October 6, 2000
8:24 AM   Subscribe

you would think that in researching child-pornography in order to report on it [for esquire?!] one might come across the information that transmitting such images is illegal. not this guy. "The Story That Can't Be Told"
posted by palegirl (27 comments total)
Freedom of the press sometimes means engaging in activities that border on the illegal. It was illegal for the New York Times to receive the Pentagon papers too. I can see how Larry Matthews believed that his First Amendment rights allowed him to pose as a child perv and exchange these images in order to report about the subject. If he was really doing all of this because he's a perv, why wasn't he hoarding images like every other freak who collects this material?
posted by rcade at 9:12 AM on October 6, 2000

I agree completely.

Furthermore, this article suggests that he specifically told an FBI agent - Messisca, i think was the name - that he was doing this story, a considerable amount of time prior to the arrest being made. Yet, later on, it's outlined that in the FBI report, that he stated he "wasn't doing a story."

It sounds like something's a little off here.

It's not worth the time to argue the legality of his tranmission of images and what-not, but any social scientist with half a brain knows quite clearly that, in order to get into any sub- or counter-culture or micro-society, that you must behave in such a way that indicates without doubt that you affiliate with this ideology of that counterculture.

It's obvious, by nature of the laws surrounding the issue, that the kiddie porn industry is a very exclusive clique'. Given this fact, Matthews did what was neccessary to be trusted and to subsequently get the facts.

Good reporters take great risks to get the story to the people. The statement "Sometimes when a journalist breaks the law in pursuit of a story it also...[perpetuates] a problem" is completely wack. If reporters and researchers decide not to take such risks, the stories will come out all wrong and misguided. Such misinformation could deter social understanding of the situation and the phenomenon that's the subject of the research.

Without these risks, no further understanding of the issues is possible.
posted by tatochip at 9:35 AM on October 6, 2000

palegirl, did you read the whole article? I think a lot of the best journalists out there have to go out on a limb to truly get the REAL story. Sometimes standing on the sidelines isn't enough, especially when it comes to trying to report on very secretive types of societies (e.g. gangs, cults, pedophile rings)... As a result, sometimes it's necessary to get involved in order to bring the truth to light.

This guy was a journalist in every sense of the word. Unfortunately because of circumstances, he's gotten screwed over time and time again by Big Brother. Have a little compassion for the guy who's now lost his job, his reputation, his wife, and any shred of dignity... and also faces a jail sentence.
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 10:48 AM on October 6, 2000

wait a minute: it would be illegal for a reporter to break into a home to collect evidence. it would be illegal for a reporter to work on a crew of a snuff film. it would be illegal for a reporter to break any law no matter what story they were writing.

I think the best thing you can say about this guy is that he's not the sharpest pencil in the box.

let's look at the timeline:
jan 96--starts to freelance
spring 96--targeted by the FBI
summer 96--begins to work on this story in earnest
sept 96--meets with FBI agent
dec 96--arrested

now, he spent three days living on the street for his story on homelessness. he spent a *year* "researching" his story on pedophiles.

and he is accused of receiving *and* sending out child pornography.

he may indeed be innocent, but he was targeted by the FBI prior to the time he says he began focusing on the story. and he continued to work on it until they arrested him at the end of the year.

I won't deny that he had the right to a trial by jury--but if I was on that jury I think I'd be a little skeptical of his claims.

posted by rebeccablood at 11:19 AM on October 6, 2000

Well, I've been aware of this story since it first broke.

I have some compassion for him individually, since he's doing a good job of sounding sincere. BUT, and this is a big but, he was not doing this with the knowledge and support of an editor. This Brill's Content piece omits that NPR first disavowed him, although they later filed an amicus curiae brief in the case. Matthews had no current assignment from NPR or WTOP to work on this story, and he had virtually no reporter's notes. The actions he claims were disinterest (deleting everything) are approximately identical to the actions of someone worried the police would soon be looking at his computer.

Over the course of this case (reported at various points by the Wash Post, various alternative newspapers, and Salon), he's gained support from a number of first-amendment organizations, from the ACLU to journalist-rights groups. The issue they're supporting him on is an important one: the right of reporters to occasionally break the law to get the story. (By way of example, the Chicago Sun-Times, in its glory years as a crusading newspaper, ran a bar they called The Mirage, which they used to copiously document the bribery and political favors it took to buy, build, and run in a city with a corrupt bureaucracy. A more recent example is the reporter who obtained a copy of voicemail messages at Chiquita documenting illegal corporate activity in S America.)

I absolutely support the position of the groups in this instance. The law will generally overlook the illegality of actions done for a higher purpose such as exposing corruption. Still, it's important not to place anyone above the law. Mark Whitacre may have been essential to the government's price-fixing case against ADM, but he wilfully stole millions from them. (Other execs may have done the same.) He brought down the company, but went to jail himself in the end.

I have to separate that view from my own sense that it's just too unbelievable that he had no idea what he was doing was illegal. If he were researching a story with implications like this, he should have had an editor overseeing his actions, checking with company lawyers, and copiously documenting his activities. That's just being professional. The fact that he did not follow these fairly obvious professional approaches speaks volumes to me.
posted by dhartung at 11:32 AM on October 6, 2000

Ah, I see rebecca agrees with my skepticism. No, I hadn't read her response when I was typing mine.
posted by dhartung at 11:32 AM on October 6, 2000

The issue they're supporting him on is an important one: the right of reporters to occasionally break the law to get the story.

I wonder, though, if there isn't an infintessimally thin line between passively and actively breaking the law that might apply here? The NYTimes didn't steal the Pentagon Papers, they just published them once they were in the Times' possession... This guy, on the other hand, knowingly sent and sought kiddie porn for as long as a year prior to even starting his "story." I find it inconceivable that he was unaware that he was - apparently repeatedly - breaking the law. Add that to the fact that the "Freedom of the press" argument might not even apply - he wasn't on the staff or working at the direction of any journalistic endeavor, he was just out there on his own.
posted by m.polo at 11:43 AM on October 6, 2000

Has Esquire picked up the story yet? It seems he was a little too eager to write the story that would launch him into fame as a reporter/writer. Now he has the fame, so to speak, but at what cost?

He seems sincere, but he made too many mistakes - and he is paying a high price for them...
posted by iblog at 12:13 PM on October 6, 2000

I don't know if he should be very severely punished, which will be decided at his trial, but I think the FBI was pretty much required to arrest the guy. He was not just downloading these images, but also distributing them. I realize it was all in the interest of blowing the lid off....people who download kiddie porn...I guess. I dunno.
posted by Doug at 12:27 PM on October 6, 2000

I don't know if he should be very severely punished, which will be decided at his trial, but I think the FBI was pretty much required to arrest the guy. He was not just downloading these images, but also distributing them. I realize it was all in the interest of blowing the lid off....people who download kiddie porn...I guess. I dunno.
posted by Doug at 12:27 PM on October 6, 2000

Ignorance of the law is no excuse.
posted by solistrato at 1:24 PM on October 6, 2000

If a reporter became a heroin dealer in order to insinuate himself into the drug culture to collect information for a story, does that make him immune to the drug laws?

Can a reporter commit murder in order to write a story about what it feels like to pull the trigger?

The first amendment does not give reporters carte blanche to ignore the law, nor does any other legal principle. It gives them the right to print whatever they want, but it doesn't give them the right to do anything they feel like to get the information they print. There's a distinction.

If they feel the story is important enough, they can risk the law and take the chance of prosecution, but simply being a reporter doesn't make them immune to prosecution. And I shudder to think what would happen if it were established that a reporter was immune to the law, because suddenly everyone who was ever arrested for anything would be instantly transformed into a reporter.

So far as I'm concerned, they should throw the book at him and he should go to prison if found guilty, just like anyone else who violates that same law. His status as a reporter is completely irrelevant; he should be treated just as anyone else would be who committed the illegal acts he is accused of.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:25 PM on October 6, 2000

Well, I think this case really does depend on the intent of the person commiting the crime. "Throwing the book" at him would be like throwing the book at me if I opened an email containing child porn. The law views me, this reporter, and Mongo the child raper the same; we all possess illegal child pornography. IF he really was downloading the images to write a story, and IF I received unsolicited child porn in the mail, the real person who should be punished is Mongo.
Laws should aim toward stopping crimes from occuring, and ultimately I think that's the goal of this reporters story as well.
Unless he's writing a story about how wonderful it was to download child porn. At that point my whole premise falls apart, and I guess Steven would be right.
posted by Doug at 1:36 PM on October 6, 2000

doug: note that he was receiving *and* sending images.

posted by rebeccablood at 1:46 PM on October 6, 2000

Rebecca, I realize that, but it is conceivable that he was doing that in order to gain some sort of access to the evil underworld of pervs. Sure, a bad idea to do it, but something really worthy of heavy jail time, when he probably wouldn't ever do it again anyway? But I dunno, maybe he is a pervo who just likes child porn and has a convenience excuse? I dunno.
posted by Doug at 2:08 PM on October 6, 2000

>A stranger could email you some kiddie porn and just possesing it on your drive is against the law.


However, if you receive it and press "delete", it's still resident on your hard drive. What's your recourse if a computer tech finds the "evidence" latent on your drive?

Um, not that I'm worried about that or anything (setting hard drive on fire).
posted by ethmar at 2:25 PM on October 6, 2000

fill your hard drive up with cruft, delete cruft, repeat * 10, if you're really worried.

Of course, if someone sent you email randomly, they wouldn't be sending you multiple pictures over a period of time, and if they were, you can block their email address, report them to their ISP, the FBI, or whatever regulatory body you can find.
posted by cCranium at 2:38 PM on October 6, 2000

Never having received anything "off-color" in an email (pic wise), I'm sleeping just fine.

All this Zero Tolerance talk lately makes me wonder if anyone sees anything in shades of grey. (except maybe people who don't change the default color scheme at CamWorld)
posted by ethmar at 2:50 PM on October 6, 2000

skallas, I'm sorry, but you're wrong. His intent is completely irrelevant, except if it happened to him by accident and he immediately deleted it, and nothing even remotely like that happened here. He actively collected and traded the stuff for a full year.

The US government doesn' t have to prove anything at all about his intent because his intent doesn't affect the fact that he was in violation of the law. The law says nothing about intent, and nothing else in the law makes his intent relevant.

There is no legal principle that generically excuses people who break the law "in a good cause", although it's been known for juries to do so -- which is one of the reasons why we have a jury system, in fact. But I don't think that this is a "good cause" sufficient to justify the extent to which he violated the law. For most juries, usually a "good cause" means something like saving someone's life. Writing a story for a magazine isn't in the same ballpark.

And trying to claim that the case of someone inadvertantly receiving a couple of such files by mistake and deleting them immediately is somehow the same as what he actually did is specious in the extreme.

In any case, irrespective of what the people in this forum think should happen, what's actually going to happen is that he's going to get convicted, and he's going to get sent to prison, and a legal precedent will be set that reporters don't have the privilege of violating any law they happen to feel like breaking.

Reporters are not above the law.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:51 PM on October 6, 2000

And yeah, I am indeed generalizing.

Why is today so blah?
posted by ethmar at 2:52 PM on October 6, 2000

"Intent" doesn't mean things like "Because I'm researching a story for a magazine".

And the fact remains: reporters are not above the law.

I have no sympathy whatever for this guy.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:35 PM on October 6, 2000

Steven: The examples of heroin and murder are not applicable -- Larry Matthews is being charged with possessing and distributing *information*. Since the First Amendment guarantees the right of a free press, there's an inherent conflict between that right and a law that makes information illegal.

If the government can make some kinds of information illegal for the press to receive, transmit, or possess, the First Amendment becomes completely irrelevant. Why stop at child porn? Shouldn't the possession of bomb-making plans be illegal? Shouldn't classified government documents like the Pentagon papers? Shouldn't DeCSS? Shouldn't a DivX codec? Shouldn't Napster?

You don't need to have sympathy for this guy. Have some sympathy for yourself, because laws against collecting information take away your ability to be a fully informed citizen.
posted by rcade at 9:57 PM on October 6, 2000

Has anybody here ever seen any child porn? It seems like a urban legend, or at the very least like a european thing like the stories about snuff films. I have not bothered to read the link, but all of your comments are interesting. Considering the hysteria regarding the subject, I would way rather get caught selling heroin to 1st graders than have any of that on my hard disk. Did this guy tell anyone he was working on the story, and if he did not, wouldn't that have been a good idea? I can think of a bunch of stories of people getting caught over the last few years, it seems foolish to attempt this kind of research without getting your ducks in a row ahead of time.
I overwrite the blankspace on my H.D all the time, and all i'm clearing out are innocent e-mail and photoshop files of tomatoes and shoes. Its just good sense to brush your trail.
posted by thirteen at 10:13 PM on October 6, 2000

So I read the story. I don't believe this guy at all. I know plenty of reporters, and I cannot think of anyone who would approch a story like this. There is no mention of reporters notes, photocopies of other articles about kid-porn, interviews with convicted pornographers, or even a simple pitch letter to Esquire. He got caught, and he's trying to talk his way out. It is a good try.
While we are on the subject, what does everyone think of simulated kid-porn? I read about it awhile back. Is it really pornography if it is computer generated? While still unpaletable, it seems like less of a crime. We should all be thankful for the fetishes we do not have.
posted by thirteen at 10:32 PM on October 6, 2000

RCADE: There have always been limits to the First amendment "freedom of speech and press"; libel and slander have always been actionable, and for a long time it's been possible for the government to legally enforce confidentiality of certain information due to the damage it would do (i.e. government secrets). No right is absolute.

The justification for the ban on child porn is that if there is a free market for it, then there will be significant child abuse to create it. By drying up the market for the product, less child abuse will take place, and the government has a legitimate interest in protecting children. All of this has been tested in Supreme Court cases. It is equally true that "conspiracy to commit murder" is illegal even if it only involves speech, and people are behind bars for committing it. Freedom of speech ends when the speech represents a clear and dramatic danger to someone else. "Freedom of speech does not include the right to shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theater."

An interesting distinction is being tested right now regarding "child porn" which is photographs and child porn which is drawings. The former are clearly illegal and in my opinion should be, to prevent child abuse. For a while the latter were illegal, too, but it's not clear that the same rationale applies. No child is harmed when someone draws a picture (with or without the help of thirteen's computer), and the government doesn't have an overriding interest. I don't believe this has been settled yet; I think court cases are pending. But the likelihood in my opinion is that drawings will be found to be legal, and the court decisions I've heard of so far have gone this way.

A good example of government secrets: some of our intelligence agencies have spies in foreign countries. What would happen to them if their names were revealed? Suppose we have agents in Tehran (and we do) and someone in Washington took it upon himself to announce who they were?

Should a reporter be permitted to reveal the names of those people simply because it would make a good story? No. I can't agree with that.

There are and should be limits on freedom of the Press, just as there are on every other freedom.

No freedom is or has ever been absolute, including freedom of speech and the press. The laws against child porn have been tested in the courts and upheld by the Supreme Court, but the reasons for them (prevention of child abuse) are such that I do not fear those limits, for I do not consider there to be any slippery slope, which is what you are essentially arguing.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:24 PM on October 6, 2000

No one has suggested that the press be given unlimited freedom, Steven.

What you're arguing here is that it's OK to ignore intent in child porn prosecutions in all circumstances, and I think that's both wrongheaded and unconstitutional.

The right to a free press must include some rights to collect information that would be illegal in other circumstances; otherwise, the ability of the press to cover a subject is severely compromised.

You have said several times that a reporter is not above the law. But a reporter is occasionally treated differently in the eyes of the law -- for example, many states have shield laws that protect a reporter's right to hide the identity of his sources, and that protection is not extended to other citizens.

In the case of Larry Matthews, the court must be free to consider whether he was collecting and transmitting this information in pursuit of a news story. If the law prevents this from happening, it sounds to me like a violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press.
posted by rcade at 9:46 AM on October 7, 2000

You can't have it both ways. In your first statement you say that no-one is suggesting that the press be given unlimited freedom.

And then in the rest of your article you argue exactly that they should be. But I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you mean that they can ignore some laws but not others.

What laws are there that you would not permit the press to violate, even in pursuit of a story? And if there are any, how do they differ qualitatively from the ones you would permit them to violate? Tell me how I differentiate a law a reporter is permitted to ignore from one he can't ignore.

How about this: if by violating the law the reporter causes significant harm to another person, then that law is one the reporter can't violate.

But if you accept that, then this reporter is clearly in the wrong, because the precise purpose of the child porn laws is to prevent child abuse, and by trading in child porn he indirectly contributed to child abuse.

Sorry, I can't accept your point of view.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:55 AM on October 7, 2000

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