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The scandal around Jeffrey Epstein revealed systemic failures in the country's criminal justice system. His philanthropy has tainted institutions in academia and the arts. Now consider the nation's media organizations. Most were slow to uncover how Epstein was using political connections and money to avoid accountability after preying on minors. NPR's David Folkenflik pulls back the curtain on how two major news organizations struggled with their coverage.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Virginia Roberts Giuffre has accused Epstein of sexually abusing her and loaning her out for sex nearly two decades ago as a teenager to friends like Prince Andrew, eighth in line to the British throne. The prince denies it; so have the other men. In 2015, ABC News secured an interview with Giuffre, by then a grown woman. Here Giuffre reads from a statement she wrote for the story.
VIRGINIA ROBERTS GIUFFRE: I viewed the ABC interview as a potential game-changer.
FOLKENFLIK: ABC flew Giuffre and her family from Colorado to New York City, putting them up at the Ritz Carlton on Central Park South. A team led by Amy Robach and investigative producer Jim Hill interviewed her on camera for more than an hour, and the network confirms this. Giuffre tells NPR she sought accountability.
ROBERTS GIUFFRE: At that time, in 2015, Epstein was still walking around a free man, comparing his criminal behavior to stealing a bagel. I really wanted a spotlight shown on him and the others who acted with him and enabled his vile and shameless conduct against young girls and young women.
FOLKENFLIK: ABC has episodically covered the scandal, yet the interview was never broadcast, and Giuffre says she was never told why. Shortly before the interview was due to air, Harvard emeritus law professor Alan Dershowitz called the network. He was also one of Epstein's lead defense attorneys. Dershowitz said he called ABC's producers and a lawyer to warn them against the interview with Giuffre.
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ALAN DERSHOWITZ: I did not want to see her credibility enhanced by ABC.
FOLKENFLIK: Dershowitz represented Epstein but sometimes socialized with Epstein, too. In an earlier court filing for another accuser's lawsuit, Giuffre had alleged Epstein instructed her to have sex with Dershowitz when she was a teenager. In his own court filings, Dershowitz had rejected her account. The nature of his denials were such that Giuffre sued Dershowitz for defamation earlier this year, and he's asked for it to be dismissed. Giuffre's attorneys believe Dershowitz's intervention convinced ABC not to air the broadcast. ABC would not go into specifics.
A few months after the interview, Giuffre filed a fresh lawsuit with more specifics about Epstein. ABC still passed.
JULIE BROWN: There is this element of wondering or worrying that you might get sued.
FOLKENFLIK: That's the Miami Herald's Julie Brown. Her investigative series late last year forced prosecutors and journalists alike to refocus attention on Epstein. She interviewed Giuffre about him.
BROWN: I found her to be very truthful and credible. There were other things in the record that supported her story, so I didn't have any qualms about it.
FOLKENFLIK: An ABC spokeswoman says the network's reporting four years ago did not fully meet its standards to air and that an investigative team will produce a report in coming months. Twenty-five blocks south of ABC, The New York Times dealt behind the scenes with a different kind of problem covering Epstein. It led to a veteran reporter's departure.
Last August, the Times chased a tip that Tesla founder Elon Musk was relying on Epstein for advice on who should help run his company. New York Times business columnist James Stewart went up to meet Epstein at his townhouse. Stewart recently spoke to a Columbia Journalism Review podcast about the bizarre conversation that ensued.
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JAMES STEWART: And of course, I wondered why would Musk, if this is true, be using a registered sex offender to recruit new members to the board?
FOLKENFLIK: Stewart was not the editor's first choice to interview Epstein. Initially, they had asked Landon Thomas Jr., a veteran financial correspondent. This account is based on interviews with five current and former New York Times staffers. Thomas knew Epstein fairly well, had written two big profiles of him over the years. And for years, Thomas had considered Epstein a valued source for gossip on the financial markets and its players, even after Epstein's release from jail.
But there was a problem. Thomas told editors he considered Epstein something of a friend and then floored them by admitting he had solicited Epstein for a $30,000 gift for a Montessori school in Harlem. Tax forms confirm the donation from a foundation with close links to Epstein.
BROWN: He was a master at manipulating people through money.
FOLKENFLIK: Again, the Miami Herald's Julie Brown
BROWN: He did that with scientists all over the world and educators, academics, politicians. I think it is disheartening if, in fact, it bears out that anyone in the media was part of that.
FOLKENFLIK: Thomas suggested Epstein was just a source, not someone he was going to write about. His editors were aghast and rejected the distinction he was trying to make. A Times spokeswoman confirms that Thomas had clearly violated the ethics policy by soliciting the donation from a source. The spokeswoman says editors benched Thomas instantly from any further professional contact with Epstein. Several Times staffers pulled Thomas' old clips. They tell NPR they were appalled at Thomas' 2008 profile of Epstein published just before Epstein entered jail.
Thomas wrote of Epstein gazing at the azure sea, likening himself to Gulliver, shipwrecked among the denizens of Lilliput, as he poked a lunch of crab and rare steak prepared by his personal chef. Thomas depicted a person of privilege who had gone astray, someone who solicited prostitutes not committed sex crimes against minors. Former colleagues worry that Thomas' guidance on Epstein may have influenced how The New York Times thought about him for years. By the first week of January, Thomas was gone from the paper.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.