DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. In recent months, the press has been digging into news about the late Jeffrey Epstein - his powerful friends and the allegations that he sexually exploited dozens of underage girls. For years, the media had paid only intermittent attention to the Epstein story until an investigative series last year in the Miami Herald. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik's story might help explain why. It includes an early-morning visit, a bullet and a dead cat.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: One morning some years ago, Vanity Fair's editor-in-chief Graydon Carter arrived at the magazine's offices in midtown Manhattan. A man was standing still by himself in the magazine's reception area behind locked glass doors. It was Epstein. John Connolly was a Vanity Fair contributing editor who reported on crime and scandal.
JOHN CONNOLLY: Jeffrey had somehow gotten into the Vanity Fair's office before Graydon one day. And he was torturing Graydon.
FOLKENFLIK: Connolly says Epstein repeatedly besieged and berated Carter then and in subsequent calls - don't report on the young women.
CONNOLLY: Jeffrey Epstein would terrorize people.
FOLKENFLIK: Vanity Fair eagerly dissected the missteps and foibles of society's elites and eagerly rubbed shoulders with them. And for years, Graydon Carter led the way on both. In 2002, Carter assigned a reporter to find out more about Jeffrey Epstein. Just who is this enigmatic financier, and why is he flying around with Bill Clinton and other celebrities? Here's that reporter, Vicky Ward.
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VICKY WARD: At the time, it was two-pronged. You know, the mystery about Jeffrey Epstein was how he had made his money.
FOLKENFLIK: Ward spoke on MORNING EDITION last month.
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WARD: It was also known that he would gather New York's rich and famous for dinner parties at his home. But there would be these very young women. The women were always part of the Jeffrey Epstein story.
FOLKENFLIK: Ward interviewed sisters Annie and Maria Farmer, as well as their mother, Janice. They accused Epstein of luring the two younger women into his world and then sexually assaulting them in the mid-1990s. Annie Farmer was a minor at the time. They also accused Epstein's then-girlfriend, Ghislaine Maxwell, of participating in his predatory schemes. Epstein and Maxwell denied all the claims. Again, John Connolly.
CONNOLLY: Graydon made the decision not to publish about the women.
FOLKENFLIK: In March 2003, Vanity Fair did publish a piece by Ward taking a tough look at Epstein's lavish lifestyle and questioning the origins of his fortune. It did not report the Farmers' accusations. Connolly says Carter soon called to share an ominous development.
CONNOLLY: The day it came out, there was a live bullet put on Graydon's - you know, his - outside his house in Manhattan.
FOLKENFLIK: Even in the absence of any evidence Epstein was involved, Connolly tells NPR that both Carter and he considered the bullet a clear warning.
CONNOLLY: That wasn't a coincidence.
FOLKENFLIK: Another former colleague tells NPR of a similarly anguished call from Carter about the bullet. In statements to NPR, Carter says the magazine never held back on Epstein because of any sense of threat or intimidation. Instead, Carter says Ward's reporting did not pass the legal threshold for publication. He says Vanity Fair took legal requirements seriously, especially when the subject was a private person who's therefore rigorously protected under libel laws. And he said Ward did not have three sources who met the magazine's legal threshold.
For the first time, however, Maria and Annie Farmer are confirming publicly they spoke to Vicky Ward on the record in 2002. Their mother, Janice Farmer, says she did too. And they tell NPR they were crestfallen Vanity Fair didn't report their allegations of exploitation.
DAVID BOIES: I think it made it more difficult to not only get victims to speak out but to get witnesses to speak out.
FOLKENFLIK: David Boies is a lawyer for the Farmer sisters.
BOIES: It was discouraging. I think it helped create the impression among many of the victims that the media was under Epstein's control, that Epstein had all this power.
FOLKENFLIK: By late 2006, John Connolly says he was interviewing other women in South Florida to see if there was another story for Vanity Fair to do as authorities investigated Epstein. Connolly tells me Carter soon received another shock.
Let me stop you right there. When you - you said a dead cat's head was put outside Graydon Carter's house?
CONNOLLY: It was put on the stoop of his home up in the country. It was done to intimidate, no question about it.
FOLKENFLIK: And it worked.
CONNOLLY: Yeah, it did.
FOLKENFLIK: Connolly says Carter called him to express anxiety for the safety of his children. Others tell NPR the dead cat was the talk of the office. And Connolly says he voluntarily stopped pursuing the subject for Vanity Fair. Epstein pleaded guilty to reduced offenses in Florida and received a light jail sentence. After, he was swiftly accepted back into high society. Gifts to Harvard, MIT and other cultural institutions helped.
In 2011, Vicky Ward posted a new essay by Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, and the former Vanity Fair reporter adopted a more forgiving tone. She would later return to tough reporting on Epstein. Yet, in that 2011 essay, Ward described Epstein's sex with minors as peccadilloes, and she actively defended Maxwell. Remember, the Farmers had told her Maxwell was part of Epstein's predatory scheme. Others suing Maxwell have made the same claims, which again Maxwell has denied.
Ward concluded with the words, in this city, money makes up for all sorts of blemishes. Three years later, a society photographer captured Ghislaine Maxwell at the black-tie Oscar party in Hollywood sponsored by Vanity Fair and hosted by Graydon Carter himself. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.