In Conversation with Julie K. Brown and Jane Mayer, Two Reporters Exposing Corruption All the Way to the Top
How does one define “determination”? It’s spending years chasing a story that you believe in when no one else does. It’s cold-calling leads, knocking on the doors of strangers, and traveling to obscure destinations to try to coax a witness or a victim who doesn’t want to talk to do just that. It’s spending your days poring over a decade’s worth of legal documents that are stacked in comically high piles in your guest room. It’s arranging clandestine meetings with federal marshals in a parking garage using code words like “Charlie” and “low-key.” It’s missing family vacations so you can write, without distraction, a story that attempts to balance the scales of justice.
Determination is in the DNA of Jane Mayer, the New Yorker’s chief Washington correspondent, and Julie K. Brown, a senior investigative reporter at the Miami Herald.
Mayer has written four best-selling books tackling the issues of money, corruption, and power in politics. She’s taken on influential big-donor billionaires (the Koch brothers), contributed to the reporting that led to the televised Senate testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and established the through line from President Donald Trump’s office to Fox News HQ.
Brown spent four years investigating and uncovering the abusive conditions in the Florida prison system, spurring a federal civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice. In November 2018 the Herald published “Perversion of Justice,” Brown’s staggering three-part article about financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. For the piece, Brown tracked down around 80 alleged victims of Epstein’s abuse (eight of whom went on record). The story also detailed Epstein’s sweetheart plea deal arranged by Alexander Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, who went on to become Trump’s secretary of labor.
Brown’s reporting prompted federal indictments against Epstein for sex trafficking and Acosta’s resignation from his Cabinet position. We spoke to Mayer and Brown — friendly acquaintances with a deep appreciation of each other’s work — in May, two months before Epstein’s arrest, and then again before this story went to press for our October issue in July.
Let’s start with an easy question: What makes a badass journalist?
Jane Mayer: I think it’s someone for whom no is just the beginning of the conversation. They see no the way a bull sees a red flag. Like, “Oh, really? OK, charge.” Fundamentally, it’s about doing something that is bigger than you. And that gives you courage. It gives you purpose and strength.
Julie K. Brown: I agree. I’m the type of journalist who doesn’t take no for an answer. You’re not really afraid of anything because, as Jane mentioned, it is about something bigger than someone telling you no or trying to intimidate you. I can’t even remember a time in my career that I felt intimidated. If anything, it sort of empowers me.
Jeffrey Epstein has quite the reputation for intimidation. Julie, did you ever experience that?
JKB: Nothing has happened yet — not yet. [laughs] I will say that the one thing I’ve noticed is that there is definitely something weird going on with my phones and my computer. I’ve been getting incessant FaceTime calls, one after another, from different numbers. I’m talking millions. I answered only one. I hope that means they didn’t hack in. I got so frustrated, and I thought, “Who are you? Why are you doing this?”
JM: We once had a subpoena delivered to our house. I remember my daughter opened the door, and I said, “Don’t take it!” So, I know the feeling when the big world is kind of bashing in your door at home.
JKB: When you go after powerful people, you know that they are going to try to find a way to mess with you. When [my story on Epstein] came out, [Harvard Law School professor and former Epstein attorney] Alan Dershowitz wrote an open letter to the Pulitzer Prize committee, trying to discredit my work and influence the board [not to award the Miami Herald a prize]. He must have said a million times, “I know that you’re not going to tell the truth because you’re just aiming for a Pulitzer.” When I do this kind of work, it’s the farthest thing from my mind. I never thought that this Epstein story would be as big as it’s turned out to be. Never. The thing that drives me is finding justice and telling a story people can relate to, because there are tons of vulnerable women who have gone through something like this. I think that’s another reason why intimidation doesn’t work. I’m not doing it so everybody loves me. I’m doing it because it’s an important story, and it needs to be told.
JM: I don’t think I’ve ever felt intimidated by anybody in working on a story. In fact, it spurs me on when people try. It’s usually a sign that they have something to hide and they’re afraid. It’s a fantastic thing to be a member of the press in this country and you’re not there just for yourself. You’re a representative of the public and its right to know things.
Have you both always been this fearless?
JKB: In my younger days they used to call me the Slapper. Not because I physically slapped anybody but because people in the office would hear me just asking questions over and over again in five million different ways until I finally got the answer. You learn a lot by doing that.
JM: Some people will not cooperate or don’t want to talk. But I will keep doing the story whether or not they want me to. So you just have to write around them and interview all the people around that person. Eventually, they get so rattled by the fact that you’ve talked to all their friends and family members that they decide to give you their side of the story too. Not always, but often.
What has been the toughest part of your careers?
JKB: It’s hard being a woman in journalism. You have to fight for your own story sometimes. That’s frustrating because you feel passionately about what you do, but you don’t want to alienate your editors. In reality, men don’t see stories the same as women. They just don’t.
JM: I remember when I was The Wall Street Journal’s first female White House correspondent. I covered Ronald Reagan, and his chief of staff said, “Women can’t understand throw weights,” meaning the physics of nuclear weapons. So I was not supposed to cover arms control even though I was the White House correspondent. When there was an arms-control summit, lo and behold, my paper told me that the boys were going to cover it, and I was supposed to stay home! I said to my boss, “What do you want me to cover, then?” And he said, “Why don’t you do a feature about Nancy Reagan’s favorite dress designer?” Of course, I didn’t. But I had to stay home. You had to pick your fights. Even though we are being celebrated as badasses, sometimes instead of confronting things straight on, at least in the office, it’s better to show than to tell them off. You have to outperform them and outshine them, and eventually they will yield.
What are some of your proudest achievements?
JKB: I am very proud of the Epstein story, and I would say I’m just as proud of the prison series. I honestly believed that the prison series saved lives. I know that at least for a time, when I was rigorously covering it, there were fewer beatings and people harmed.
JM: During the [George W.] Bush years, I felt really good about being able to call out the administration for torturing detainees. And, as a result — it wasn’t just my work, but we saw the black-site prisons and secret detention camps close down. Guantánamo became much more debated, and torture was explicitly outlawed by Obama when he came in as president. It’s an unbelievable feeling to think that you helped contribute to something good in the world. I want to speak truth to power. I want to strengthen our democracy. I think it’s in a very worrisome place. I want to see women be able to become empowered and speak up all over the world, and in this country as well.
Tell me about your process.
JM: Sometimes I write a story overnight if it’s just a small thing that I really think is newsy and needs to get out. But, generally, I have the luxury of time, which for investigative reporting is the ultimate weapon. You’ve got to talk to an awful lot of people, and sometimes you have to go back to them again and again.
JKB: Since I write for a newspaper, we put something out every day. When I worked on the prison project, I was producing a big story every six weeks. Every time I wrote a story about one horrible incident involving an inmate whose eyes were gouged out or whatever, I got five more. It was unrelenting, and you’re constantly attacking, attacking, attacking. The Epstein story was almost two years of reporting from beginning to end. The story was a lot more massive than I thought it would be going into it, and, fortunately, [my editors] gave me the time. There were certain [victims] in the beginning of the project who did not want to talk to me, and by the end I had them on video. It was about gaining their trust and them realizing that I was going to do a different kind of Epstein story. Not the salacious “Who’s riding the Lolita Express?” kind of story.
JM: I think the other thing that Julie describes is the experience of being underestimated and what an advantage that is. They think you’re just a little ant from a Florida newspaper. And sometimes it’s an advantage being female and, in my case, 5 foot 2 and friendly. I don’t think they see it coming.
JKB: You just go up and start chatting with people. I always identify who I am, but I want to talk to them because I’m interested. It’s not a phony thing.
With all the stress, how do you decompress?
JM: My daughter and I occasionally go and get a pedicure together and sit in those big queen chairs with our feet in the water. I love taking my dog out for a walk, and I have one of those secret ingredients to my life that makes it so much fun: I actually have a really nice husband who does the dishes! What can I say? I’m blessed.
JKB: I can’t even get my son to do the dishes. [laughs] But I do live on the beach. It calms me down. I wrote the Epstein piece from home. My guest room was filled top to bottom with documents, court records, and notepads. I would get up at 5 o’clock in the morning to start writing, and then I’d take a break and do laundry or go for a walk just to get away from it. Then I’d go back again.
Your families must be so proud. Do they ever give you credit for what you’re doing?
JKB: No? I would imagine your daughter is proud of you!
JM: She’s fine. Somewhere somebody called me a national treasure, and it’s a joke in the family where my husband will say, “Well, how’s the national treasure today, and do we have any milk?”
Jane, on a recent New Yorker podcast, [editor in chief] David Remnick said, “You don’t want to be getting a call from Jane saying, ‘I’ve got a few questions.’ ”
JM: Oh god, it’s getting to be a thing. I read online that somebody said, “If you get a call from Jane Mayer, call your lawyer and put your affairs in order.” I feel like the grim reaper! I hope it doesn’t interfere with my ability to keep getting people on the phone, that’s all. It’s funny, though. I guess this means they are finally taking us [female reporters] seriously. Which is progress.
Photographed by Jeremy Liebman. Styling Stephanie Pérez-Gurri. Hair and makeup: Glamsquad.
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 16.