Kurt Eichenwald: $2,000 for “Editorial Integrity”

Remember that Kurt Eichenwald essay from December? Eichenwald wrote a New York Times Magazine story investigating a 13-year-old boy who was sexually exploited through the Internet. But today’s New York Times Corrections page revealed a very interesting development:

The essay was intended to describe how Mr. Eichenwald persuaded Justin Berry, then 18, to talk about his situation. But Mr. Eichenwald did not disclose to his editors or readers that he had sent Mr. Berry a $2,000 check. Mr. Eichenwald said he was trying to maintain contact out of concern for a young man in danger, and did not consider himself to be acting as a journalist when he sent the check.

The Associated Press’s David Caruso reports that Eichenwald sent Berry the check in an effort to learn the boy’s true name and address. I think it’s important to note that Eichenwald’s piece yielded him the 2006 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism, awarded for “preserving the editorial integrity of an important story while reaching out to assist his source.”

eichenwald.jpgBut if this story was an exercise in total candor and perspicacious judgment, why didn’t Eichenwald inform his editors at the Times? Were the judges at the University of Oregon aware of this check before they relayed the Payne? If the Payne Award is indeed one of the highest honors a journalist can receive, will the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication rescind the award in light of Eichenwald failing to report the $2,000 check?

The correction observed that “Times policy forbids paying the subjects of articles for information or interviews.” So aside from the Times policy, let’s examine why this issue is troubling. Here is a reporter investigating a boy who had amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct lewd acts in front of strangers. If Eichenwald himself is paying money to Berry, does not this behavioral association (Berry accepting check from a stranger) color Berry’s answers? Can we count on total candor when an interview subject receives money? Eichenwald noted, “We were gambling $2,000 on the possibility of saving a kid’s life.” If “saving a kid’s life” was Eichenwald’s motivation, then does not a four-figure check color even this subjectivity?

In my review of William T. Vollmann’s Poor People, I criticized Vollmann for paying his interview subjects, contemplating whether Vollmann’s guilt had clouded his judgment. Whether this was a wrong move or not, one can at least commend Vollmann for revealing this practice to his readers. Even Nick Broomfield was candid enough to include former LAPD chief Daryl Gates accepting a cash payment on camera in his documentary, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam. Good subjective journalism, perhaps because it deals in partiality, demands complete transparency if one is expected to believe in the truth it presents.

Eichenwald may view his failure to disclose the check as innocent. But his lack of candor calls his “editorial integrity” of his story into question. Since the story was very much about Eichenwald’s efforts to save Berry, and since Eichenwald led us to believe that he was following New York Times standards, it would be lacking great integrity indeed if Eichenwald did not return his award to the University of Oregon.

Eichenwald has since moved on to a position as investigative reporter at Portfolio, Condé Nast’s forthcoming business magazine. If Eichenwald plans to investigate corporations, I’m thinking that Condé Nast Legal might want to be careful with Eichenwald still assigned to a beat. While Berry’s family may have had to return a mere $2,000, the Fortune 500 has whole armies of lawyers ready to descend upon 4 Times Square. And if Eichenwald manages to “forget” another detail, it may prove a costly resolution.

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4 Comments

  1. The previous cases have firmly established a timeline of Justin Berry’s actions that was previously published on several blogs. If you add in the $2,000.00 check, suddenly many matters become clear.

    Here is the timeline:

    July 24, 2004. Justin turns 18. About this time he starts advertising his services on the internet as a “male escort”. At this time he also sets up the site “justinsfriends.com”.

    Nov. – Dec, 2004. Justin has a dispute with his business partner, Greg Mitchel, and quits the webcam business. His sites go dormant. Justin is now a retired “camwhore”.

    May, 2005. Kurt Eichenwald discovers Justin and starts communicating with him. Justin supposedly has no idea that Eichenwald is a reporter. At this point Justin has been out of the webcam business for about 6 months.

    June 8, 2005. Kurt Eichenwald sends Justin Berry a check for $2,000.00 from Dallas. The check is received by Berry the next day in Bakersfield.

    Mid-June 2005. For no apparent reason Justin travels to Virginia and makes a deal with his former business partner Greg Mitchel to start up Justinsfriends.com. Tim Richards is brought in to help set up the website.

    June 19, 2005. Justinsfriends suddenly becomes active again. Richards and Justin whoop up the site and Justin starts doing shows. EB15 advertises Justinsfriends.com. At this point Justin is almost 19. The site has a statement that all performers are over the age of 18.

    June 19-25. Justin puts on several shows (these are legal, Justin is almost 19). He also uploads videos of himself when he was 17 as well as a video of him masturbating with an underage boy named Taylor. On June 25 Justin leaves a message on the eb15 message board saying that he has to go to Mexico for a few days for business. (Justin’s dad, Knute, is in Mexico).

    June 30, 2005. Eichenwald meets Justin in Los Angeles, and supposedly gets Justin to agree to quit. At this point Justin has been back in business exactly 11 days.

    July 3, 2005. Justin puts on a show. (So much for his promise to Eichenwald).

    July 4, 2005. Justin pays 2 young men $80 each to put on a show.

    July 5 or 6, 2005. Justin telephones Eichenwald and claims that his business partner Greg Mitchel is chasing him because he has quit (but he hasn’t) and Eichenwald flys Justin for Texas for rehab etc.

    According to the site freecasey.com, the check wasn’t simply a personal check. It was a cashier’s check. Why did Eichenwald go to the trouble of obtaining a cashier’s check that would be difficult to trace? Why did Berry go back into the porn business immediately after receiving $2000.00 from Eichenwald? Why did Eichenwald intentionally confuse these facts in his articles?

    And finally, why didn’t the media find this out sooner.

  2. The payment becomes even more suspect when you look at the time line. This quote is from a letter concerning the Salon story on Justin Berry last year:

    “In fact, justinsfriends.com didn’t exist as an active website before Justin’s 18th birthday. According to whosis.sc the name was registered by one of Justin’s business partners on July 20, 2004, 4 days before Justin’s 18th birthday. It appears from archive.org that the site became active in October, 2004, about 2 months after Justin’s 18th birthday. It almost immediately went dormant, and stayed dormant until June 19, 2005.

    On June 19, 2005, Justin announced on a website known as eb15.com that he was back in business as justinsfriends.com. He advertised justinsfriends.com as a legal website and that all of the content was of persons over the age of 18.”

    OK. So Eichenwald sends Justin Berry $2000.00 and eleven days later Berry starts his porn site up again. Coincidence?

  3. Excellent commentary on something very troubling. I recall watching the video of Eichenwald on the Times website when the article comes out. Since Justin Berry was a boy taking money from men for sexual activity, Eichenwald’s behavior is that much more problematic.

  4. I’ve come up with the Kurt Eichenwald quiz:

    “My name is Kurt Eichenwald and I am the smartest reporter at the NY Times. I’ve sent $2000.00 (June 9, 2005) to an 18 year old camwhore coke addict who I’m not planning to meet in person for 3 weeks (June 30, 2005). During the intervening 21 days, I expect him to:

    (a) use the money for a really great toot

    (b) use the money to resurrect his defunct internet porn site

    (c) invest in a safe mutual fund.”

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