Former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald was back in court in Ann Arbor, Mich., yesterday, testifying further about his series on how Justin Berry, an allegedly abused teen who was performing on Internet porn sites, made its way into the Times — and led to an editor’s note in the paper earlier this week that left Eichenwald angry at the Times. (He’s also angry with this reporter.)
Here is what Eichenwald said on the stand: He first recognized that “this” — Berry’s experience, and others like it — “is a news story” at a party in Dallas on July 3, 2005. He’d told guests the story of how he’d found Justin Berry and “[everyone] was silent,” he testified. “[You] could have heard a dime drop.” “You have to write this,” Eichenwald said a guest commented, and he replied, “Yeah, I really do.” But it wasn’t the Justin Berry story that he wanted to tell — it was the story about what children are doing with Webcams.
By October, Eichenwald had composed three stories, dealing mainly with the financial aspects of the child-porn Webcam industry. His first article, for instance, concerned children publishing porn on Websites for money. He also wrote about the infrastructure — credit-card processing companies, and so forth — that made this activity possible. The articles were set to be published, and were even laid out with photographs, when, at the last minute, Eichenwald testified, “I was told there was a level of discomfort” with the piece. He had located 90 Websites claiming to be run by minors offering Webcam porn. (He was careful not to view the content, he made clear, in order not to break the law.) “Someone said, ‘This is not World War II,’” recalled Eichenwald. There was “concern” among the editors, he said, that his articles could make the problem of teens and Webcam porn “seem far worse than we knew it to be.”
The editors then decided that they wanted to personalize the articles by centering them on one story. Focus on “one kid,” Eichenwald said he was told. “Use him as a tour guide into this world.” The only kid he had reported on to any significant degree was Justin Berry, he said.
The prosecutor then asked Eichenwald whether he had disclosed the help he had given Berry while working on the story to his editors. “There was extensive and very acrimonious discussion about whether that should be in the article,” he responded on the stand. “I wanted to write a separate article disclosing everything that I had done while acting as a reporter” — Eichenwald provided the boy with assistance both before and after his July 3 realization that this should be a story — “that resulted in some form of benefit going to Justin.” This included getting Berry a doctor, introducing him to a lawyer, and finding lodging for Berry after he said he wanted to get out of the porn business.
Eichenwald drafted the sidebar, he said. But when he filed the story, he said, he “was contacted by a very senior editor” about it. Several weeks of arguments followed, “with the editors of the Times insisting we were not going to disclose what I had done, and me insisting that I had to, and then finally it was resolved when I said I could not see publishing the story without this information. A compromise was reached: The sidebar would not run in the newspaper, but it would run on online.” Without Eichenwald’s insistence, he said, even that online note would not have run.
Then, this past Monday, Eichenwald said, a Times editor called him to say that the paper was running an editor’s note explaining that he had failed to disclose what he did prior to working as a reporter — that is, the assistance Eichenwald provided Berry before his July 3 decision to pursue this as a story. “Don’t you think the editor’s note needs to include that the editors of the New York Times argued incessantly that we shouldn’t disclose anything,” he testified he replied to the editor who called, “and that it was only because of the continuous fighting … that any information was disclosed at all? And I was told that that was too much to tell.”
“You’re no longer with the Times?” asked the prosecutor.
Eichenwald replied: “I’m not, no.” —Debbie Nathan
CLARIFICATION: Kurt Eichenwald called us after Wednesday’s post and disputed our 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.