Earlier this week, the Times disclosed in an editors’ note that Eichenwald had “loaned” $2,000 to 18-year-old Justin Berry, the subject of a controversial series Eichenwald published in December 2005, which led to a congressional hearing about the danger of Webcams to kids, and to charges against several gay men accused of molesting Berry and helping him manage his porn sites. Eichenwald and the Times had previously disclosed reporting irregularities — that Eichenwald spent several weeks in contact with Berry without disclosing that he was a reporter, that he helped put him in touch with authorities — but news of the loan first appeared in yesterday’s paper. He and the paper received a barrage of criticism over the news (he’s also received criticism from this reporter, in an incident explained here), and on the midwestern witness stand today, he tried to explain.
The reporter said he’d first contacted Berry by instant messenger after reading posts in a Yahoo message board for fans of his. When Berry asked, “What do you do?” Eichenwald — who composes songs for a hobby — answered, ” I write music.” (Berry “didn’t ask the right question!” Eichenwald explained, chuckling. “The right question is: What do you do for a living?“) Soon, Eichenwald said, he saw a post “offering Justin for sale to the highest bidder for the night.” Fearing Berry was under 18, Eichenwald offered to send $2,000, but only if Berry provided a full name and a mailing address. He got both and sent the check but opted not to turn the information over to the police. Instead, he said today, he made a date to meet Berry at Los Angeles International Airport. There, he asked Berry for I.D., saw the boy was over 18, and informed him he was “not gay” and in fact a Times reporter. Eichenwald said he also handed Berry a copy of Conspiracy of Fools, his 2005 book about the Enron scandal, asked him to get off drugs, and said that he “paid that money to save your soul … I gave you clean money. You’re giving me clean money back.”
Days later Berry told Eichenwald he wanted to leave the porn biz. But, Eichenwald said, he realized that “now I’m a reporter.” He made a quick call to his Times editor, Larry Ingrassia, with so much to tell: Webcams and child porn and Internet underworlds and Kristof-style sex rescues and a youth in terrible trouble. It was an incredible story, and Ingrassia committed Times resources to the story. But one detail got lost: the check. And, now, in the Michigan courtroom, Eichenwald said he knew the payment was “a little bizarre,” and that in issuing it, he’d “gone off the deep end.” —Debbie Nathan
CLARIFICATION, March 9: Kurt Eichenwald called us to dispute our original characterization of the site where he found Berry as a “gay-porn fan site.” He describes it as a message board for fans of Berry. The text has been changed to reflect this.