The Humanitarian Journalism project is seeking to better understand how the news media report on humanitarian crises and what shapes their coverage.

Why did Epstein fund non-profit news? (Blog)

Kate Wright

August 23, 2019


By Kate Wright (@newsprof1)

As more researchers resign from MIT Media Lab, journalists are turning their attention to the complicated web of Epstein’s private foundations.  Epstein was keen to present himself as a generous philanthropist, supporting a range of good causes including scientific research and communication.

This included a $25, 000 donation to NautilusThink, which publishes a science magazine. The website for the Jeffery Epstein VI Foundation also highlights its funding of NeuroTV, an online channel dedicated to interviewing neuroscientists.

Mug shot of Jeffrey Epstein made available by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department, taken following his indictment for soliciting a prostitute in 2006.

Epstein appears to have been very keen to acquire positive media coverage of his philanthropic pledges. Indeed, he even paid a PR firm to write and place an article to that effect in the tech news outlet, Forbes. As Kate Briquelet of The Daily Beast put it, “Epstein apparently needed some favorable news to change the narrative and embarked on a public relations crusade that depicted him as a renowned ‘science philanthropist,’ rather than a convicted sex offender.”  

Yet many of the charities whom Epstein made much-touted pledges to, claim they never received the money. Even worse, allegations are now emerging that Epstein’s groups and his private foundations effectively “shuffled money” to each other, in ways which disregarded even the basic forms of financial disclosure.

This radical lack of financial transparency, and the use of highly publicised philanthropic pledges to whitewash the public reputations of tainted donors, is very familiar to experts in the foundation funding of non-profit organisations. There has even been a statistical study which demonstrates that firms required to restate their earnings are amongst the most generous philanthropic donors.

But when we conducted a 4 year research project involving foundation-funded journalism, we found that journalists working for non-profits tended to only think about ethics in terms of preventing donors from influencing their content.  Like other non-profit journalists, they hadn’t considered the circumstances in which they might cut ties with a donor.

Trying to work out  what to do as allegations against their main donor escalated was a nightmare for journalists, as we found in our study of a news outlet funded by the Jynwel Foundation. This private foundation was run by Jho Low, who has since been charged for his alleged involvement in a global fraud scandal involving the 1MDB bank.

Yet even after we published this piece, we kept being told that the case we researched was so extreme, it had to be an isolated ‘one-off’. The implication was that being used as moral whitewash by those involved (or alleged to have been involved) in criminal behaviour was not something which journalists and other media producers should really worry about.

However, the Epstein case shows it’s definitely not a one-off, and maybe there’s more to be uncovered.

We would love to hear from any non-profit journalism organisations who were pledged, or received, money from, any of Epstein’s foundations. All approaches will be treated in the strictest confidence.

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