Why is Jeffrey Epstein news? On one level, the answer is obvious. Yesterday’s Miami Herald investigative package—describing how the ultra-rich, ultra-connected serial pedophile got away near-unpunished despite ample evidence he’d been compulsively molesting dozens and dozens of schoolgirls—was filled end-to-end with credible accounts of horrible, shocking crimes and of the horrible, shocking effort that powerful and respected people put into covering up those crimes. If that’s not news, then what is?
Yet for all the new material the Herald unearthed about how Epstein was protected and enabled, there’s been a public record for years of the basic outlines of what Epstein did, and of how lightly he was held accountable for it. It was covered, if you read the right outlets. But—as with Bill Cosby, as with Harvey Weinstein, as with Bill Clinton; as with, for that matter, the Iran-Contra pardons or the American torture program or mass foreclosure fraud by the banks or Donald Trump’s lifetime of tax evasion—none of the titans of the news business chose to drive a wedge into the crack between the known facts and the status of the people and institutions involved, and to hammer at it till the whole thing might bust open.
The crack, in this case, is the question of how in the world this guy got away with a short, soft prison sentence, for doing things that would get an ordinary person locked up forever. Prosecutors chose, the Herald explained, to cut a plea bargain—concealed from the victims—that was grossly contradictory to the actual known offenses and which shut down further investigation into the ever-expanding list of Epstein’s possible targets.
Despite substantial physical evidence and multiple witnesses backing up the girls’ stories, the secret deal allowed Epstein to enter guilty pleas to two felony prostitution charges. Epstein admitted to committing only one offense against one underage girl, who was labeled a prostitute, even though she was 14, which is well under the age of consent—18 in Florida.
How did a 14-year-old girl get turned into a consenting adult prostitute? Nobody was particularly curious, or curious enough. The New York Times business section checked in on Epstein on the eve of his imprisonment in 2008 and mentioned that his key victim had been 14 at the time of the offense, but followed that by noting that Epstein’s “lawyers say Mr. Epstein never knew the young women were under age, and point to depositions in which the masseuses—several of whom have filed civil suits—admitted to lying about their age.”
The summary of it all was a passage of anodyne, both-sides boilerplate:
To prosecutors, Mr. Epstein is just another sex offender. He did what he did because he could, and because he never dreamed he would get caught, they say. Mr. Epstein’s defenders counter that he has been unjustly persecuted because of his wealth and lofty connections.
Ten years later, the Herald made it clear that every bland premise in that paragraph was the opposite of the truth. Prosecutors treated Epstein as anything but a normal sex offender; his wealth and connections (including the well-paid lawyerly might of Kenneth Starr and Alan Dershowitz) appear to have produced plenty of injustice, but none of it against Epstein.
Will it matter? A civil trial is scheduled to begin next week in Florida, in which a lawyer for some of Epstein’s victims is countersuing Epstein for a suit Epstein filed against him in 2009. And the prosecutor who cut the original deal, Alex Acosta, is now President Donald Trump’s secretary of labor. Trump was reportedly considering him for the vacant post of attorney general until the Herald‘s investigation came out. There are plenty of reasons for national outlets to chase the same investigation as the Herald now. What were the reasons they didn’t, before?