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Saving Justin Berry

Times business reporter Kurt Eichenwald thought he was doing a noble thing by rescuing a teen from the Internet sex trade. He didn’t know how much it would cost him.


Left, Kurt Eichenwald, 2006. Right, Justin Berry testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.   

In his remarkable twenty-year career as a New York Times business journalist, Kurt Eichenwald has seen himself as a kind of crusader—shedding light on the world’s dark places, uncovering wrongdoing, bringing criminals to account. Lately, however, the pursuer feels like the pursued. “I had no idea of what I was taking on. I had no idea of the magnitude of the evil of these people,” he tells me. “This is an organized-crime business, these are people—we’re not talking about people with an affinity for Scotch—they spend their days talking and living and breathing the sexual issues of children.”

Two years ago, Eichenwald wrote a sensational front-page story in the New York Times about Justin Berry, a teenage pornography star who ran an enormously lucrative business from his room while his mother thought he was doing homework. The article resulted in congressional hearings, arrests, book-and-movie interest, and an Oprah episode. Eichenwald followed that first story with disturbing reports about illegal child-modeling Websites and self-help chat rooms where child molesters perfect their strategies. The Berry piece was impressive in its vividness. Law-enforcement agencies seized upon it as the definitive word about a sordid, teeming underworld, and parents inclined to worry about the dangers of the Internet were given reason to worry much more.

As much as the stories provided a window into a seldom-seen world, they also raised troubling questions about how they were reported—and ultimately about the man who reported them. To start with, Eichenwald made himself a character in the story about Berry—highly unusual for the New York Times. The reporter appeared as a savior, working to win Berry’s trust and finally rescuing him from the business he’d fallen into and delivering him back to his religious faith. But once Eichenwald became part of the story, others began to ask questions: Why would a Times reporter believe he should go into the rescuing business? And how had he accomplished what he’d accomplished? (Reporting on child pornography is inherently difficult, because looking at the images themselves is illegal, even for a journalist.) And behind those questions is a more fundamental one: What drives the people who fill these roles, criminal and pursuer, obsessive fan and obsessive foe?

With the country’s vexed relationship to youthful sexuality as the backdrop, Eichenwald’s stories, hectoring as they were about the evils they were uncovering, had a kind of prurient power that is undeniably related to the power of pornography. The cure and the disease are impossible to separate.

Now Eichenwald has been ensnared by his own campaign. His reporting methods are under intense scrutiny, and he’s been pilloried by other journalists, by pro-sex activists, and by people whom his investigations helped to put in jail.

As the controversy has grown, Eichenwald has bunkered himself in his Dallas home. He has family members answer his doorbell. As our talk began, he closed the doors of his home office, which is tightly shuttered against a beautiful morning, though there is no one in the house but the two of us and the family’s three-legged dog, Maggie.

The fight he’s found himself in has wreaked havoc on his life. He’s teary, volatile, largely unable to work. He left the Times, then walked away from a large contract at Portfolio. His career is in tatters. For this, he blames a campaign by the convicts he’s exposed, other child molesters he doesn’t even know, random anonymous bloggers, and journalists, specifically the advocacy journalist Debbie Nathan, who has written several long pieces questioning his reporting methods and whom he calls “the high priestess of pedophilia.” He believes they are acting in concert to destroy him, professionally and emotionally.

“I am emotionally damaged—significantly damaged,” he tells me in one of dozens of interviews over the past three months, many marked by tears and screams of rage. “The Justin thing was two years ago, and it won’t stop! What can I do to make it stop? It will never stop, you just don’t understand.”

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