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ABC News Defends Its Epstein Coverage After Leaked Video Of Anchor

Nov 6, 2019
Originally published on November 7, 2019 8:22 am

A newly surfaced video of an ABC News anchor's unguarded remarks about the network's coverage of the late Jeffrey Epstein has thrown ABC on the defensive.

In a leaked video posted Tuesday by the right-wing activist group Project Veritas, news anchor Amy Robach expresses her frustration to a colleague over ABC's failure to broadcast her interview with a key accuser of Epstein.

Robach complains that the network "quashed" her interview, suggesting that ABC had yielded to threats from powerful forces, including Buckingham Palace. Prince Andrew is among those men whom the accuser alleges Epstein trafficked her to for sex. The prince's representatives have denied that claim.

ABC News executives say their journalists were simply not able to corroborate the details of the reporting sufficiently for broadcast.

"We would never run away from that," Chris Vlasto, head of investigations for ABC News, tells NPR. The network has filed approximately two dozen digital and broadcast stories on Epstein since early 2015, when ABC started talking to the accuser, Virginia Roberts Giuffre.

Robach's comments in late August 2019 came just two days after an NPR story disclosed the existence of Giuffre's interview and ABC's failure to broadcast it. In the video, Robach is sitting on a chair at a studio set for ABC's Good Morning America, at times swinging back and forth while speaking remotely through her microphone with an unseen colleague. It appears to be the early morning hours before broadcast or during advertising breaks.

"I've had the story for three years," Robach says in the video. "We would not put it on the air. Um, first of all, I was told, 'Who was Jeffrey Epstein? No one knows who that is. This is a stupid story.' Then the palace found out that we had her whole allegations about Prince Andrew and threatened us a million different ways."

Robach goes on to say that Giuffre alluded to others in the interview, including former President Bill Clinton, Harvard University law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz and Epstein's former girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell. Giuffre has made similar accusations against all of them also in court documents. (All deny any wrongdoing or involvement in Epstein's sex trafficking.) Giuffre has said in court papers that she saw Clinton in Epstein's presence but did not witness Clinton participate in any sexual activity.

"I tried for three years to get it out to no avail, and now these new revelations and — I freaking had all of it," Robach says on the tape. "I'm so pissed right now. Like, every day I get more and more pissed, 'cause I'm just like, 'Oh my God! It was — what we had, was unreal.' "

Dershowitz, who served as one of Epstein's legal advisers, told NPR in August that he had called ABC News in 2015 just before the interview was supposed to have been broadcast to dissuade the network from airing Giuffre's allegations.

ABC said it never intended to broadcast her allegations against Dershowitz. Yet legal scholar Dershowitz said he had called primarily on his own behalf, not Epstein's, to warn ABC against giving Giuffre a platform. "I did not want to see her credibility enhanced by ABC," Dershowitz told NPR. He said he spoke to two producers and an attorney in a series of calls in a 24-hour period.

The first 64 seconds of Project Veritas' video appear to be unedited, just a straight span of Robach speaking. ABC News and Robach confirmed that the video and her remarks are real. Yet in separate statements released by a spokeswoman for ABC News, they argue that Robach's frustrations do not reflect any breakdown in journalistic acumen.

Instead, Robach and ABC say they were unable to corroborate elements of some of the key charges from Giuffre.

"As the Epstein story continued to unfold last summer, I was caught in a private moment of frustration. I was upset that an important interview I had conducted with Virginia Roberts [Giuffre] didn't air because we could not obtain sufficient corroborating evidence to meet ABC's editorial standards about her allegations," Robach said in her statement. "The interview itself, while I was disappointed it didn't air, didn't meet our standards. In the years since no one ever told me or the team to stop reporting on Jeffrey Epstein, and we have continued to aggressively pursue this important story."

"At the time, not all of our reporting met our standards to air, but we have never stopped investigating the story," the ABC News statement says. "Ever since we've had a team on this investigation and substantial resources dedicated to it." The network said it intended to run a two-hour documentary and launch a six-part podcast on Epstein in January 2020.

Project Veritas is led by the conservative provocateur James O'Keefe, who tells NPR that the tape was sent to him unbidden by an employee at ABC News. "It's an entirely new model for Project Veritas," O'Keefe says.

In the past, O'Keefe has published recordings of phony donors pitching to NPR fundraising executives, which led to the forced departure of the network's CEO in 2011, even though the tapes as initially released proved to be deceptively edited. Other efforts to try to lure a female CNN correspondent on a boat with sex toys and another to get Washington Post reporters to bite on a fake accusation of rape against a Republican Senate candidate ran aground.

In the more recent past, O'Keefe has run a bunch of surreptitiously recorded conversations with staffers at The New York Times and CNN that have yielded modest revelations and have largely been ignored. He has typically arranged for the taping ahead of time, with one of his own staffers or volunteers, or an employee of the news outlet under scrutiny who is sympathetic to his ideological efforts, asking leading questions.

ABC now says it was stymied by a development in the spring of 2015, just 10 days before it flew Giuffre and her family from Colorado to New York City for the interview. Giuffre had leveled many of her accusations in court papers against Epstein; Maxwell, his former girlfriend; and others she accused of being enablers, including Dershowitz.

On April 6, 2015, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra ruled that Giuffre could join a legal action against federal prosecutors. She accused the federal government of acting illegally by striking a deal allowing Epstein to skirt federal criminal charges without informing her until after the fact.

Yet Marra also ruled that many of the specifics of Giuffre's allegations — whom she accused Epstein of trafficking her to and for what sexual interactions — should be struck from the record.

According to a network executive, that put a far greater burden on ABC's reporting team, led by investigative producer Jim Hill. When allegations are contained in court documents, they are generally considered "privileged" under libel law — giving journalists latitude to report accusations accurately, whether or not they have been substantiated out of court. Once those details were removed from the formal court record, ABC had to corroborate Giuffre's claims more concretely, on its own authority, the executive said. And in subsequent court filings, Giuffre has amended some of her recollection of precise dates and details in her allegations of activities that occurred close to two decades ago.

"We would never kill a story about Bill Clinton. Or we would never kill a story about Prince Andrew. That's what's ridiculous on its face," Vlasto, the ABC News investigations chief, tells NPR. "That's a great story. So if we could do that story, we would have done it!"

In early July, a federal judge publicly released a huge batch of documents in the Epstein case, including previously sealed filings that contained many of Giuffre's specific accusations.

An ABC executive says the network had been relaunched on the project six months earlier — at the start of 2019. Inspired by the success of ABC's podcast on corporate fraud at Theranos and by the competition of The Miami Herald, Vlasto and Hill had already pointed their focus squarely back at Epstein, ABC says. They then had to scramble when federal authorities brought new charges against Epstein, and once more when he died.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A video surfaced yesterday of an ABC News anchor expressing anger about a big story that got away. As NPR disclosed in August, ABC's Amy Robach had interviewed a young woman years ago. The woman had accused the late Jeffrey Epstein of trafficking her for sex. ABC never ran that interview, and this video shows Robach caught on a hot mic saying this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY ROBACH: I tried for three years to get it on to no avail, and now it's all coming out, and it's like these new revelations, and I freaking had all of it. I'm so pissed right now.

CHANG: This video was published by a right-wing website. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has more on this development. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So that video we just heard has kind of thrown ABC on the defensive now. Can you just give us a little more of the backstory here, what that video showed?

FOLKENFLIK: So Robach was reacting to our story of late August. This was a couple of days later. She's on the set at ABC's "Good Morning America" either before the broadcast, early morning hours, or during advertising breaks. She's talking to somebody off camera. Let's hear another clip of what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBACH: I had this interview with Virginia Roberts. 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. Then the palace found out that we had her whole allegations about Prince Andrew and threatened us a million different ways.

FOLKENFLIK: So let's unpack that a little bit. Virginia Roberts Giuffre was a woman who was talking about activities almost two decades ago. When she was a teenager, she first met Epstein. She's alleging that he trafficked her out for sex to powerful men, including such figures as Prince Andrew - the palace you heard there was Buckingham Palace - Harvard law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz and also claiming that she saw Bill Clinton in Epstein's presence, although she didn't witness him participate in any sexual activities.

I want to be clear Andrew, Dershowitz and others adamantly deny this.

CHANG: Now, just to be clear, ABC News said back in August that it didn't air the interview because it hadn't been able to verify enough details of Giuffre's story. So what is ABC, what is Amy Robach saying now?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Amy Robach is now backtracking. In a formal statement to us and other reporters, Robach has said that she was expressing extreme frustration, but the reason that wasn't able to air was that they hadn't been able to verify enough of the details of what Giuffre was saying.

ABC News, similarly, is making consistent statements. I talked to executives at ABC, and they said part of their problem was that certain information that had been contained in a federal lawsuit had been struck by a judge from the record and that as a result of that, it put more legal obligation for them to be able to independently corroborate a lot of the details and that those details are hard to pin down.

CHANG: OK, so maybe it got legally complicated, but I understand from some of your reporting that there were other elements at play here.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mentioned earlier Alan Dershowitz. Again, he's an emeritus Harvard law professor. He served as a legal adviser to Jeffrey Epstein. Giuffre had accused him of being part of the trafficking - that is that she was loaned out to Dershowitz for sexual activities. I want to be very clear. Dershowitz adamantly denies this.

But nonetheless, he said he called ABC News shortly before it was due to initially broadcast Giuffre's interview. He called it three times, spoke to, he believes, two producers and a lawyer to try to knock down the interview. He said he wanted to make sure she didn't have credibility because of the other claims she would later be making about him. And the network has confirmed those calls. It just discounts the idea that Dershowitz's calls had anything to do with its decision not to broadcast the interview.

CHANG: We should also talk about how this video even came to light. It was posted by Project Veritas, which is a right-wing activist group that has targeted lots of media outlets before, including NPR. What credibility does Project Veritas have, you think?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Veritas' founder James O'Keefe said he received it from somebody who's an employee at ABC News. They've done a lot of things to try to capture, to expose media outfits. At times they've faked stunts to try to fool The Washington Post into thinking a fake accusation against a Republican Senate candidate in Alabama might be true. In this case, that tape seemed to be unedited. ABC's not disputing it. And what Project Veritas has posted has forced ABC to revisit this issue once more.

CHANG: That is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECONDITE'S "CAPABLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.