounds of his accusers, and some have complained that Mr. Epstein is receiving gentle treatment from prosecutors because of his wealth. In the end, how much freedom Mr. Epstein is allowed may be determined in court.

Listen to how they talk about Epstein! As if they were watching the Belmont Stakes. As if it were all a horse race! The next sentence is literally “Billionaires also have the freedom, if they choose to exercise it, to ‘save the world.’”

In 2008, when the allegations against Epstein began to mount, the Times had moved to mixing scenic description with an occasional nod to the stories of horror:

The bad news arrived by phone last week on Little St. James Island, the palm-fringed Xanadu in the Caribbean where Jeffrey E. Epstein, adviser to billionaires, lives in secluded splendor. Report to the Palm Beach County jail, the caller, Mr. Epstein’s lawyer, said. So over the weekend Mr. Epstein quit his pleasure dome, with its staff of 70 and its flamingo-stocked lagoon, and flew to Florida. On Monday morning, he turned himself in and began serving 18 months for soliciting prostitution. “I respect the legal process,” Mr. Epstein told The New York Times in a telephone interview as he prepared to leave his 78-acre island, which he calls Little St. Jeff’s. “I will abide by this.”

Still, the paper of record can’t help itself from engaging in a flight of poetry.

It is a stunning downfall for Mr. Epstein, who grew up in Coney Island and went on to live the life of a billionaire, only to become a tabloid monument to an age of hyperwealth. Mr. Epstein owns a Boeing 727 and the largest town house in Manhattan. He has paid for college educations for personal employees and students from Rwanda, and spent millions on a project to develop a thinking and feeling computer and on music intended to alleviate depression. But Mr. Epstein also paid women, some of them under age, to give him massages that ended with a sexual favor, the authorities say.

Three sentences about Epstein the billionaire, one sentence about the allegations. There’s the media coverage of billionaires, in a nutshell.

There you have it. Silence for the most part, and then courtly hand-waving when the alleged is mentioned.

What better explanation could there be for the “stubbornly unresolved” nature of Epstein’s case? Indeed, is there a better way to explain the Weinstein silence? Or the Cosby silence? Or the Trump silence?

In none of these cases was there actual silence. The victims of Weinstein, of Cosby, and of Trump were speaking, loud enough for the world to hear. The world heard. But the Times, and the readership of the Times, made a point of not hearing.

The powerful institutions of our country protected Epstein, when he was allegedly committing his alleged crimes. Including the Times. Everybody knows.

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