Press Box

Eichenwald’s Weird Checkbook Journalism

The Editors’ Note, the reporter, and the reporter’s testimony.

Kurt Eichenwald and Justin Berry

Journalist Kurt Eichenwald is making news again with his Dec. 19, 2005, New York Times wowser about child pornography on the Internet (“Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World”). But this time the news is bad for the reporter and his former paper.

A Times Editors’ Note published this week explains that Eichenwald gave a $2,000 check to former child-porn performer Justin Berry, the primary subject of the big story. That’s one bad. Reporters aren’t supposed to give money to sources. But Eichenwald also didn’t tell his editors about the transaction. That’s two bads.

Three competing narratives describe the Eichenwald-Berry relationship. The first is a 1,200-word sidebar (“Making a Connection With Justin”) Eichenwald wrote to accompany his Dec. 15, 2005, investigation. In it, Eichenwald details, step by step, how an online search of financial fraud cases led him to a posting about Berry and ultimately the child-porn scoop. The sidebar describes the two hats the reporter wore as he reported the child-pornography story and rescued Berry from the trade. It doesn’t mention the check.

The second narrative is the Times Editors’ Note. It states that the $2,000 check from Eichenwald to Berry “emerged” as part of proceedings in a trial of a Michigan man accused of criminal sexual conduct involving minors. (Eichenwald, who now works for Portfolio magazine, has been called to testify in these proceedings; Berry is not a defendant.) Emerged is strangely passive language for Times editors to use. It suggests that the natural forces of erosion released the check from a bank vault and the wind blew it to New York, where it fluttered down onto a desk at W. 43rd St.

Journalist Debbie Nathan supplies the third narrative in her report from the Michigan trial for New York magazine’s Web Site. (Nathan famously rowed with Eichenwald last year after Salon published—and unpublished—a critical piece by her about Eichenwald.) According to Nathan, Eichenwald testified that he volunteered to send Berry $2,000 after reading an online post “offering Justin for sale to the highest bidder for the night.” He was concerned that Berry was underage.

Nathan writes that Eichenwald added a condition to his payment: Berry must supply his full name and address, which the young man did. Eichenwald sent the check and made arrangements to meet Berry. He did not call the cops. Upon meeting Berry in Los Angeles, Eichenwald realized the boy was not underage and introduced himself as a Times reporter. According to Nathan’s courtside report, days later Berry expressed the desire to leave the porn business. At that point Eichenwald realized that “now I’m a reporter,” and he called his Times editor about his prospective child-porn article.

Captured from Eichenwald’s testimony, this narrative holds that Eichenwald didn’t consider himself a reporter when he contacted Berry. He didn’t consider himself a reporter when he sent Berry money. He didn’t consider himself a reporter when he flew to Los Angeles to meet Berry. He didn’t consider himself a reporter even when he told Berry he worked for the New York Times. But presto chango, he was a reporter as soon as Berry decided he wanted out of porn.

Eichenwald demonstrates additional presto-chango powers in the Editors’ Note: “After they met in person, but before he decided that he wanted to write an article, Mr. Eichenwald said he told the youth that the money would have to be returned.” Read this passage without blinking your eyes, and you’ll see Eichenwald turning a $2,000 payment into a $2,000 loan. Why did Eichenwald change the terms “before he decided he wanted to write an article”? Was it because he realized that giving money to a potential source was wrong? I hope that doesn’t mean Eichenwald and the Times think it’s OK to lend potential sources money.

If you have patience for it, there’s a fourth Eichenwald narrative. A March 6 Associated Press story reports that:

Eichenwald said that when he finally decided to write about Berry after meeting him in person, he asked for the money back.

This contradicts the Times Editors’ Note, which says Eichenwald asked for the return of the money before he decided to write the story. This could be an innocent error on AP’s part.

Nothing in this story out-weirds the fact that Eichenwald didn’t tell his editors or his readers about the $2,000 transaction. “Follow the money” is the motto of journalists everywhere. Such a tainted check would weigh on the conscience of any reporter. Why didn’t it tug on Eichenwald’s?

The good news about Eichenwald screw-up is that it provides Byron Calame with his last big chance to redeem his lumbering term as New York Times public editor. When, exactly, did Eichenwald ask for the money back? And why? Because he realized he had made a mistake? Eichenwald explains to the AP that he didn’t tell his editors about the payment because it slipped his mind. How can you forget: 1) paying somebody $2,000, 2) asking for it back, and 3) getting it back (the Editors’ Note says Berry’s family helped return the money to Eichenwald)?

What “role” did Eichenwald think he was playing when he sent the $2,000 check? Berry’s rescuer? Was he posing as a customer? Or was he buying his way into a potential source’s good graces? When did Times editors learn of the complicated transaction? Would they have published the story if they had known about it?

It’s all very bizarre, and Eichenwald agrees, telling the AP:

I know I did unusual things, and if I should have disclosed what I did as a private citizen in more detail, so be it. But put me through the same situation, I can’t say I’d do anything differently.

I trust that Calame is making phone calls now.

Addendum, 10:10 p.m.: A wise Slate colleague sent me mail shortly after this story posted asking what sort of legal trouble was Eichenwald courting to send $2,000 to a “camwhore” like Justin Berry in response to a Web “auction.” Whether acting as a journalist or a civilian, how would you explain such a payment-loan to your editors, to your lawyers, or to the cops?

Addendum, March 8, 5 p.m.: Eichenwald defends himself in Romenesko.


Disclosure: In early October 2006, Eichenwald phoned me to ask if I’d talk to his new employers at Portfoliomagazine about possibly working there. I said I would be happy to talk, and he passed the message upstairs. I never heard from them. Do I think he was trying to play me? No. I think he enjoyed my criticisms as much as he disagreed with them. Also, I could shoot myself for ignoring the tips I started receiving in November 2006 alleging that Eichenwald had cut Justin Berry a $2,000 check. Eichenwald is a pariah in some corners of the Web for making life difficult for child pornographers, and by November 2006, I had chased so many unfounded allegations from them about his conduct that I dismissed the ones about the check. Send an Editors’ Note of your own berating me for my performance to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slateis owned by the Washington Post Co.)