It gives me no pleasure to report that I agree, on just this one thing, with Donald Trump Jr., who went on The View Thursday to say he shouldn’t be condemned for naming the Ukraine whistle-blower when ABC News is cracking down on its own Jeffrey Epstein–related leaker.
This is a matter on which Trump Jr. is both self-serving and hypocritical, but let us acknowledge this broken clock. News organizations should not hunt down leakers in their ranks, not when it’s a matter of valid public interest — specifically, how the press reported on a serial abuser — even if the ultimate beneficiary is an ethics-free garbage fire like James O’Keefe’s right-wing muckraking outfit, Project Veritas.
Previous O’Keefe greatest hits include pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for entering a senator’s office under false pretenses, an unsuccessful attempt to trick the Washington Post into reporting false rape allegations against Roy Moore, and a truly creepy scheme to lure a CNN reporter onto a boat stocked with sex toys. What footage he has managed to acquire, he has often deceptively edited. But there is no claim that he misrepresented anything about the footage he published earlier this week of ABC News anchor Amy Robach on a hot mic last summer, in which she vents about the Jeffrey Epstein case.
“I’ve had this story for three years. I’ve had this interview with Virginia Roberts,” Robach says, referring to one of the best-known women who came forward about Epstein. “We would not put it on the air. First of all, I was told, ‘Who’s Jeffrey Epstein? No one knows who that is. This is a stupid story.’” She suggests pressure from Buckingham Palace — Prince Andrew was among those Roberts accused of participating in Epstein’s sex trafficking — was partially responsible.
Robach later said in a statement that she had been “caught in a private moment of frustration,” adding: “I was upset that an important interview I had conducted with Virginia Roberts didn’t air because we could not obtain sufficient corroborating evidence to meet ABC’s editorial standards about her allegations. My comments about Prince Andrew and her allegation that she had seen Bill Clinton on Epstein’s private island were in reference to what Virginia Roberts said in that interview in 2015. I was referencing her allegations — not what ABC News had verified through our reporting.”
But ABC News then took it further, confirming to Yashar Ali that it was searching for Project Veritas’ source, saying in a statement, “We take violations of company policy very seriously, and we’re pursuing all avenues to determine the source of the leak.” Ali also reported that the person who accessed the footage now works at CBS News and has been fired. (I asked ABC News to elaborate on its decision and have yet to hear back.)
As the journalist who did report out Roberts and other victims’ claims, the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown charitably pointed out that ABC News wasn’t the only one to punt on the story. In August, NPR’s David Folkenflik reported that years ago, Vanity Fair passed on allegations from a named accuser. He also reported extensively on the quashing of the ABC News interview, with a detail that the younger Trump conveniently left out. His father’s loyal defender, Alan Dershowitz, whom Roberts also accused, claimed credit for killing the story, telling NPR, “I did not want to see [Roberts’s] credibility enhanced by ABC,” Dershowitz says. (She is now known as Virginia Giuffre.)
The right-wing fever swamp has bowdlerized the Epstein story, transforming it into one of the media covering up for the left, when it is actually about how men with money and powerful connections purchase impunity and shorten memories. Historically, when news organizations are faced with a powerful man with powerful friends on one side, and an accuser or accusers who might not have a pristine past on the other, we know whose voice matters more. (I feel Robach’s pain.) Some of Epstein’s victims’ accounts had already been made public in various court proceedings, but only Brown took the women seriously enough to spend months investigating and corroborating, leading to the Feds reopening the case against Epstein.
All this makes ABC News typical, not extraordinary, in routinely pernicious ways that much of the news business has yet to fully grapple with. As it happens, ABC News employed Mark Halperin during the period when he would later be accused of harassing and assaulting a dozen women, but has somehow managed to escape the kind of post–Me Too scrutiny that CBS News and NBC News justifiably received after firing credibly accused anchors. Accountability and transparency are supposed to be journalistic values. Seeking to punish anyone who let the world know how the sausage is made, or that some journalists tried to get the real story — however ill-chosen the platform — is their opposite.
* This article has been updated to clarify that O’Keefe’s misdemeanor conviction was “for entering a senator’s office under false pretenses” rather than “attempting to surveil a senator.”