Conspiracy theories follow a basic formula: They’re what happens when the absence of information meets the absence of verifiability meets the absence of oversight. While the first two are effective in helping plant the seeds of doubt, it’s the lack of a reliable, factual guiding force that really helps conspiracy theories bloom.
Nothing proves the success of this formula more than the feverish speculation swirling around the death of Jeffrey Epstein. After the disgraced financier was found dead at age 66 in his prison cell on August 10th at New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, many (justifiably) wanted to know why the highest-profile inmate in America, who had made a widely reported suicide attempt a little more than two weeks prior, had been left unsupervised in a maximum-security facility.
In the days following Epstein’s death, many reporters would uncover details answering this question, at least to some degree. We later learned, for instance, that Epstein had been taken off suicide watch (though we still do not know why), and that MCC guards allegedly falsified prison logs to make it look as if they had checked on Epstein, when they had not. But in the first hours after the news, in the absence of information about the circumstances of his passing, numerous potential explanations emerged — the most popular of which was the idea that Epstein had been murdered.
As Rolling Stone previously reported, it wasn’t just the usual suspects who were partaking in such theorizing. In fact, what was most notable about the days following Epstein’s death was how much the theorizing bled into mainstream discourse, with public figures of all political affiliations weighing in — from Joe Scarborough to Paul Krugman to former Sen. Claire McCaskill to the president. Within the span of a few hours, Epstein’s death had left a surprisingly large number of people “redpilled,” the term used to describe the process of online radicalization — or, in this case, Jeffpilled.
Establishment media figures also got into the game. On the morning of August 10th, Washington Post staffer Carol Leonnig tweeted a link to a news story she co-wrote with three other Washington Post reporters. The story itself was fairly straightforward, reiterating what were then the known facts of Epstein’s death. Leonnig’s tweet, however, was less so. “People close to Epstein fear he was murdered,” wrote the longtime Post staffer and 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, citing reports that Epstein had told authorities someone had tried to kill him weeks earlier. “He was described as being in good spirits in recent days. . . .”
This tweet was “inadvisable,” says Tim Gleason, a professor of journalism and director of the Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism at the University of Oregon, tells Rolling Stone. First, as many people pointed out in the replies (including this reporter), “being in good spirits” is not evidence against someone taking his or her own life. In many instances, a person’s attempt is not preceded by any sort of warning. Some mental-health experts have even suggested that it is not uncommon for those planning suicide to appear upbeat, on the grounds that they can foresee some form of respite from their pain.
But perhaps more to the point, the language of the tweet sounded suspiciously similar to the outpouring of conspiracy theories that have appeared following Epstein’s death, from those on the far right speculating that the Clintons were behind it to those on the left who pointed to Trump — or, more often than not, just vaguely gestured at other unidentified, shadowy forces.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leonnig’s tweet went viral: As of publication, it has more than 9,000 retweets and 15,000 likes, with Leonnig’s sterling credentials giving the tweet an air of legitimacy. But few commented on the appropriateness of a Washington Post reporter using such vaguely ominous language mere hours after Epstein’s body was found, in a tweet that could be (and was) shared without context to bolster conspiracy theorists. “I don’t know why she would have tweeted this — what was she thinking?” Gleason tells Rolling Stone. “It’s hard not to read that and think she is suggesting something else happened.”
When asked about the tweet, Molly Gannon Conway, a spokeswoman for the Post, defended the reporter’s actions. “Carol Leonnig’s August 10 tweet conveys newsworthy information: the fears of those close to Jeffrey Epstein,” she wrote. When asked about the Post’s policy for reporters’ social media use, Gannon Conway referred us to the paper’s ethics guidelines, which prohibit staff from sharing anything that “could objectively be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism.”
But Gleason views the tweet as a prime example of the dangers of news reporters using social media to suggest or advance individual theories. Such tweets pose the risk of “undermining the credibility of your news organization,” he says, adding that had he been Leonnig’s editor, “she wouldn’t get anywhere near [the Epstein] story.”
People close to Epstein fear he was murdered…as Epstein told authorities someone tried to kill him in a previous incident weeks earlier. He was described as being in good spirits in recent days… https://t.co/J9QNSo1N2v
— Carol Leonnig (@CarolLeonnig) August 10, 2019
Remember previous incident July 23: it was never cleared up whether Epstein had been attacked, as he said, or if he was covering up his own suicide attempt https://t.co/G7smVLAZqc
— Carol Leonnig (@CarolLeonnig) August 10, 2019
— Carol Leonnig (@CarolLeonnig) August 12, 2019
But Leonnig did continue to get near the Epstein story. On August 11th, she appeared as a representative for the Washington Post on MSNBC’s AM Joy With Joy Reid. During the segment, Reid brought up Leonnig’s tweet, asking whether those close to Epstein really believed the Clintons were behind his death. “The people close to Epstein don’t have any theories about what happened,” Leonnig said. “They have the fear that all smart people . . . have, which is, this guy had a lot of secrets. Did anyone want him dead?”
Leonnig’s apparent willingness to explore if Epstein had been murdered — or, at least, her refusal to refrain from directly engaging with that theory — began to seep into the paper’s reporting on the story. On August 15th, Leonnig’s byline appeared again, with her colleague Aaron C. Davis, on a story about preliminary autopsy findings in the investigation into Epstein’s death. The story reported that one of the broken bones in Epstein’s neck was the hyoid bone, which is commonly broken in older men who die by hanging.
But the article went on to quote forensic experts — though only one was willing to comment on the record — saying that a broken hyoid bone “would generally raise questions about strangulation.” The story then discussed how broken hyoid bones have factored in previous prison-death investigations, citing one in which the cause of death was changed from suicide to homicide because of this discovery.
Many people called bullshit — even the Washington Post’s media critic. On August 16th, Erik Wemple published an op-ed accusing the story of “providing succor for the Internet-conspiracy crowd.” He pointed out that far-right blogs like InfoWars had cited the story as “official” proof that Epstein had been murdered, as did known conspiracy theorist Jordan Sather. “Neither The Post nor other authentic news outlets should be held responsible for intentional distortions and misrepresentations of their work,” Wemple wrote. “Yet in this case, The Post used language that widens the eyes of the Internet’s info-malefactors.”
Media outlets from Jezebel to CNN also weighed in, proposing that the Post used deliberately provocative language like “deepening the mystery” as a dog whistle to conspiracy theorists, and cherry-picked sources to further the homicide theory. CNN’s Oliver Darcy interviewed four medical experts on the record, all of whom confirmed that a broken hyoid was often the result of suicide by hanging in older men. One expert Darcy interviewed said that concentrating so heavily on the broken hyoid bone “just gives naysayers the ability to advance whatever conspiracy theories they want to tell.”
To be fair to the Washington Post, their story quoted Barbara Sampson, New York City’s chief medical examiner, offering a word of caution, saying in a statement that the broken hyoid in itself was not conclusive proof that Epstein was murdered: “In all forensic investigations, all information must be synthesized to determine the cause and manner of death. . . . No single finding can be evaluated in a vacuum.” But this statement was not included in the original Post story, according to cached versions of the article; the original lead paragraph of the story was also changed, with the word “sustained” being changed to “suffered” in the sentence “An autopsy found that financier Jeffrey Epstein sustained multiple breaks in his neck bones.”
When asked about the revisions to the story, the Washington Post’s Gannon Conway said it was all above board. “Headline and text revisions are routine on developing stories,” she wrote, adding that the verbiage was changed according to AP stylebook guidelines. But there is no language indicating that the story is developing or that it has been edited in the first place, as is standard practice in many newsrooms.
Despite the criticism the Post received for its story, the paper appears to stand by its reporting, as well as the language used in the headline and the first paragraph. “The simplest, most non-conspiratorial reading of the phrase ‘deepening the mystery’ is the correct one,” Gannon Conway tells Rolling Stone. “A broken hyoid bone extends the work of forensic pathologists. It raises questions about the possibility of homicidal strangulation. It doesn’t dispel uncertainty or mystery around the circumstances of someone’s passing — it deepens it. Questions are raised and further investigation is required.”
The final autopsy report concluded that Epstein’s death was a suicide — and yet, despite the immense criticism the paper drew for its broken hyoid story, as well as the criticism Leonnig drew for her tweets, she is still covering the Epstein case, as Gannon Conway confirmed. On August 16th, when Sampson issued her statement concluding that Epstein had died by suicide, Leonnig received a reporting credit for the corresponding Post story. On the same day, she retweeted a skeptical comment from her colleague Aaron C. Davis: “Remarkable speed for a final autopsy. Years ago in DC area, a final report on a jail cell hanging with a broken hyoid took months, incl. review of video and intvs with guards. NY ME must have high confidence in tapes showing no one entered Epstein’s cell.”
All of this is not to say that the publication was alone in leaning into the sensationalism of the Epstein case, nor is the paper single-handedly responsible for promoting the theory that foul play factored into Epstein’s death. According to one widely shared poll, 42 percent of people believe that Epstein was murdered to prevent him from testifying against powerful people.
But in an era when trust in the media is arguably lower than ever, it’s dangerous for a publication as esteemed as the Washington Post to succumb to the sheen of lurid speculation over the duller glare of hard fact. And given the actual corruption and abuses of power at the heart of the Epstein story — with the cover-up of his crimes going unreported for years until the Miami Herald‘s breakthrough 2018 investigation — it’s all the more imperative for publications to ask questions in lieu of trying to quickly provide answers.