Two years after his exposés riveted the nation, it turned out the reporter had gone off the deep end. He’d paid his main source, become a webmaster at the very porn site he was investigating, lied and bullied anyone who questioned him, and had all but ostracized himself out of a reporting career.
But it wasn’t just him. The witch-hunters, bogeyman blamers, and moral-panic enablers— were everywhere. Our little reporter might have landed in deep shit, but the hysteria he milked became bigger than ever before.
Call him one of the most bizarre media offenders in the past two years of fear-mongering: Former New York Times and Portfolio reporter Kurt Eichenwald. He wrote two front-page stories on the subject of sex that won't be forgotten soon: Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World, and its followup, Child Sex Sites on the Run.
the get-go, both stories were creepy: the softcore sexy descriptions,
the “blame the internet” righteousness, the homophobic ick
factor, and the unexplained implication that Eichenwald had looked at
piles of this material himself, when by current law, he wouldn't have that
right, no matter how well-intentioned his purpose!
Why did Kurt portray himself as an elite one-man rescue mission, and why was he so lurid in his crusade?
Eichenwald’s stories appeared just weeks after the Times editors confessed that their admired reporter, Judith Miller, was guilty of fraudulent writing about the war in Iraq— promoting the specter of “weapons of mass destruction.” Miller got canned, everyone’s face was red for five minutes— and then Eichenwald‘s "Cam Whore" story made its debut.
Kurt's source was the soon-to-be-notorious Justin Berry. Berry poured his heart out about his internet porn life, and was pictured in all his aspects. The photo essay opened with a headshot of a slim young man, oddly sultry. At the end of the story, Justin appeared in choir robes, singing gospel.
The mainstream press was in awe. One Houston reporter called it "remarkable":
At the ripe age of 13, Justin began attracting online pedophiles by performing on his webcam and subsequently made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next several years by performing online. In researching the story, Eichenwald met Justin and persuaded him to get off of drugs, to shut down the online business, and provide to the government names and credit card information on about 1,500 people who paid him to perform on his webcam.
This is one of those stories that stays with you for a long time.
Boy, I'll say.
Reporter Kurt broke through the usual reporter’s detachment to reveal that he'd reached out to this victim, helped him kick drugs, engineered an immunity deal, and worked to turn his life around so he could reach out to other kids in trouble. They went on Oprah together!
The smell was getting worse.
After Kurt’s articles ran, Debbie Nathan, a reporter who’s covered these subjects before, wrote an article for Salon about the ethical dilemmas for reporters and social scientists who want to get at the truth of “child porn” accusations. She asked why Kurt was allowed to look and analyze at this sort of media when no one else is allowed to, besides the cops.
Kurt blew a gasket. He contacted Salon, threatened to sue their ass off if they didn’t take the story down, and demanded they issue a retraction/apology. Two of them, actually.
They acquiesced immediately.
It is already clear to me that you are the most unethical and sleazy "journalist" I have ever encountered, one who feels content misrepresenting her intentions and efforts and never asking a relevant question relating to a piece she is writing. What I cannot determine is if your inability to read and understand the words presented to you is the result of incompetence, stupidity, malevolence, or a combination of the three.
So let me be clear: Your piece in Salon was not only libelous, it was one of the worst reported, worst thought-through pieces of garbage I have ever seen passed off as journalism. You used your imagined realities to argue for a reinterpretation of the law that enters the realm of the grotesque.
Salon has elected to remove this piece of garbage from their site. However, if you should attempt to mischaracterize and misrepresent my actions again, in any other forum, let me assure you, I will take immediate and decisive legal action against you. And under no circumstances will I settle until you are financially wiped off the face of the earth. People like you are the maggots of journalism; you are everything that is wrong with this profession.
Only one problem... As Nathan revealed in her latest courtroom coverage in Counterpunch, Eichenwald has just retained a criminal defense lawyer— and I don't think it's for jaywalking. The courts who've investigated the Berry sting operation found that Kurt himself was one of the webmasters with full access on Justin’s web site. He gave large amounts of money to Justin and was in possession of many photographs and videos from Justin’s portfolio.
There's two phrases, that for me, will always describe the Bush Years: “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and “Child Porn.” Our fears of annihilation and our children’s future being crushed were both hinged on these two... hoaxes.
Most sane people agree by now that the “WMD” accusation was a line of bull, and we’re still wiping the bloody egg off our face.
But child porn? How dare anyone call it a hoax! We know children are being abused. We know some of that abuse is sexual. We know the cameras are everywhere. Isn’t it obvious?
No, it’s not.
There’s a difference between the real world of child abuse— a story that apparently has no legs— and Child-Porn!™.
Child-Porn!™ is the favorite ploy of unethical politicians, the sport of a corrupt and decadent Executive Branch, and the pull-toy of media cynics across the land.
Through their efforts, everything has become tinged with pedo-speculation, in a fashion that both trivializes the genuine ill, and simultaneously makes prurience unavoidable.
The very crime that the righteous seek to banish— they’ve made worse. You can't look at a picture of an ice-cream social anymore without feeling dirty. People are afraid and ashamed of things that have no organic reason. Young people are routinely sexualized in situations where they deserve integrity and respect. Parents go to jail because they took a snapshot of their toddler in a wading pool without his diaper. Older teenagers are characterized as if they were abused-preschoolers, when they embark on their first physical relationships with their peers. People fret over what monster will abduct their kid on MySpace, when statistically, the web site is safer than their church.
“[The current] child pornography laws explicitly require us to take on the gaze of the pedophile in order to root out pictures of children that harbor secret pedophilic appeal.”
Eichenwald, as Nathan predicted, is over his head. His journalistic ethics failed him, and ironically, he's a participant in the very milieu he sought to condemn.
I asked Debbie if I could interview her about what’s happened in this past year with this case.
SB: Kurt says that he took extraordinary measures because he wanted to save this kid. Why is it that journalists aren't ethically allowed to be social workers?
DN: A reporter is supposed to be an observer of what’s going on, not an actor in the story. There’s a high risk that intervening in someone’s problems, with money or other assistance, will change the way the person acts and how the story unfolds.
In the case of Justin Berry, there’s compelling evidence that Eichenwald gave Berry money, which Berry used to support his day-to-day life, which included making porn of underaged teens after he received Eichenwald’s money, and buying and using drugs after he got the payments.
In the resulting Times story, Eichenwald said he engaged in this activity to save Justin from near death from drug use, and to rescue a former child porn victim from a life of adult crime, making underage porn. Yet Eichenwald’s “help” seems to have significantly contributed to these very conditions.
Eichenwald took Berry to the Department of Justice to find him a criminal defense lawyer (who happens to be the same one Eichenwald now is using, apparently because of fear the feds are investigating him).
That defense lawyer took Berry to the DOJ and negotiated immunity from prosecution in exchange for Berry turning state’s evidence on four men whom he’d been involved with in making and distributing underage porn. (Some of these men have been fighting back in court, and that’s how all Kurt’s cancelled checks and dealings have come into public view -SB).
From a journalism ethics viewpoint, making immunity deals for your source is a bad idea, because it can create a perception among people who’ve broken the law that the press is in league with the cops and government.
For every source who says, “Great! I’ll talk to this reporter because he can take me to the police and get me a good deal,” another thousand will run away as fast as possible. The ones who stick around will constitute a very skewed sample— they’ll be atypical. This makes for bad journalism.
Furthermore, what if the criminal— or any other source in trouble— gets a reporter’s help, and feels pressure, conscious or unconscious, to tell a story “the people” wanna hear?
Particularly with stories about sex, our culture craves formulaic narratives. We have the tropes of innocence defiled by pure evildoers, and moral collapse redeemed by the rescuers.
But journalism is supposed to help us learn about reality— not only because reality is fascinating, but because if there’s a problem, we need to understand it in all its complexity in order to fix it.
SB: You're a passionate activist yourself, in immigration issues... how do you draw the line when you're writing about someone you want to aid?
DN: I wait till I’m done reporting to offer or give my help.
Eichenwald has said Berry was “dying” when he met him, because he was a drug addict: thin as a rail, looking terrible. Clearly, Berry was having problems.
But was he literally dying? I doubt it.
When Eichenwald first met him in person, Justin was catching international flights, keeping appointments, communicating with friends throughout the country, and in close touch with his immediate family.
Reporters every day, on assignment, interview people with severe, untreated, medical and psychiatric problems. We don’t take them to the ER and pay their medical bills. A lot of us toss and turn at night. We feel bad. We write and publish and make documentaries, hoping that our journalism—and not missionary handouts— will make the ultimate difference.
SB: Salon, in their first retraction to your "Why I Need to Look at Child Porn" piece, wrote that, "Federal law does offer some legal protection for journalists and other researchers. An "affirmative defense" may exist that would protect such work under certain circumstances..."
Have you specifically addressed this point? Is there any truth to it?
DN: Both the New York Times and Eichenwald called Salon after my essay came out, and cited a law, US Code § 2252, which they claimed allowed limited possession of child porn, as long as one reported it immediately to the government.
No one I'd talked to over the years— lawyers, sociologists, forensic psychiatrists, fellow journalists— had ever mentioned this 2252 law as enabling reporting or research.
I looked it up immediately after Eichenwald ordered Salon to take my piece down. I found there was NO case law applying it to anyone who'd ever said they were doing research or reporting: in other words, the law had never been applied that way.
Most legal scholars interpret this statute as only applying to people who "run across" porn and end up with it in their computer by accident. For example, let's say you want to buy baby booties as a gift for your newborn grandson, so you Google that phrase, and all of a sudden, you're looking at child porn. You then call the feds to report.
A person in that position might fear that even though they didn't download the images, they could be stuck in their internet cache anyway. Which leads us to another problem... The "affirmative defense" only applies if you possess "less than three" images (that's one or two!).What if you hit a site with a lot of pictures?
Furthermore, the law's protection can ONLY be used by people who have ALREADY been arrested and charged for possessing child porn. That why it's called an "affirmative defense" exception. The key word is "defense"— it's exercised AFTER you've been busted.
It's hard to imagine a researcher willing to compose a study or article based on a maximum of two images, and who is willing to be arrested and charged with a serious felony— in order to use the law the Times cited.
The interpretation I get from legal scholars is that if there's any indication you're looking for illegal material and not just running into it by accident, the affirmative defense would not apply anyway. By definition, researching means looking on purpose.
SB: Let's talk about the New York Times editors. They aren't hayseeds; they knew the code. Why would they take the risk?
DN: Beats me! I’ve written and called the public editor several times and never gotten a response.
The Times now know full well that they allowed a reporter to run wild. They should be looking into everyone involved. They ought to make a full accounting to their readers of what went wrong. They should either remove the Justin Berry story, or run extensive corrections and mea culpas. So far they’ve done none of this.
SB: I'm sure we'd all like to hear Kurt answer these questions—
DN: So would I, but every time I’ve asked for an interview he’s threatened to sue!
SB: Do you think Kurt had a prurient interest in the material, or was he just on a "White Knight" crusade?
DN: Unfortunately, we live in an epoch in which we all have a prurient interest in this material.
There’s increasing pressure these days for reporters to take their ethical cues from docudrama and Hollywood than from old-style journalism. Today’s corporate media is all about “synergy”— having your article optioned to a media partner that does movies or books. Reporters can be tempted to write their stories, with a view to casting the story for bestseller-dom, or for Leonardo diCaprio as star, and an audience of millions of 12-year-olds.
A major example of this maneuvering is Bob Woodward's most recent White House coverage. Back in the day, Woodward uncovered Deep Throat and Watergate for the Washington Post. In the Bush administration, he got special access to the White House so he could write a tell-all.
While doing this research, he got hold of documents with a direct bearing on the government’s plans for Iraq. Instead of immediately publishing them, Woodward sat on them for two years, because he wanted to break the news in his hot book instead of the Post.
SB: Have you sent your recent stories to the editors at Salon and asked for their reply? Do they feel conned, too? I think you deserve a big apology. They should put your original story back up.
DN: I’ve sent each of my follow-up stories to my editors at Salon, and written frequently to Joan Walsh, the Editor-in-Chief. I emailed her to give a heads-up that the Eichenwald story was about to blow. I asked her to call me so I could give her details. I got no response.
SB: What do Kurt and Justin think of each other now?
DN: Well, they’re two guys, both retired manipulators of the porn trade. One, Kurt, was "pornographic" in the Kincaidian sense— through the corporate media, with stories that titillated respectable people, sold lots of papers, and promised mega-books and Hollywood movies.
SB: What do you mean, “Kincaidian?”
DN: James Kincaid wrote Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture.in which he theorizes a historical explanation for our cultural preoccupation with child abuse.
Eichenwald provided the highbrow “child-loving” product, the erotic imagery that allowed upper-middle-class, educated readers to indulge their cultural sexual fantasies about underage people while telling themselves they were just interested in “real social problems,” “saving children,” etc.
The other player, Justin was a low-rent, mom-and-pop-shop pornographer, producing the visual, genital stuff.
They're both ambitious, smart, cowboy types— taking chances, flirting with the dark side. But the mom/pop kid got the upper hand over the high-class corporate older guy. One redeemed, one went down.
And both of them, originally, were rather innocent, if one were to remove the ridiculous government restrictions that surrounded what each of them did.
DN: If you read Justin's deal, it says that he has to be completely truthful about all his crimes, and that if he misrepresents things, or omits info on people who helped him, the deal will be revoked.
As of this minute, his deal is intact.
He has a website about being a “public speaker” to advocate safety for kids on the internet,
[The music is excruciating! -SB]
But! Justin is also peddling technology that enables kids to bypass Net Nanny-style censorware programs at schools and libraries!
He's smart, ambitious, interested in making money. He comes from a family with a history of financial insecurity and anxieties (bankruptcy filings, parents in short-lived business ventures). He yearns to be the center of attention, a high-stimulus guy: I wonder how long he’ll be content to lead an ordinary life.
There’s also a lot of Christian evangelical faith in his family. In times of stress, when he was a teen, he’d get into the church. He had conflict about his sexual identity— Straight? Gay? Bi?— and apparently no secular sources to help him sort it out.
It seems like Justin Berry has been pulled between two worlds in his explorations: the internet porn market with its monetary and techie allures, its adults with their overburdening sexual concerns— and, on the other hand, the missionaries.
SB: Your point in your banned Salon story was that there ought to be a legitimate way that people can scrutinize and report on what gets called “child porn”— that it can't just be left to a couple of eyeballs at the Attorney General's office.
If Kurt had handled this differently, he could have been a poster child for fighting for the press's right to know.
In principle, you defended his right to investigate and report this... but he lied about his methods, he paid his source, his "victim," and he created a sex panic instead of quelling one.
DN: Yes! When I wrote my piece saying that he—apparently— looked at child porn, I was with him all the way, in principle, at least. But I was naïve.
I should’ve realized that his piece was flawed and legally sketchy – so much so, that my pointing it out would set off a firestorm that Eichenwald was very worried about.
On the other hand, it’s Kurt’s own work that’s responsible for that firestorm. He’s the one who implied he’d been looking at this material, not me!
SB: How do you handle your unique position? If someone reads one of your stories in Counterpunch, they might think that Kurt is just a sleazebag you'd like to see put away.
That may be true, but the reasons YOU think he's a sleazebag, are different from what other people might say!
I suspect more folks would be mad at him for voyeurizing high school boys in the name of saving them, than they would be about him being a liar, a menace to journalism, a bully, etc.
DN: If Kurt Eichenwald is arrested by the feds, I will be right up at the journalism plate contesting the bust and defending his right to look.
I’m against government hysteria against anyone, including Eichenwald.
But I do think the book should be thrown at him for sullying our profession. That book is not a law-and-order one, it’s our ethics.
Journalists are supposed to honor those ourselves.
Photo Credits, top to bottom:
2. Justin Berry, right, listens to Kurt Eichenwald of the New York Times testify before a House subcommittee about the online sex trade. Quite the kneeslapper, in retrospect. --AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke
3. Mattel is re-doing Ken! —Lower right is dead ringer for Justin Berry in his blond period.
4. I demand the sum... OF 1 MILLION DOLLARS.
5. Pulp tells it like it is.
7. Handy graph from Media Wire Daily.
8. Graphic from Zen Monkey's transcript of Susie's Audible In Bed interview with Debbie Nathan.