REBECCA ONION The hunger for that definitive moment where the person who has opposed you has to say that they were wrong exists in maybe all of us.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Is it schadenfreude? Pity? Anger? What should we be feeling when we read stories about the people who regret not getting vaccinated now that they're deathly ill with covid? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brandy Zadrozny. Also, on this week's show, how anti-trans hatred online fuels real world violence, and vice versa.
LOIS BECKETT There's dozens or hundreds of people at the protest, but it's thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who will see the video clips of the protest leader.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Plus the dogged reporter who found Jeffrey Epstein's victim by searching through old court documents that other reporters had overlooked.
JULIE K BROWN I called them the redaction police. They're really people with black magic markers to sit around and take things out of records. They inevitably forget to redact something.
BRANDY ZADROZNY It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
KATYA ROGERS From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, and I am not Brooke Gladstone. This is Katya Rogers, executive producer of the show. So Brooke is out this week on vacation, and we've asked a friend of the show to help out. The brilliant NBC senior reporter, Brandy Zadrozny, who in her day job reports on all things misinformation. Take it away. Brandy.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thanks, Kat. You might have heard me over the last couple of years as a semi-regular guest talking about QAnon or anti-vaxxers. Actually, this week's show hits on some of those things. Let's get into it.
NEWS REPORT Renewed signs that the pandemic is far from over.
BRANDY ZADROZNY The CDC reversed course last week.
NEWS REPORT Mask mandates are returning in some places and cities, states and businesses are rolling out vaccination requirements. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins sounded a little touchy in his response to the backlash.
FRANCIS COLLINS I'm sorry if people think that that's a change in the guidance. Well, it's a change because of new data. Isn't that what you want your public health experts to do? Is to look at the evidence and then tell you what right now is the best thing to do. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Meanwhile, the Delta variant continued to spread through the populace and a very specific type of story made its way through the media.
NEWS REPORT unvaccinated Americans who got sick and regret their decision.
NEWS REPORT I spoke with a mom whose daughter is fighting for her life here in Arkansas Children's. She told me the hardest part about watching her child suffer is that this was preventable.
REGRETFUL MOM It's very hard to see her in that situation. I wish I would have made better choices.
NEWS REPORT A Carlsbad man who just tested positive for covid is speaking out about his vaccine regrets. As ABC News reporter, Michael Chen found out his painful covid battle has changed his mind about getting the vaccine. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Turns out this isn't the first time we've watched these kinds of stories take over the news cycle. Rebecca Onion, historian and staff writer at Slate, calls the trope the fable of the sick anti-vaxxer. She says during the smallpox outbreak of the early 20th century, newspapers turned to the same methods, desperately trying to fight the growing resistance to inoculation.
REBECCA ONION This rash of smallpox epidemics in the late 19th and early 20th century was really the time that there started to be vocal, well they call themselves medical freedom advocates who would be publishing and speaking about avoiding the smallpox vaccine, but this is also a time when the government in various cities and towns would mandate the smallpox vaccine and also do things like sweep through cities and pull people out of tenements. It was especially poor people that they would do this to, and forcibly vaccinate or charge them with defiance of the law. It was this really bad time where there was not a lot of government control or regulation of the physical vaccine. So there was a lot of contamination of the vaccine. And it was true that a lot of people did get pretty sick from it. So there was mandates, but not regulation. So this was sort of just like a perfect storm for anti-vaxx sentiment and actually led to the government stepping in and regulating the production of vaccines, for the first time.
BRANDY ZADROZNY You relay the story of a particular anti-vaxxer, a local doctor in Boston who in 1982 intentionally exposed himself to smallpox. Tell us the story of Immanuel Pfeiffer.
REBECCA ONION So I first encountered the story in a book called Pox by a historian named Michael Willrich. And it's a really great book. I couldn't believe it when I read it. So this guy, Immanuel Pfeiffer, who was a licensed doctor, you know, he practiced medicine. He lived in Bedford, Massachusetts, but he had sort of been a problem for the more official public health establishment for a while. There's some sort of like dispute as to how he actually got his license, and this is a time when doctors were really trying to professionalize. So other doctors and public health authorities were just like constantly very annoyed by Pfeiffer because he would do things like use hypnotism in his practice or he would treat people by mail, which was a practice that they were really trying to, to crack down on at the time. And as part of this, again, this is a familiar thing, he's interested in a lot of like, alternative health practices. And one of the things that he was very sort of fixated on was arguing against the smallpox vaccine.
BRANDY ZADROZNY He was a wellness influencer.
REBECCA ONION Yeah, he was. But anyways, there's a public health official in Boston named Samuel Durgin, who was especially annoyed by him, and he challenged him publicly to go to the isolation hospital where people were being kept who had smallpox and see the patients there, and basically, like, exposed himself. Durgin thought it was going to be a beautiful publicity stunt. Sort of great for the vaccination cause, and at the time, people actually were kind of shocked at what Durgin had done because Pfeiffer did go to the hospital, visited some of the worst smallpox cases in the hospital, was like leaning over their beds and getting in their faces [CHUCKLES] and treating them. And then he left the hospital, he tried to leave without washing his hands, and then the people at the hospital stopped him and said, you should wash your hands. So he did. He left the hospital and took public transport to a big meeting. It was actually a meeting where he spoke on behalf of the anti vaccination cause.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So when Pfeiffer gets home, what happens?
REBECCA ONION Well, he got smallpox. And the media starts saying he defied the disease and now he's ill. A lot of front page headlines, "Anti Vaccinationist Gets Sick."
BRANDY ZADROZNY I saw one of the New York Times headlines was "Exposed to Smallpox: Boston Doctor Who Opposed Vaccination Now Has the Disease and Probably Will Die."
REBECCA ONION Yes, that's right. You know, Willrich points out that it wasn't just Pfeiffer that the media kind of did this with. They also did it with a couple of other cases of sort of small religious communities that were anti vaccination, that had been hit by outbreaks of the virus. And they would sort of say, well, we'll see how their Bible does for them now or, you know, that kind of thing. But they also were not super into the way the health authorities had handled the case. It wasn't as perfect of a, like a slam dunk as the Board of Health had hoped for.
BRANDY ZADROZNY And what about Pfeiffer? Did he die?
REBECCA ONION He didn't die. One thing to know about the smallpox from the early 20th century is that it was the less virulent strain than what had been predominant in the United States in around the time of the Revolutionary War, for example, when a lot of people were dying of it, which was actually part of the problem with the vaccination campaigns, because since it wasn't as terrible as it had been in years past, more people were surviving it than maybe had in the past.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Great. So I imagine Dr. Pfeiffer afflicted, but now well, he had seen the light. He learned a lesson. He became an advocate for vaccination. No?
REBECCA ONION No, he learned nothing, or so it seems. He publicly said that he had not had a problem with it at all, and that it wasn't as painful as everyone said, and his fellow anti vaccinationists had sort of a similar approach to the case. You know, they would say, you know, he is in poor health, he's been doing too much, too much public speaking, trying to advance the cause, and that's why he got hit. Which is, again, familiar in terms of like the toolkit of anti vaccinationist arguments. This idea that it wouldn't have been as bad if he had been someone else.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Well, so Dr. Pfeiffer wasn't moved, maybe his fellow anti vaccinationists weren't moved, but how did it affect others who had read these stories in the press, who had heard his story?
REBECCA ONION A couple of weeks after, because, of course, it was also reported that Pfeiffer had survived, a couple of weeks after that was reported, people were kind of back to being resistant. So it sort of seemed like it did nothing and was this weird fight for no reason.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So the cautionary tale’s effectiveness weakens over time maybe, and maybe won't ever convince any of the true believers. But I've been seeing all these stories and asking who they're really for? Do they convince the unvaccinated to roll up their sleeves, or are they just for the vaccinated folks to read and nod sagely and just feel good about ourselves. I think the term that you used for how the vaccinated feel about these stories was "delicious"?
REBECCA ONION Yes, and I don't want to make anyone feel bad for [CHUCKLES] for the way they feel about reading these stories, because we're all very frustrated. I get it. I think the very striking thing to me that I realized sort of after completing this piece is that I haven't seen any of these stories yet where the person didn't get the vaccine because they had some structural impediment. And there is some polling now, recently from the Kaiser Family Foundation, I believe, saying that a lot of people who aren't getting it are getting it because they're worried they might be charged in some way. Their insurance will sort of spring a fee on them, or they don't have child care, or they're worried about missing work. The fact that all the people who seem to show up in these stories are saying something about partisan reasons why they didn't get the vaccine. It's telling to me because the glee that the vaccinated might sort of subtly feel and maybe express online on reading these stories is sort of indicative of the great frustration that people have felt on, I feel like, you know, across the political spectrum in the past four years. There is something that people who report on the QAnon movement talk about a lot, which is that QAnoners, one of their very excited feelings in the lead up to January 6th was that they hoped that not only that everything that they hoped was going to happen, that there would be like public executions of every liberal figurehead, but also that everybody who in their family or in their friend group who had mocked them or tried to convince them out of their beliefs would have to say, "hey, you were right." Like "this actually did happen, I was wrong all along," and, you know, you can look at that and say, oh, that's ridiculous. Obviously, that wasn't going to happen and it didn't happen. And, you know, this is like an alternate reality, but I think that the hunger for that definitive moment where the person who has opposed you has to say that they were wrong, existed in, maybe all of us, and that sort of this feeling that gets activated by these stories, and I think the reason why there are stories of conservatives who have to take back what they thought, is that same feeling of like "my reality came for you, and you have to acknowledge now that what I said was true, is true." And I think that accounts for some of the sort of like, uncharitableness of it. Like the clash of realities that we've been sitting with for the past little while. And it's coming out in these stories.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I appreciate that. I mean, it feels like we all have someone in our family who has not been vaccinated and politics might have something to do with that. So it's not, you refer to a meanness in some of the responses, maybe the idea is better phrased as wishful thinking? If this person can be convinced, then my person can also see the light.
REBECCA ONION Hey, I like that a lot better. That sounds nicer. You identify something which is also deep inside of it, which is this like personal concern and just feeling like you've used all your tools and like what? Like what more could you possibly say? And these stories give you one more tool in a way.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Rebecca, thanks so much.
REBECCA ONION Thanks so much for having me.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Rebecca Onion is a historian and staff writer for Slate magazine. You can read her piece, The Fable of the Sick Anti-Vaxxer on Slate.com. Coming up when online violence spills out into the streets. This is On the Media.
BRANDY ZADROZNY This is On the Media, I'm Brandy Zadrozny sitting in for Brooke Gladstone while she's on vacation.
BELLIGERANT WOMAN 1 He's a man with a penis.
[CONTINUES UNDER WITH MUSIC]
BRANDY ZADROZNY On June 24th, a woman behind an anonymous Instagram account posted a video of herself having an altercation at Wi Spa, a popular Korean spa in Los Angeles.
BELLIGERANT WOMAN 1 I don't care. So a man can just say "I'm a woman today and I want to come in?" [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY The poster claimed that Wi Spa had allowed a person who she said was a man into the woman's section of the spa, and that it traumatized her. In the video, Wi Spa employees explained that they follow California law and don't discriminate on the basis of gender, but the woman shot back.
BELLIGERANT WOMAN 2 We are concerned about women's safety. When a 30 year old man with a penis and testicles is getting into the Jacuzzi. OK?
BELLIGERANT WOMAN 1 Yeah, pervert. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY The video went viral, moving quickly through right wing spaces on Facebook before being picked up by Tucker Carlson.
BRANDY ZADROZNY A man, a biological male, walked into the female kids’ section of the spa with his genitals exposed. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY In just over a week. There were 6 mentions of the story on Fox News, but on July 3rd, the violence left the virtual world and spilled out into the streets when people gathered for what they called a, quote, "anti-pervert protest" in front of Wi Spa. Counter protesters showed up to protest for trans rights, and the event turned into a street brawl.
NEWS REPORT Violent clashes between demonstrators and the LAPD. Officers in tactical gear pushing the crowd back off Wilshire Boulevard. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Two people were stabbed, another was bear maced. The LAPD made no arrests. Lois Beckett, senior reporter at The Guardian, who herself witnessed a second protest, describes how it all unfolded.
LOIS BECKETT After there was an announcement that there was going to be this protest around Wi Spa, various activists in the Los Angeles area, made it clear that they were going to counterprotest for trans rights. Precious Child, an artist, a musician and also a live streamer who is herself a trans woman, shared the post and encouraged people to come out and protest for trans rights, and what happened next is that a very local activist known for being an anti-vaxxer and anti-masker posted on Instagram a picture of Precious calling her a monster. And this post didn't explicitly say that Precious was the original person who was in the spot in that original incident, but a lot of people who read it interpreted that way. And so I spoke with Precious, who said that soon after she saw this post on Instagram, she started getting horrible comments on her Instagram, people calling her a pedophile, threatening to attack her, attack her family. One of the most frightening was a picture of a man with a military style rifle saying that she was a predator and threatening to come after her.
BRANDY ZADROZNY This didn't just stay confined to L.A. This became a global rallying cry for all these disparate groups, right?
LOIS BECKETT Precious said as she watched these hateful, horrible, harassing comments roll in, she could see that the people posting them came from different demographics. She watched as this false claim spread around the world. She said, first, she saw comments from sort of militia group types in the US, then from broader pro-Trump people in the US, then she said that like transphobic feminists in Germany and in Australia were weighing in. In the United Kingdom, Mumsnet, which is a parenting website which has become a gathering place for anti-trans feminists, posted a lot about this Wi Spa incident, so suddenly, this one woman who was very upset in a Los Angeles spa is being hailed and treated like an international figure who is doing something very brave.
BRANDY ZADROZNY You went to one of the protests. What happened?
LOIS BECKETT For the first couple of hours of the protest outside Wi Spa, you know, it was just very weird because it was surrounded by police officers early in the morning. There were pro-trans protesters there pretty early and then around 11:00 a.m., this group of anti-trans protesters, the police estimated like 50, 60, 70, come marching down towards this spa. There's a woman at the front who's holding a baseball bat. They're chanting about pedophiles. They're chanting Save our children.
[AMBIENT PROTEST SOUNDS PLAY]
ANTI-TRANS PROTESTER Save our children! Save our children!
LOIS BECKETT There are women there carrying signs that women's rights matter and protect women's spaces, but there are also men there who are wearing masks that cover their whole faces, helmets. I see later a man who's carrying a massive shield. So it's this very chaotic and very intense group of people coming down the street towards this group of pro-trans protesters. And clearly, a lot of people had come that day wanting to fight. And once people have identified me as a journalist, I got surrounded. People are very angry, and eventually I tried to get away because it wasn't safe anymore and ended up sort of being pursued by a number of people.
ANTI-TRANS PROTESTER Get out. Get out! [END CLIP]
LOIS BECKETT You know, people are screaming at me like throwing water at me, throwing a water bottle at me, and eventually someone shoved me to the ground.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Real world violence that stems from, you know, so-called fake news isn't that common. Does it feel like this story is an exception, a precursor of what's to come?
LOIS BECKETT I mean, I think the thing we're all afraid of is it's a precursor of things to come. Because we saw all last year there was very local street violence and it was just, you know, one little attack at a time. Car attacks, people getting shot in Kenosha and this brawling in Portland or in other places in California or in Michigan. That was a bad sign, and it did culminate in the attack on the Capitol. Local fights are a training ground for what goes national. And I think I thought that the fear from the FBI's investigation of the Capitol rioters and all of these arrests would have a longer effect at making people, specifically the Proud Boys, a little bit more nervous about coming out to fight and attack people in public.
BRANDY ZADROZNY They were supposed to go back into their holes, I was told.
LOIS BECKETT Yeah, I mean, it's July, it's August. Like here they are in the streets of Los Angeles being publicly violent again and without consequence. We know where that leads.
BRANDY ZADROZNY There is a real temptation to want to believe that the groups who were emboldened, I think, by the Trump presidency will now find something else to do. I think I even said, well, once the vaccine comes, then we won't be online all the time. People will be out, real world connections. People will go back to church, back with their families. And, you know, the world will be a little better. It will get not so violent. It won't be so scary. And I think that the Wi Spa protests and then the side protests that you saw from anti-vaxxers that were also at the Wi Spa protests just sort of cemented the idea that we are nowhere near out of the woods.
LOIS BECKETT I always try to remind myself, listen, it's not that many people. It does appear to be the same tiny group of agitators who are going from issue to issue and from place to place acting in volatile and dangerous ways. Maybe it's a couple of dozen people. But that's the thing about violence. You don't need a lot of people to have a big impact if you're willing to be violent. And I think one of the things that's been really striking about seeing this violence start up again, at Wi Spa, is how little the city as a whole is paying attention to it. There hasn't been condemnation from the mayor or political leaders. Big LGBT groups haven't weighed in on this. So I was talking to precious child who is sort of falsely accused and brought into this whole situation, and she just said it was very upsetting not to feel that people were seeing this violence and speaking out and condemning it.
BRANDY ZADROZNY In your article, you quote Gay Chapman, who is the owner of After Ellen, a site for lesbian and bi women that's been criticized for transphobia content. Now, Chapman was at the protest on the anti trans side and said, quote, It was just like a regular day on Twitter, only it was real life. What does that say about how we need to change the nature of our online spaces? Is that even possible?
LOIS BECKETT I thought that was such a resonant quote. When we talk about online harassment, we know the most marginalized people are often subject to really terrible attacks. And that has been true online, and that is true with real world violence. If we acted more rapidly about the violence that trans women of color face in the real world and online, physically and in terms of harassment and made sure that they were safe, then we would really all be safer because we've seen that they are often the first to experience some of this violence and that violence inevitably spreads. And that's the opposite of what's actually happening. There was just a new Brennan Center report which suggested that social media platforms from Facebook to YouTube were not particularly responsive to the harassment against the most marginal people and tended to enact their policies with more nuance and care and restraint on more socially prominent and powerful groups, and that is the opposite of the reaction that we might want if we really cared about making our online spaces or the streets of our cities safer.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Well, that's always been the pushback, right? Is that there's online and there's IRL, and I think that part of the thing about that quote that was so illuminating is that even the people who are in real life battling out these issues directly correlate their experiences back to their online lives.
LOIS BECKETT And there's a weird feeling about being at these protests because there's dozens or hundreds of people at the protest, but it's thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who will see the video clips of the protest later.
BRANDY ZADROZNY It becomes almost performative for the people that are actually at the protest as well.
LOIS BECKETT That feeling is just unavoidable, that everybody is streaming themselves and streaming other people. And one of the things that was really striking and clear is that some of the violence and the attacks against journalists were because these people do not want to be captured or live streamed or photographed by someone who isn't on their side, so that the violence is a attempt to control who gets to show what's really happening. And at the same protests where I was assaulted by far right protesters, there was also another journalist who was taking pictures of the left wing counter protesters, and he said that he was taking a wide angle shot and might have gotten the license plate of the car into it and was surrounded by people who thought that he was deliberately trying to take the license plate of the car to dox someone and who, you know, got very angry at him and eventually took his phone and took his bag of camera equipment. And so just a tremendous anxiety and paranoia about being identified in these public actions that are playing out in the middle of the day, but also a real fear of what it means to be captured on film, captured on video, the power that has in this situation.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Lois, thanks so much.
LOIS BECKETT Great to talk with you.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Lois Beckett is the coauthor with Sam Levin of The Guardian article, A Nightmare Scenario How An Anti-Trans Instagram Post Led to Violence in the Streets.
Julia Serrano is a writer, performer, biologist and activist. She says that although the protest at Wi Spa brought together a new cohort of strange bedfellows, including Proud Boys, Anti-Trans Feminists and the conspiracy cult QAnon, the language and the tactics they weaponized followed an old and well-worn playbook.
JULIA SERANO One of the striking parallels to what's been happening lately is the Anita Bryant era of the 1970s, where she had the Save Our Children campaign.
NEWS REPORT Anita Bryant was once known as an orange juice saleswoman. Not anymore. With a religious fervor that has made her America's most controversial woman overnight, she has been selling her Save Our Children group. Her group is crusading to repeal a new Dade County law which protects homosexuals in jobs and housing. Anita Bryant began her fight in her church, where the congregation believes the new law will force them to hire homosexual teachers.
ANITA BRYANT In our campaign. We we talk about the danger of the homosexual becoming a role model to our children.
NEWS REPORT With television commercials, the Save Our Children group is appealing to parental anxieties, saying gays will flaunt their homosexuality before impressionable children. [END CLIP]
JULIA SERANO Essentially, the thrust of those arguments were that we have to protect children from gay teachers, and there were lots of concerns about pedophilia and child molestation and claims that gay people were going to recruit children
BRANDY ZADROZNY And this "threats to women and children," this was also used by pro segregationists in the 1950s, right?
JULIA SERANO That is correct. During the civil rights movement, there was a lot of attempts to raise fears about how integration could potentially lead to threats against white women and children like the Anita Bryant campaign. There's no evidence to suggest that there was any higher risk of child sexual abuse or of sexual violence, but this language is very powerful, and today's anti-trans activists have picked up on almost all of the same means from the Anita Bryant era.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Yeah, I mean, it's almost too on the nose that the QAnon slogan is actually Save Our Children.
JULIA SERANO Yeah, I don't know whether that was purposeful, especially because QAnon did not start out as a anti-LGBTQ movement, that was more against a vague idea of Democrat elites, but yeah, they are basically using Anita Bryant slogan.
BRANDY ZADROZNY How do the events around Wi Spa fit into the historical continuum of anti-LGBTQ panics or movements or campaigns? So are things generally moving toward greater acceptance and equal rights for trans people or are we backsliding?
JULIA SERANO I would say over the last several years we have been backsliding, famously. I think it was Time magazine declared in 2014, the transgender tipping point and the year after that was the Caitlyn Jenner year, where Caitlyn Jenner's transition garnered a lot of news. And it was really the following year of 2016, there was this rash of, from various angles, fears about an imagined effect where there were more transgender children, so therefore, it must be contagious or kids are being pressured into it, or it's a trend that was a very popular saying around 2016 by people were pushing anti-transgender ideas. So in 2016, there's this onslaught of kind of organization among anti-transgender activists that I think has been increasing and becoming more and more potentially violent over the last four or five years.
BRANDY ZADROZNY A lot of the anti-trans movement has been bolstered by what seems like science-y or journalistic coverage. So you've researched, for instance, and written about the total lack of science behind this concept of rapid onset gender dysphoria. This posits that being transgender can be caused by social contagion. So in other words, being trans is an identity that young people can catch or be tricked or misled into by the Internet and peer pressure. It comes from a 2018 paper published on PLOS ONE by Lisa Littman, a medical doctor with very recent research interest in trans youth. The paper was roundly criticized, PLOS ONE had to issue a correction because of some problematic research methods. Can I just ask you to tell me about this rapid onset gender dysphoria, what it is, who's pushing it, what effect it's having?
JULIA SERANO Yes, I investigated this for an article I was writing about it, and I found them through doing Google searches, trying to find the first instances, someone who was posting on a website called 4thWaveNow, which is one of several anti-transgender parent websites, and basically the idea that social contagion is turning children transgender was invented on these websites starting in February 2016. In July of that year, Lisa Littman put out on these same anti-trans parent websites a call for parents to participate in her survey that ended up becoming the data for her paper. And it's important to point out that this paper on rapid onset gender dysphoria did not study the children at all. It was basically a survey of parents’ beliefs about their trans children.
BRANDY ZADROZNY And specific parents events.
JULIA SERANO Yes, specifically, Lisa Littman did not put out calls for parents on, say, gender affirming websites. She specifically selected from the same three websites that both invented the term and was going to have a lot of parents who already didn't believe that their children were actually trans.
BRANDY ZADROZNY OK, so this very science-y sounding term, that's not very good science. It really spread, though, and it caught on. Why and how?
JULIA SERANO So in my investigation of this, which is origins of social contagion and rapid onset gender dysphoria, it basically really took off in August of 2016 and it really spread largely because this social conservative media environment began picking up on it. They found out about it.
TUCKER CARLSON In 2018, Brown University researcher Lisa Littman found that many teenage girls are abruptly identifying as transgender after seeing a friend do so or after being exposed to pro-trans material online, and there's an awful lot of that. [END CLIP]
JULIA SERANO Just trying to raise concerns that everything that's happening, say, with transgender children, that it's all this new experimental stuff or this is a completely new phenomenon that's just taken over, but in actuality, this has all been going on for decades. And I've been involved in trans health related discourses since the 2000's. And there were debates among trans health professionals about what's the best way to treat these children are. And there was a growing consensus that built up over many years that gender affirming approaches, that is taking what trans children say seriously. And rather than kind of denying them or doing conversion therapy, that that's the best way to go. And it should be pointed out that the main reason why that is, is because there has been lots of research that has been done showing that dis-affirming trans children's identities, insisting that they continue to be the gender they were assigned at birth, even if that isn't working for them, that that has very serious health ramifications and trans people themselves would agree with that, because we have our own experiences of struggling, trying to move through the world in a way that is dissonant with or incongruent with who we are.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thinking again of the idea of rapid onset gender dysphoria. What can that tell us about how pseudoscientific ideas, sort of like Andrew Wakefield's anti-vaccination research, the one that falsely connected the MMR vaccine with autism, which is misinformation that persists today. What can that tell us about how these ideas get picked up and popularized by the general public?
JULIA SERANO People latched on to research that seems to support their belief. And if your main goal is you don't want your child to be transgender, then any evidence that you can find in support of that, you'll latch onto it, whether it's contradictory or not. If you insist that there's a contagious element to being transgender, it gives parents the ability to seclude their children from trans peers to limit their viewing of, you know, YouTube videos or information about transgender people or issues because you're trying to essentially quarantine them from catching the transgender when that supports the outcome that you want, even if it's an incorrect rationale.
BRANDY ZADROZNY What's the best way to go about countering that disinformation and is there a cost to engaging in every eruption of anti-trans disinfo?
JULIA SERANO I think it's important to remember that every parent who finds and starts utilizing anti-trans disinformation, that there is a child who is basically going to have a really horrible experience as a result. And I think that the most concern that I have is the way that sometimes within the media there can be a both side-isms sort of approach to it. Like, oh, well, let's have, you know, the pro-transgender side and then the anti-transgender side and give them equal time. I think it's really important to stress that the scientific consensus says that we should recognize trans people and take trans people's identities seriously.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thank you, Julia.
JULIA SERANO Thank you.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Julia Serano is a writer, performer, biologist and activist. Coming up, the actual child sex trafficking ring that no one thought was newsworthy and the single reporter who wouldn't let it go. This is On the Media.
BRANDY ZADROZNY This is On the Media, I'm Brandy Zadrozny. Amid the panics over saving and protecting the children, one story of predation and abuse has sparked its own cottage industry of conspiracism. It's the saga of convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, which first grabbed headlines back in 2008.
NEWS REPORT A year long investigation by the Palm Beach police detailed an assembly line of young women and girls coming to Epstein's mansion to give him massages. In some cases, one of them involving a 14 year old girl, the encounters led to sexual activity. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY The media spotlight had mostly moved on from the Jeffrey Epstein story when Julie K. Brown started reporting on him for the Miami Herald in 2017. But her dogged search for the truth led to explosive headlines and real world consequences.
NEWS REPORT Just 48 hours after he took questions about that secret plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein years ago. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta is out tonight, resigning...
NEWS REPORT ...Billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein has been arrested. He was taken into custody overnight at a New Jersey airport. All this comes months after a three part investigation by the Miami Herald.
BRANDY ZADROZNY To Brown, something was missing in prior Epstein coverage, specifically, the voices of the dozens of women Epstein had abused. The press often mischaracterized Epstein's young victims as sex workers, when in fact, many of the girls had been lured to his Palm Beach mansion under false pretenses. The extraordinary lengths she went to in order to find these women is outlined in a new book, Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story. Her work began with a tedious task, the search for the names of Epstein's victims in any court or police documents she could get her hands on. There was just one problem. They had been heavily redacted.
JULIE K BROWN I called them the redaction police. They're really people with black magic markers to sit around and take things out of reports. They inevitably forget to redact something. They leave a name in or they leave a parent's name or they leave a date of birth in. And I did find names or things that were supposed to be blacked out, but you could really see through it if you put a white paper under it. There's all kinds of little tricks like that. Then once I had a handful of names, I could go to their social media pages. Now most of them are on Facebook and I could see their friends. Epstein had a certain type of girl that he particularly liked and that were usually very fair, blond, blue eyed, waif-like girls. And even in their late 20s, you could see they were still that kind of type. So it was inevitable that some of them would have one or two friends that fit that profile. And then I was able to confirm that they were victims themselves because they brought a lot of their friends in. I basically connected all the dots. And it did take a long time, though. It took me six months to get together a list.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So I'm a librarian as well as a reporter. I started in Newsroom libraries and I was delighted to read this line from your book. You wrote, “Librarians are the unsung heroes of journalism, the fact finders and fact checkers behind the scenes who often don't get the credit they deserve.” Can I ask about Monika Leal at the Herald and how she assisted in your search for these women?
JULIE K BROWN Well, you're making me a little emotional because I just love Monika, and, you know, I've worked in my career with a lot of different librarians and they really help immensely. And in Monika’s case, there were a number of people that I hit a wall on not being able to find. And she would be able to say, well, let's try one more place. You know, she always knew one more place to look. She helped me not only just sometimes to look up information, but she was actually into the stories that I did. You know, when you have somebody that could go and say, guess what, I found out and she would say, oh, my gosh. And she almost made me feel like I could do this story. Whereas, you know, my editor was much more skeptical and other reporters were very skeptical and she was always sort of a cheerleader for me.
BRANDY ZADROZNY OK, thank you for indulging me. Back to your story, once you identified some of Epstein's victims, you wrote them letters. What did those letters say?
JULIE K BROWN I pointed out that most of the things that I read about the stories weren't told from the victim's point of view. And I told them that I thought that that was probably one of the reasons why he's still free. So I pointed out that he's probably out there and he could be still preying on other girls and that it's important that we tell the public and the world exactly what happened. And it's clear that we don't know how he got away with what he got away with.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Now, I've reported on stories involving victims, and I have this thing that I say. It's a kind of Miranda Rights, and I go something like this, which is I want to tell this story. I think it's important, but I never want you to regret talking to me so often. I, with this victim, will sit and talk about all the worst case scenarios so they can decide whether telling their story is something that they really want to do. Because of this, I have lost out on stories, but usually it builds trust, being willing to sort of walk away rather than take the agency away from this person. And I'm wondering, how did you build your trust and what did you learn about these women in the process?
JULIE K BROWN I think one of the ways that I was able to really calm their fears was, number one, I made it very clear from the very beginning that they did not have to talk to me about the abuse. They did not have to tell me what he did to them because the story was really not about that. It was about how they were treated by the criminal justice system. And one of the things I did, for example, is just ask them to talk about who they were back when this happened. You know, what was 16 year old Courtney Wild like? She was wearing braces. She was a cheerleader. She wanted to grow up to be a secretary. I needed to hear why and how they got trapped into this horrible cycle of sexual abuse.
BRANDY ZADROZNY You asked some experts for advice. What was it? What did they tell you?
JULIE K BROWN Well, what they told me to do was, first of all, understand that when you're 13 or 14, your brain isn't really wired the way it is when you grow up and you're in your 20s and 30s, that's what they say teenagers don't always think things through. It's because their brains aren't in that place yet. For example, prosecutors would say, well, her story is inconsistent. Well, what the experts told me is it's more natural for a child or a teenager to tell stories that are inconsistent because of the way their brain works.
BRANDY ZADROZNY That's so interesting because journalists have a phrase "trust, but verify," but you seem to be suggesting that that's much harder when we're talking about children who are victims of sexual abuse.
JULIE K BROWN Yeah, in fact, if you have a child or an adolescent, it tells the story exactly the same every time. That's a sign that they were coached and that it might not be true. The fact that they were inconsistent only would make them more credible. So there was, you know, an effort to approach this story deliberately from the place of a cold case detective, really that was trying to take it apart from the very beginning and to understand and put it back together in a way that seemed to explain it better than it had been explained before, how this criminal justice case really fell apart and really failed these victims.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I was really struck by the leash that you were given to start a project that few people really had faith in at first. And it's the kind of freedom that I think is often behind some of the best journalism. It's what I think of as the freedom to fail, dedicating time and money and resources to an endeavor that you couldn't have known would work.
JULIE K BROWN The Herald deserves an awful lot of credit. And Casey Frank, my boss, even though he was very skeptical and we locked horns quite a lot. I also lucked out in some respects because in the middle of when I was doing this, the MeToo movement exploded. I probably would not have been given as much time because that really turned the tide in my favor, not that Casey was against it, but he was really gung ho on it after that happened because literally on TV at the time, they also had Larry Nassar's victims, one by one going into court and tearfully describing what had happened to them. So I was able to say, look, this is going to be an even more powerful story, because as one of the girls said to me in my original series, we weren't the kind of people anybody would listen to. I mean, we weren't celebrities, we weren't Olympic stars, and nobody would care about what happened to us, and Epstein knew that, and he was right. And that was the biggest tragedy, I think, of all in this whole scandal.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Initially, there was a skepticism or maybe an indifference about the depths of Epstein's depravity and his connection to power that you rejected in order to conduct your investigation. Years later, as more information has been uncovered, almost the opposite has happened. There's this kind of incredulousness and a hunger for conspiracy theories, particularly about Epstein. There are camps that say Epstein was murdered by the Clintons. Others out there say he's alive, that his death is all a ruse. What do you think makes Epstein's life and death so ripe for conspiracism?
JULIE K BROWN And almost everything about this case has been sealed or the victims have been silenced. I mean, that's where conspiracy theories flourish. From the very beginning, they sealed the plea agreement, they made sure the victims wouldn't appear in court, there were countless court documents that were filed under seal, there have been reports that we still can't get from the FBI. The FBI hasn't released a whole lot of information at all. I tried to get reports from the Office of Homeland Security, for example, which was theoretically supposed to be monitoring who he was bringing in on his planes. That's all redacted right down to the report on how he died. We've never seen the autopsy report.
BRANDY ZADROZNY You do include a controversial chapter called Jeffrey Epstein Did Not Kill Himself. Now, I'm familiar with this meme. So I assume that the title is a sort of tongue in cheek reference to a meme spread on social media after his death. But the claim, that's a pretty contested claim, it's flush with conspiracism in itself. Why did you spend so much time on it?
JULIE K BROWN Yes, it was a meme, but I don't think that it's out of the realm of possibility. In fact, I think most people don't believe that he killed himself, and I have not seen any evidence to show that he did. As I said, it's been hushed up. You know, we have at least two ongoing investigations and it's been two years since he was found dead. And we still don't have the results. What's taking so long? Number one. Number two, you have some very key people that don't believe that he killed himself, his own brother, and his lawyers who were in contact with him right up to the time his body was found.
BRANDY ZADROZNY But if I can I assume, you know, the trope of conspiracy theorists "just asking questions," and so if we're just at the "just asking questions" stage, did do you think that this sort of conjecture can feed conspiracy theories instead of illuminating answers to these questions?
JULIE K BROWN Yes, I guess you're always going to run the risk that you will add to the kinds of people that'll blow it into craziness. What I'm saying is that authorities need to really come clean with what evidence that they have showing that he committed suicide because this story has been so shrouded in secrecy for so long. My aim is to pressure, and it did work to some degree with my series in that I kept pointing to inconsistencies or problems with the investigation, and that led authorities to reopen the investigation and ultimately to arrest him. I think it's incumbent upon journalists to keep asking questions, even if we don't know the answer. And yes, to keep investigating. In fact, with the launch of the book last week, I'm getting more tips from people, some of them crazy, but you never know. You still have to talk to the people that sound crazy.
BRANDY ZADROZNY In your book. You relay a piece of advice that has stuck with you and it's quote, “When you see a pack of journalists, go the other way.” Now, because of your own reporting, there are a crowd of reporters circling the Eppstein beat once more with countless stories, podcasts, documentaries. So are you staying or going?
JULIE K BROWN Well, I have to stick it out to some degree. I kind of opened this whole can of worms, so it would be probably a derelict of duty if I completely walked away from it. And of course, Ghislane's trial will probably happen in November and I'll be covering that. Aside from that, the Herald is still suing to unseal a lot of documents that have remained largely hidden all these years.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Your reporting has achieved so much, but you've said that you fear that readers have lost sight of the bigger picture, the protection of young children.
JULIE K BROWN It's still a story that people get angry about, but it's disheartening to see that there hasn't been a momentum to, you know, fix or at least lead to some kind of reform in the way that we handle cases involving people who are not privileged. So it's just a whole big challenge that I think that we haven't really addressed.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I could talk to you forever. I haven't even gotten into Florida yet, which is where I'm from.
JULIE K BROWN Oh my gosh. Yeah, that is another whole book.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Julie, thanks so much.
JULIE K BROWN Oh, you're welcome. I always enjoy doing interviews with people who actually read the book.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Julie K. Brown is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald and author of Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story.
Thank you so much for having me the last couple of weeks, it's been a thrill to host my favorite show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz with help from Ellen Li. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen. Our engineers this week were Adriene Lilly and Sam Bair. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Brandy Zadrozny.
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