The Post on Thursday presented a compelling development in the story: The autopsy in the case turned up “multiple breaks in his neck bones” — including the previously unsung hyoid bone. Reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Aaron C. Davis pointed to expert analysis indicating that a hyoid break can occur when a victim hangs himself but is “more common in victims of homicide by strangulation.” They also included a statement from New York City’s chief medical examiner, Barbara Sampson: “In all forensic investigations, all information must be synthesized to determine the cause and manner of death. Everything must be consistent; no single finding can be evaluated in a vacuum.”
So what’s the problem with The Post’s article? A few ill-chosen words in the lead sentence: “An autopsy found that financier Jeffrey Epstein suffered multiple breaks in his neck bones, according to two people familiar with the findings, deepening the mystery about the circumstances around his death.”
Deepening what mystery, exactly? There are indeed a number of unanswered questions here. Epstein was a financier, a convicted sex offender with contacts in high places. Before his precipitous fall — propelled by outstanding investigative work in the Miami Herald — Epstein hobnobbed with the likes of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, via a web of private flights and parties that reporters have since sought to reconstruct. Awaiting trial on sex-trafficking and conspiracy charges, Epstein, 66, was being held at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center, supposedly a secure facility. He may have attempted suicide in July.
So how could the feds have allowed this to happen? That’s a matter of some mystery.
It’s not, however, the mystery seized upon by conspiracy theorists on the Internet, whose job it is to expound on far-fetched scenarios before the investigation reaches its end point. That mystery is simply this: Hey, who killed Epstein, the Clinton people or the Trump people? Writing in the New York Times, Walter Kirn looked at the case — a “pedophile near-billionaire” with powerful friends, dying in federal custody — and smiled on the theorizing: “Under the circumstances — someday I hope we’ll know what, exactly, they are — I feel that some wild speculation is warranted, if only to preserve one’s mental health by releasing built-up intellectual pressure.”
As CNN’s Oliver Darcy pointed out, The Post’s story provided succor for the Internet-conspiracy crowd, with InfoWars declaring that Epstein’s murder was “official.” Neither The Post nor other authentic news outlets should be held responsible for intentional distortions and misrepresentations of their work. Yet in this case, The Post used language that widens the eyes of the Internet’s info-malefactors. The Erik Wemple Blog, accordingly, asked The Post how the information surfaced by the story deepened any mystery at hand in the Epstein story. Publicist Molly Gannon responded with this explanation:
We interviewed three pathologists, and all three said that hyoid fractures are more commonly associated with homicidal strangulation than suicidal hanging. Jonathan Arden told us that a broken hyoid “would generally raise questions about strangulation, but it is not definitive and does not exclude suicidal hanging.” The medical studies we cited in the story indicated the relative rarity of broken hyoids in suicidal hangings. Our framing of the finding is in line with these observations. The broken hyoid deepens the mystery, it doesn’t lift it. Questions are raised and further investigation is required.
Hyoid-suicide-hangings-homicide: The Epstein story is a classic study in the journalistic imperative to attain mastery of abstruse and complicated subject matter in a day or so. To check The Post’s work on this front, Darcy consulted several experts on neck bones and mortality, one of whom said, “You can twist the hyoid bone theory to tell whatever story you want to tell.” The Post’s article noted these were the “first findings to emerge from the autopsy of Epstein.” It was silent on other findings that might actually warrant the use of “mystery,” such as defensive wounds or other signs of struggle.
In response to an inquiry from Darcy, The Post notes in its defense that the piece “makes absolutely clear from the beginning that suicide remains a distinct possibility.” It sure is, and as the results of the full autopsy make clear, that’s exactly what happened.