Jeffrey Epstein, investor and convicted sexual offender, was the subject of glowing articles in Forbes and HuffPost. Why were these articles published, why have they been taken down, and who is responsible for vetting content? These are tougher questions than it might seem.
Epstein, of course, is the power broker who’s now accused of sex crimes with many young girls — and who has palled around with the Clintons and Donald Trump. In 2009, he was out of jail after his first plea bargain and looking to rehabilitate his image. As detailed in The New York Times, this included contributed articles in Forbes and HuffPost.
I’ve written before about how publications like Forbes publish contributors’ articles with little or no editorial oversight. Forbes is now a moderate-sized business publication combined with a vast collection of content from poorly paid (formerly, unpaid) “contributors” who write about a wide variety of subjects. They write whatever they want.
So I was far from shocked to learn that contributor Drew Hendricks’ piece about Jeffrey Epstein was actually penned by a PR person and then posted under his byline. Here’s how it starts:
Science Funder Jeffrey Epstein Launches Radical Emotional Software For The Gaming Industry
Virtual gaming is about to warp through a black hole, thanks to a band of scientists in Hong Kong and a hedge funder with a zealous science background, called Jeffrey Epstein. Indeed, game programming is moving away from algorithmic robots to a twilight realm of emotional thinkers, taking online, video and toy entrepreneurs, one step closer to Star Trek’s ‘Holodeck’.
For years, in virtual gaming, the only intelligent player was the person playing the game, responding to non-reactive obstacles. At most, opponents could blow up or morph into something else. Whatever the reaction, it was a simple linear or algorithmic response (if A, then B, if A+D, then C).
Forbes has now taken the article down for violation of “editorial standards.”
Why did Forbes publish this?
This is the easiest question. Forbes publishes articles from its contributors. It doesn’t do fact checking. It counts on the contributors to do that.
This article is a typical article about an industry trend and profile of an industry figure. Therefore, Forbes published it. If a Forbes contributor submitted a similar article right now, I’m certain Forbes would still publish it (unless it contained the name of somebody else accused of similar crimes — they’d notice that). But since there was little public knowledge of Epstein’s conviction at the time, there was no reason for Forbes to vet it . . . and they didn’t.
Lesson here: If you read an article by a Forbes, Inc, or HuffPost contributor, don’t assume it lives up to any journalistic standards.
By the way, not all publications that accept contributed articles work like this. I recently wrote articles for Harvard Business Review Online and Sloan Management Review. In both cases, there was a strenuous editorial review and revision process. These publications maintain their reputation by virtue of that strict level of editorial review.
Whenever I write a contributed piece, I maintain a high standard of editorial and journalistic precision including fact-checking. My reputation depends on it, so I do so regardless of the publication where it’s appearing.
In general, if you read an online article in a publication that accepts contributed content, you have to judge the credibility of both the publication and the author. In the case of Forbes, the credibility of the publication isn’t helping.
Why did Forbes take it down?
Forbes and the other publications have now removed the articles about Jeffrey Epstein? Why?
No one is disputing the facts about Epstein’s investing activities that were described in these articles. No one claims the articles were false.
Here’s what the chief content officer of Forbes Media told the New York Times about why the article was taken down.
Forbes removed the item last week “for failing to meet our editorial standards,” it said in an editors note on the page.
Randall Lane, the chief content officer of Forbes Media, said an article like the one attributed to Mr. Hendricks should not have been posted and would not make the cut now, because the process for screening outside contributors has been strengthened.
“Our North Star is always transparency,” Mr. Lane said of Forbes’ handling of problematic articles. “What we’ve learned over the last few days is that this is an area we need to re-evaluate.”
This is bullshit.
Forbes may be using the excuse that a contributor should only publish their own writing, but I don’t believe that’s why this article was taken down. I think it’s more likely that it was taken down because it praises someone who is now in the news as an accused child rapist.
No one vets the personal behavior of people in business profiles
Epstein is radioactive right now. But people writing about his investments in 2010 or 2012 weren’t digging around about his criminal past.
I have personally witnessed this. I have written about Java co-creator Patrick Naughton because he was the cofounder of a company called Starwave. Then he was arrested by the FBI for soliciting sex with a minor. Of course, I was shocked, but when you write about technology executives, you don’t ask about their sexual proclivities.
This also happened with the CEO of the interactive TV technology company MetaTV, a company I wrote about. He was convicted of soliciting a 14-year-old girl.
I have also met with and written about media CEOs accused of sexual harassment, including CBS’ Les Moonves and WPP’s Martin Sorrell. And of course, I wrote about the infamous Henry Yuen, who was assessed the largest SEC fine ever for financial improprieties.
At the time, I had no idea these executives would be accused or convicted of reprehensible personal and professional behavior.
How many of the hundreds of others that I’ve written about have beaten their wives, raped people, or stolen investors’ money? As an analyst and technology writer, digging into such questions was never anywhere near what I was writing about.
Naturally, once such accusations appear, writers and analysts change what they write.
But traditional publications with actual reporters won’t take down content they wrote in the past about such individuals. So why are the contributed articles about Epstein suddenly disappearing from the Web?