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Examining The Media Coverage Involving Jeffrey Epstein


Just think back for a moment. When was the first time you heard the name Jeffrey Epstein? He was the Wall Street financier who was facing felony charges for sex trafficking and sexual assault on young girls. It was widely reported that he died on Saturday in his jail cell in Lower Manhattan an apparent suicide. One question we're asking this morning is about the media coverage of Epstein, whose alleged abuse of minors first caught the attention of law enforcement more than a decade ago. Why, with all the allegations, did it take until last fall for a journalistic investigation of Epstein to catch the public's attention?

Let's talk this through with NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So Epstein had been in and out of the headlines for some decade or so. Just remind us, broadly, the chain of events that brought us to what happened over the weekend.

FOLKENFLIK: Right. Well, obviously, there was a burst of coverage this summer in anticipation of these federal charges filed by the Southern District of New York. But before that, you know, you have to go back, call it, a dozen years. There were allegations made in 2006. There were legal haggling over what kinds of files would be charged against him. Ultimately, what he pleaded to was very minor, a single count involving prostitution. I mean, it was an underage teenager, and yet he had incredibly lenient sentencing terms. He got to basically work out of his office down in Miami for 12 hours a day and check back into the jail. Almost unheard of terms.

This came up at the hearing of Alex Acosta, who'd been nominated by President Trump to be the labor secretary. It was used, in a sense, against him because he had been the chief federal prosecutor in Miami at the time, and Democrats tried to use that against him. And at the same time, it was a legitimate question - why was this so easy on him?

And then things really went quiet until the 2018 Miami Herald investigative series of reports by Julie Brown and her follow-up stories early this year. This past Friday, you had the unsealing of documents that named a number of very prominent men and establishing a line of inquiry into Epstein's sex trafficking to these other powerful figures.

GREENE: But so what do you make of all the coverage leading up to this Miami Herald investigation that then led to his ultimate arrest? I mean, was enough done to bring this story out there?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, on the part of Julie Brown and the Miami Herald, you've got to give incredible kudos. You know, she basically looked at Acosta. She saw a guy who was being named to lead the federal department that oversaw, among other things, sex trafficking laws and said, you know, this deserves further warranty. This is a huge story, it's beyond what we covered back for the Miami Herald. A couple other news outlets did bird-dog this story.

But I've got to say I think a lot of news outlets looked away. I think a lot of places saw this as salacious. It was about sex trafficking teens, and they thought of it more as a "Dateline NBC" kind of a special than the kind of report they wanted spend their time doing. And I think, in retrospect, that's a real mistake.

GREENE: Can I ask you - when talking about the media, I mean, and particularly social media in this day and age, you know, over the weekend, all these unfounded conspiracy theories about what may have happened - I mean, that must be - I mean, it's just alarming.

FOLKENFLIK: I mean, the amazing thing is we don't even have to devote ourselves to conspiracies 'cause the facts themselves and the allegations themselves are so outlandish. You know, a former governor, a former senator, a leading eminent IT scholar. And yet, you know, we do need to stick to the facts. We need to figure out why it was that Epstein, if this is true, committed suicide, what happened in that jail. I think it speaks to a lack of trust, into what's going on.

In our highly partisan times, people seek to take advantage. And also the fact, look, the president of the United States, who, himself, retweeted groundless allegations somehow implicating the Clintons, people on the left, somehow tried to implicate Trump, as well. These are the times we live in.

GREENE: NPR's David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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