Peter Cohen, a former staffer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accused The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow of publishing “botched” reporting — on late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to the university — that “ruined” his reputation.
In it, Cohen claims Farrow overstated his role in the donation scheme and misinterpreted basic facts “to suggest a neat but misleading narrative.” Cohen demanded corrections from the New Yorker, but said Farrow and the magazine would only discuss correcting information if Cohen acted as a source in future reporting.
Farrow’s original story — “How an Elite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein” — revealed leaked email correspondence about Epstein’s history of donations at the school.
Farrow’s source for the emails was a junior colleague of Cohen who the latter often cc’d, Cohen said. The report prompted the resignation of Media Lab Director Joi Ito — Cohen’s boss — because of his close ties to Epstein.
Cohen was mentioned 17 times in Farrow’s story. He claims Farrow “chose to assign me a co-starring role in the narrative he spun” despite his back-room role at the university, and that the New Yorker reporter ignored the bigger story due to a lack of research and sourcing. Cohen writes:
If, back in September 2019, Farrow had been successful in uncovering the real story of how at least three MIT vice presidents found ways to variously justify, excuse, whitewash, ignore, or limit Epstein’s involvement with the Media Lab, the New Yorker may well have scooped MIT’s own investigators. But as with Farrow’s other serious journalistic lapses—documented in recent months at the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and here at Quillette—Farrow instead cherry-picked information from the limited sources he had and misinterpreted basic facts along the way, so as to suggest a neat but misleading narrative.
In Farrow’s piece, he reported that Epstein was listed as “disqualified” in MIT’s list of donors, and that staffers like Cohen made sure Epstein’s donations to the university were filed anonymously, so as to conceal them. Farrow included emails from Cohen, cc’d to the junior colleague, that said to make sure a particular Epstein donation was listed as anonymous.
Cohen said Farrow “shoehorned his scattered evidence” to try and create a compelling narrative. He claimed that the emails lacked context, and that “senior administrators at MIT had approved the Media Lab’s taking gifts from Epstein, and had instructed the Lab to mark these as anonymous.”
“Most conspirators don’t cc their colleagues about their secret plans,” Cohen joked of the emails.
In his piece, Cohen also accused Farrow’s 2019 piece of containing inconsistencies, arguing for why The New Yorker should issue corrections to the story. In one passage, he claims Farrow misunderstood what was meant by “disqualified” when reporting that Epstein was listed as such in the donor database.
“On that one word—disqualified—hinged Farrow’s entire conspiracist narrative,” Cohen wrote. “Yet it was clear that the reporter had no idea what ‘disqualified’ meant in the context of MIT’s institutional jargon—either because he didn’t do his research, or didn’t understand the research when it was presented to him.”
(1) Based on a set of emails whose context Farrow either didn’t understand or properly investigate, the reporter suggested to readers the existence of a conspiracy within the Media Lab—centered on my boss and me—that sought to secretly accept money from a “disqualified” donor, and to hide evidence of our actions from the rest of MIT by making the source “anonymous”; (2) Farrow’s own source then put forward information that showed his reporting to be undermined by ignorance of MIT institutional protocols; (3) a comprehensive MIT report conclusively demonstrated that the donations from Epstein were received in line with policies that, however misguided, had been explicitly set down by three of the university’s vice presidents; (4) contrary to Farrow’s report, Epstein had never even been classified under the “disqualified” category in the first place.
When MIT released a report on the Epstein donations in January, Cohen was not named specifically because of how minimal his role was in deciding those gifts, he said. Cohen wrote that he did not make any decisions about Epstein’s donations, pinning the blame on Ito, who resigned a day after Farrow’s story was published.
He began asking The New Yorker to add corrections to the story as early as December, and last reached out after Smith’s May column. Cohen included email exchanges with Farrow and three other members of The New Yorker’s editorial team and legal counsel. After quoting their correspondence, Cohen writes:
Will the New Yorker ever correct the record? It’s possible. But based on my reading of my correspondence with the magazine, this will happen only on the condition that I act as a source for a future story about the Media Lab and its donors, something I refuse to do.
He concluded that writing his side of the story would be the only way to attempt to correct the record.
“My own experience shows that Farrow is quite happy to bully others and evade accountability,” Cohen said. “And that he has surrounded himself with enablers who are willing to assist in that project.”
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