A Tabloid Legend on Jeffrey Epstein's Death
This is the story with everything. Wealth, power, darkness. Princes and presidents with secrets.
This week we turn the column over to the late Mike McAlary (1957-98), tabloid star and journalistic tough guy. Here’s Mike:
So I’m talking to this political guy, holds a significant office which I won’t tell you because it’s none of your business. We’re having breakfast in a high-end midtown hotel. Gleaming silver buffet, steam rising, nervous, deferential waiters. He’s right at home. They have everything — waffles, eggs benedict, golden hash browns.
Naturally he orders fresh berries and I have cantaloupe with a little china cup of cottage cheese. We sort of laugh, like we’re admitting. We’re so important, we must maintain our health for the good of the republic. Pols used to look like pigs, which was often an outer representation of an inner reality. It was all very honest! Now they’re gym rats, on our dime. “Vote for me, I’m completely fit!”
My business went to hell when it started maintaining its health. The old newsrooms — the whiskey in the lower-right drawer of the copy desk, the guy who’d call in sick in a blackout and the next morning forget, bump into his substitute, and scream at his editor: “You’re scheming to replace me!” The sound of the wires, hysterical with news. The nerve-jangling bedlam. Now it’s the dry tap-tap-tap in the gray felt cubicle when anyone’s in the newsroom, which they aren’t because they’ve all got a cable hit.
Anyway we’re talking and I ask about Epstein. You guys in Washington really interested in this story? He says, “First I have to tell you my Epstein joke: I was stunned to hear about the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein. And so was Jeffrey Epstein!”
I give him a laugh. Good try. But what are you saying? He shrugs. It’s a big subject at Hamptons fundraisers. Otherwise, eh, not really.
I’m thinking but this is the story with everything. Wealth, power, darkness. Princes and presidents. People with secrets. Rumors of spying. Even an English aristo moll on the lam.
He’s the most famous prisoner in America! They put him in a jail, where he supposedly tries to kill himself. So they move him to a special cell, heavily guarded 24/7. Don’t worry, he’s safe, he’s gonna face the music!
Then dawn on a Saturday in high August. Everyone important is away. It’s an entire city run by the second string — novices, kids and pension-bumpers at the police desk, the news desk, the hospital. It breaks like sudden thunder: Epstein is dead, he committed suicide in his cell!
And then, like, silence. Thunder’s followed by fog.
Government dummies up, no one knows nothin’. Finally on Monday the attorney general has a news conference. He’s very upset! What incompetence! That jail don’t work right!
But incompetence proves nothing, right? If Epstein killed himself, he chose the time he knew the guards were asleep. If Epstein was murdered, his killer chose the time he knew the guards were asleep. Incompetence is completely believable but insufficient.
The papers are doing their stories about those strange Americans with their quirky ways burning up the internet with their quaint conspiracies. But who would not wonder about foul play? With all the people who’d want him dead?
This whole thing is a big stinkin’, fumin’ hunk of foul-up. And there’s still time to get this story. I miss the tough, crazy beat reporters of yore. Like me. I got cancer and was on chemo when I got a tip about a police-brutality story. I tore the IV out of my arm and ran to the sound of the crap!
So Jimmy Breslin it. McAlary it. Hell, Steve Dunleavy it. There was a story, too good to check: Dunleavy gets there early when the Berlin Wall’s starting to fall, sees the kids dancing in the streets. He wires home, says send me a dozen sledgehammers. Next day he hands them out to the kids, they jump on the wall and start hammering. The photographs were beautiful! Caught an existential truth! That’s a reporter!
Work every source and angle, every prison guard and cop you know — you’re supposed to know them! Pete Hamill would have known the estranged sister of the night nurse at the ER. He’d wait at her house, she’d tell him the EMTs came in laughing about “Who do you think killed the guy who suicided?” Or maybe she’d say they were nervous and just plopped him down and scrammed. But he’d have gotten the color, the feel. And it would suggest something.
Where is this Maxwell lady hiding? You believe nobody knows where she is? You’re an idiot. Go find Maxwell House! Live on the stoop! Ask her: Did you flip? Because I figure she went state’s evidence on Epstein and he knew. “Are you in hiding in fear for your life? Who wants to kill you, Ms. Maxwell?”
It’s like reporting now takes place in green rooms. People say it’s all gossip but it’s not, because gossip is fun. It’s more like data points formalized around some vaporous Official View.
It’s like every great media organization is tied up in this complicated, soul-crushing, virtue-signalling fearfulness, this vast miasma of progressive political theory and ideology and correctness and “please report to HR” — and it has nothing to do with the mission. The mission is to get the story!
Reporters and editors, they’re not the fabulous old drunks and girl reporter miscreants, they’re like — like normal people! Reporters aren’t supposed to be normal! And they’re very tidy because they’re extremely important! You get the impression they became reporters to affect the discourse. “I’m going into journalism to press for cultural and political justice.” These — these deconstructionist intellectuals! These twinkies with soft hands from Phillips Exeter Andover whatever. These mere political operatives. These people with grievances, who’ve never had anything to grieve because their lives were the red satin lining of a music box.
If I was in charge I’d say, “Thank you for your boundless efforts to secure the greater progress for the polity. But I was wondering if, in your spare moments, you could be troubled to help us cover the biggest scandal of your blanking lifetimes?”
The editors don’t honor old shoe-leather ways. The owner wants you out there branding the brand on cable so the brand is being branded.
And those losers in Washington. Lemme tell you what they’re thinking. They’re thinking New York cares and L.A. cares but nobody else in America cares about this pervert and his fancy friends. They’re thinking it’s August, play it out, let the story sink in the sands of time. Because it’s a story they don’t like. My hunch, they have no real confidence in themselves or the system. They don’t think they themselves are gonna find out if Epstein was killed or committed suicide.
Which if I’m right is a story.
Get me a drink. In the drawer in the desk over there.
I bet you miss me. And Breslin and the rest. Because we gave it all color. Because deep down we respected life, which has color and facts.
Stories, yarns. The feel of it, the old romance of it.
Bled right out by the theoreticians. Good luck with the brand.
Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.