Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Inside the Ghislaine Maxwell Media Scrum
Pre-dawn lineups, laggy lo-res live streams, print stars turned podcasters, impounded electronics, frantic phone call filing, hotel room cooking, doodles, and more…
Julie K. Brown, the Miami Herald investigative reporter who found and told the stories of more than 60 women who said Jeffrey Epstein had abused them, arrives at Manhattan’s Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse most mornings before dawn to secure a good spot for the Ghislaine Maxwell trial. Her reporting on how Epstein eluded justice won a George Polk Award in 2018, the second of her career. “It’s been brutal when it’s cold out,” she told Off the Record. “My feet have been numb.” But she’s radiated in the fawning warmth from reporters who’ve jumped on the story for the trial. “It’s cool as hell to meet Julie K. Brown,” said Jacob Shamsian, a legal correspondent at Insider. “I was lucky enough to be right behind her in line on the first day.”
A media frenzy over a sensational trial is one of journalism’s most hallowed traditions. In 1925, the Scopes Monkey Trial brought more than 200 reporters to the 1,800 person town of Dayton, Tennessee. In 1935, reporters saturated the slightly larger town of Flemington, New Jersey, to take in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial. Phrases from the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson still rattle around the collective consciousness. (“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”) Every weekday since the Maxwell trial opened on Monday, November 29, dozens of reporters have plunged into the unfathomable horror wrought by the late Epstein, watching the prosecution endeavor to lay out how Maxwell was complicit and the defense pick away at their case.
Is the Maxwell case the trial of the century? Probably not. But, like the recent trials of R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby, it’s a spectacle that’s simultaneously hard to watch and tough to look away. Reporters covering it say they routinely receive criticisms that the media isn’t paying enough attention to the trial. Still, observers from the mainstream press, including regular court reporters, longtime Epstein watchers, and dilettantes who see this as the biggest story of the moment, along with independent observers, podcasters, Instagrammers, and bored fans of court TV with nowhere better to be, have filled the courtroom and three overflow viewing rooms.
This is the first time Brown has ventured from Florida to visit New York City since the start of the pandemic, and in the week and a half since the trial began, she’s been swept up in the energy of the city. “I always wanted to go to a jazz club in New York,” she said, so she did that, and then she got caught up watching a subway busker singing Christmas songs. He wasn’t any good, but he made an impression. “I thought, boy, this was a real New York moment,” Brown said. But she doesn’t know how long she’ll be able to stay in the city — or even whether she’ll be able to stick around until the end of the trial, which is expected to last six weeks. “We’re taking it until Christmas and then I think we’re going to decide,” she said. “It’s pretty expensive to cover anything in New York. The housing is really expensive, and food is expensive. The Herald, like a lot of other smaller papers, just doesn’t have an unlimited budget.”
Most days, Brown wakes up around 4:30 a.m. She’s staying in the Financial District, so it’s not a very long walk to the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse where Maxwell’s trial is taking place, but she doesn’t feel comfortable walking through the city that early. She’s still getting her bearings. “The streets are completely empty,” she said. “When it’s that early and dark and desolate, I’ve been taking a Lyft.”
Security at the courthouse entrance is intense, comparable to the strictest airports, but it’s not always impeccably organized. In the first week of the trial, Brown recalled guards telling her and others in line to walk over to a different entrance. “We get there, and then some guy comes out and starts screaming at us that we can’t come in there and we’ve got to go back,” she said. “By the time I go back, I’m last in line, even though I was waiting there since 5:30 in the morning. Those kinds of things could just drive you crazy. It happened, actually, quite a few times.” However, the thing that most annoys Brown, and many other reporters covering the trial, is that she can’t take her phone or any other electronics into the building and has to check them at the security desk.
The phone booths at the courthouse have had their phones ripped out, so whenever there’s a significant break in the trial, reporters rush to uncheck their electronics and head outside to file. If the break lasts long enough, they’ll find a spot to type. “You can go on a window sill and create your little standing desk situation,” Shamsian said. But if they’ve only got a few minutes, they’ll phone in their work. “Twice now there were much shorter, less sophisticated stories where I just picked up my phone and sent voice notes to my editor who assigned another writer to write up the story,” Shamsian said, “then I’d come back at a later break and check it over and add stuff, and it’s a co-bylined story.” Brown has also been working with a colleague in DC. “I’ll call him when I get a break in the morning, I’ll either dictate, or I’ll send him an email with some notes on it, or I’ll dictate real quickly if there’s something going on, he’ll write it up and tweet it out,” she said. “Then at lunchtime, he’ll send me what he had written up from my notes, and I will then try to polish it up and put together a story.” When they’ve typed up their notes and made their calls, they have to go back through security and check their electronics all over again.
Not all the reporters in the courthouse face such inconveniences. Accredited in-house press, whose work involves regularly covering the court, are allowed to take their electronics into the building and are able to work out of a dedicated press room with a live stream of the trial. “You cannot, under any circumstances, get a credential to cover a trial in New York at this courthouse unless you cover it on a regular basis,” a frustrated Brown lamented. “In other words, it wasn’t enough that I covered Epstein, and it probably wouldn’t have been enough if I covered three trials,” she said.
Adam Klasfeld, managing editor at Law & Crime, has been covering courts in New York for about a decade and can live-tweet the trial because of his in-house press credential. “There are many outside reporters from all over the world, who I greatly admire, who are coming into New York,” he said, adding, “At least one of whom, if not more, are responsible for this trial taking place. Julie K. Brown is here from Florida.” But he believes the in-house press status serves a genuine and particular need. “I understand that folks who don’t have in-house press privileges feel frustration about the way that system works,” he said. “Part of becoming in-house press is you need quick access because you are constantly covering that court.”
Some days, if she shows up early enough, Brown can get into the courtroom where the trial is actually taking place, which is kept very sparsely populated to enforce social distancing, but there are no guarantees. “There’s nothing worse than getting up that early and getting in line and then not getting in the main courtroom,” she said. If she doesn’t make it, she goes to one of the overflow courtrooms in the building, where reporters and members of the public can watch a live stream of the trial that is not broadcast beyond the building. The rooms are impressive, with wood paneling rising high to ornate ceilings, but the broadcast can leave much to be desired. The image can be low resolution, and the audio lags behind the video on some screens. When the court displays an exhibit, the screen splits in half, shrinking each image to a nearly indecipherable size.
“There’s absolutely an advantage to being in the actual courtroom,” Brown said. “Whatever the technology they use, it’s not really that great. It’s very pixelated. So you can’t really see the expressions on people’s faces at all. When I was in the courtroom, for example, on Friday, the prosecution lost a couple of rounds, so to speak, and they were arguing about certain pieces of evidence that can get in or can’t get in. I could see Maxwell very clearly, and you could tell she was elated. She was happy. She was smiling, you know? You can’t really gauge that from a screen in another courtroom.”
On Tuesday morning, in the 9th floor overflow courtroom where security guards sent late arrivals, Vanity Fair staff writer Dan Adler flipped past the doodles in his notebook. He’d looked into getting courthouse press credentials a couple of months ago but soon realized that it was a difficult process. As he understood it, it would involve a drug test. When Off the Record asked if he could pass one, he answered, “depends on the drug test.” On the screen in front of him, broadcasting the trial, FBI forensic examiner Stephen Flatley answered questions like, “What is a computer?” There were a few moments that required diligence. When an exhibit flashed on screen, Adler walked up to examine the details more closely.
Two rows ahead of Adler sat Choire Sicha, who’s writing a pop-up newsletter about the Maxwell trial at New York Magazine, where he took a job after burning out as the editor of The New York Times Styles section. While Flatley droned out definitions for various bits of hardware, Sicha read a hardcover of Silenced No More by alleged Epstein victim Sarah Ransome, which was published that morning. He said he’d been showing up to court a little later than he did in the first week of the trial. “I’ve gotten really entitled, and I just walk in and sit down in a spot, and I’m like, ‘Sup,’” he said, in wry, jocular tones. “I’m a tall, able-bodied, white man, everyone does what I want, so it works really well.”
Sicha wasn’t there just to recap the trial for his readers. He’s been using his newsletter to capture it from every angle, including the perspective of one of the sketch artists producing the only images making their way out of the courtroom to the public. “People can read live tweets, they can read Adam Klasfeld, they can read Inner City Press, they can read breaking news, they can read Reuters News Analysis,” he said, “but I just want people to know what it’s like there. I feel like the one thing I can do is be like, ‘Hey, I’m eating a power bar in the bathroom because we’re not allowed to eat or drink.’ I’m not doing journalism for everyone, but that’s something that some people would want to read.”
He seems to spend as much time observing his fellow court watchers as the trial on screen. It’s an eclectic crowd. “I’m super cognizant of the fact that ten years ago, there would have been a bunch of mainstream print press and a bunch of online scavengers, like myself,” he said. “Now the division is between sort of mainstream media and independent media.” Among the independent types are podcasters, people there to observe the spectacle for themselves, as well as people who’d previously established themselves in the most central currents of the mainstream before becoming professionally identified with the case.
The prime example of the latter category is Vicky Ward, who rose from the newsroom of the New York Post via Tina Brown’s Talk Magazine to the lofty heights of Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair, when a contributing editor contract came with a prestigious business card and a hefty regular paycheck. In recent years, much of her work has been connected to the Epstein scandal, as a contributor at CNN, on a podcast for Audible co-hosted by crime novelist James Patterson, and most recently a docuseries for the Discovery+ streaming service, Chasing Ghislaine. “I love this for her, as they would say in this day and age. I think it’s a great evolution,” Sicha said of Ward, “but for me, as someone who came up in the media industry when she was a fancy Vanity Fair reporter, and now she’s like, ‘I’ve got a Substack and a podcast,’ I’m like, ‘Hey, buddy, like, okay.’”
After a 15-minute break in the trial, Adler and Sicha returned to the 9th floor overflow room to watch the testimony of an alleged victim who was identified only by her first name Carolyn. She told the jury that between the ages of 14 and 18, she’d gone to Epstein’s house more than 100 times to deliver sexualized massages. “As goofy as I’m being about a lot of this stuff,” Sicha said, “I just want to make clear that we’re hearing people give horrible, sad testimony.” Sicha and Adler sat steady as the nauseating details unspooled. “I have emotional reactions to stuff I hear in court, but I’ve been to a lot of therapy already — that’s a terrible quote; I can’t believe that you’re going to use that; I’m upset already — but I haven’t heard anything in court that I can’t handle.” Sicha said. “A courthouse is not a happy place.”
After trial days wrap up, usually around 5 p.m., Brown heads back to her temporary digs. For a little while, she was eating out, but that got to be prohibitively expensive. “I went to the grocery store yesterday, and I cooked yesterday afternoon,” she said on Monday. “I can’t afford to go out to dinner every night. I just can’t. It’s just too expensive. And I’m a healthy eater. The biggest problem I have with cooking is at home, I have all my nice pots and pans and knives, and here I have just a tiny little paring knife.” But that didn’t stop her from cooking up enough taco fixings, salmon, and chicken to last the week. “You’re pretty tired at the end,” she said. “You don’t really feel like cooking or doing anything, you’re pretty drained. So that’s why I did some cooking yesterday, so I have stuff in the fridge that’s already cooked.”
Around 9 or 9:30 p.m., Brown receives around two or three hundred pages of transcripts from the day’s testimony. She’s part of a transcript-sharing pool organized by The New York Times’s Ben Weiser. “Sometimes I’ll get the transcripts, and I’ll remember something that I missed, or maybe I want to get the quote more exact,” she said, “so I’ll use the transcript to fix up the story.” Klasfeld goes through the transcripts at the end of the day, but he doesn’t stress over them. “I listened to the testimony in court,” he said. “I don’t necessarily feel a need to read every word of what I already saw.”
Oblivion often comes too late for reporters set to wake at 4:30 a.m. The remaining weeks of the trial seem to be shaping up to be less stressful than the first. “Now that it’s entering the second week,” Brown said, “it seems like things are starting to fall into a rhythm, which makes it a lot easier for everybody.” But not everybody’s settled on how to get through this yet. “It’s been a struggle to figure out the right work rhythm, because yesterday, I filed three stories, which is really tough,” said Shamsian. “That’s kind of the personal challenge: It’s a really incredible story, and hearing testimony from these women has been really emotionally difficult, and it’s gratifying to get these stories out here. But on a personal level, it takes an additional toll, and I want to find time to sleep.”