Saving Justin Berry
October 30, 2007 2:17 AM   Subscribe

Journalist's efforts to rescue teen from porn questioned. Kurt Eichenwald, author and NYT journalist discovered teen Justin Berry prostituting himself online and intervened, financially and legally. Eichenwald even appeared with Berry on Oprah. Two years after his initial expose was published, his life is in ruins. posted by Locative (33 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

It's pretty twisted how Eichenwald's life is in ruins, but Justin Berry has now moved on to exciting new opportunities in the private sector!

"He has made multiple media appearances, and now works as a paid speaker on these issues. His current Web activities involve educating the public about Internet safety."
posted by mek at 2:24 AM on October 30, 2007

On a casual read, it seems to me that Berry successfully scammed everyone else involved, and was helped by the fact that everyone else involved was a chump. But perhaps by just skimming the material I've missed something vital.
posted by moonbiter at 4:14 AM on October 30, 2007

moonbiter: the guy's a journalist. he was probably tripped up for having plagiarised Taxi Driver so extensively.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:20 AM on October 30, 2007

(Self-consciously) deciding to rescue people is a troubled enterprise.

The length of the prison sentences handed out to everyone but Berry is disturbing.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 4:41 AM on October 30, 2007

Two years after his initial expose was published, his life is in ruins

Surprised? I wasn't. There are just too many things that could be true but just make you wonder. Not disclosing payments he made to sources and then claiming his epilepsy caused him to forget - yes I suppose it's possible. Hunting for children involved in child porn without ever being exposed to any child porn images at all - yes I suppose it's possible. But wait, he was doing his searching and identification of victims on the internet and was still never exposed to child porn images - yes I suppose it's very very very remotely possible.

As far as I'm concerned, this man did a great thing in putting bad people behind bars. I have very little sympathy for Casey et al. But the way he did it just reeks of overcompensation.
posted by tr45vbyt at 4:52 AM on October 30, 2007

Wonderful, wonderful post, mek. It was posts like this that made me stump up the $5.

I'm only halfway through the material at the moment, but I was struck by this:

"Something kept them from thinking that they could simply alert authorities to their concerns and leave it at that. Eichenwald now says he should have e-mailed the CyberTipline, a project of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Instead, he recruited his own spiritual adviser, an Episcopalian minister named Kevin Huddleston, and spoke to their oldest son, using Justin Berry as an “object lesson” in the perils of the Internet."

How strange is that? My kids started using the net when they were in their very early teens, but I can't conceive of stumbling on the website of a teenage hooker and saying 'Look, kids! Play your cards right, and one day all this could be yours!' The closest I got was forcing them to read sbrugby's hand histories, in the hope that they'd want to take up poker, so I'd have somebody to play with.

I guess that's why I'm not an award-winning business journalist.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:08 AM on October 30, 2007

This post makes it sound like the Forces of Evil hate kids being saved from porn. In fact, Eichenwald mixed business with pleasure (of saving him, you perv!). If he wants to save someone, fine. If he wants to write about it, fine. But don't do both, at least not while calling it "journalism".
posted by DU at 5:21 AM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks but it's Locative's post, I'm just a lowly commenter. ;)

It does definitely appear that Eichenwald has been very deftly manipulated by Berry at the least, and at worst he has engaged in manipulating a story for his own benefit. Some of the documents that are coming out in "Casey's" legal battle are extremely damning. Eichenwald had administrative access to the CC accounts of Berry's websites, which he checked regularly; and the majority of their business was done after he "loaned" Berry $2000 to "liberate" him. Berry gets the money on June 9, relaunches his (pornographic) website on June 19th (!!!), Eichenwald has administrative access to his credit card accounts for the entire period of June 9 to 30 (when they finally met at the airport), and is checking the website's traffic and income regularly!

I expect this story will get a lot messier for everyone involved in December when Tim Richards goes to trial. It's a real indictment of America that 20-year-old Berry has emerged unscathed from all this, while 23-year-old Richards faces 220 years in jail.
posted by mek at 5:28 AM on October 30, 2007

There was a reporter named Kurt,
Won a Pulitzer Prize digging dirt,
But a teenage cam whore,
Led some folks to ask more,
Then we knew poor old Kurt would get hurt.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:45 AM on October 30, 2007

Ick. I was tricked by the 'more inside' thing. It made my eyes skip a line. Clearly, I'd be useless as a reporter covering the cam whore beat. Sorry Locative. Great post.

He came across a lad name of Berry, (no pun intended)
Whose flesh was all smooth and not hairy,
He'd remove all his clothes,
For old men that he chose,
An act that Kurt Eichenwald found scary.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:53 AM on October 30, 2007

So Eichenwald paid Berry two big dimes,
To repent and stop doing these sex crimes,
"Not a gift, but a loan,
And not once did his bone,
Touch my fingers, my mouth or the NY Times."
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:58 AM on October 30, 2007

"[New York Times editor Larry] Ingrassia is reportedly furious over Eichenwald’s failure to disclose the payments. “We trusted him to disclose all pertinent information,” he says in a statement. “The subsequent disclosures about pseudonyms and payments have been disturbing, and we have said so. Kurt’s behavior, and particularly his failure to be candid with his editors, violated the paper’s standards.”
And what would The New York Times be without standards?
posted by octobersurprise at 6:21 AM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is why reporters should not get personally involved in stories. And this guy should never have been a reporter in the first place:
Eichenwald has always been extremely difficult to edit, but the weeks before publication were excruciating for everyone involved. Eichenwald says the story was ultimately pushed through 44 drafts by eleven editors. But he hammered back, screaming at his editors about children in danger and writing nuclear memos about his perceived mistreatment. He flew to New York to demand that the piece finally run. He cried often. On the eve of publication, his story was assigned to yet another editor, and he put his foot down one last time. That Friday, he submitted his resignation—not the first time or the last. The piece appeared the following Monday.

In retrospect, Times colleagues say Eichenwald steamrolled the piece through a leery editorial process. “This wasn’t people saying the story is three-quarters right and they don’t give a shit about the rest,” says Alex Berenson, a business reporter. “The difference is Kurt’s record, which gave them the assurance he was telling the truth, and his personality, which made it so difficult to edit him.”
posted by languagehat at 7:03 AM on October 30, 2007

Eichenwald is about as creepy as the guys he was going after. Call the police already, dude.
posted by dead_ at 7:10 AM on October 30, 2007

... over the next several days Eichenwald posed as a pervy fan ... He won their trust in part by leading them to think he was a celebrated musician. They guessed Eichenwald might be Don Henley of the Eagles.

I would love to know how they arrived at that conclusion.
posted by itchylick at 7:19 AM on October 30, 2007

Wow, this is a really well-done newsfilter post. The main link, the FAIR piece and the Slate piece are all fascinating. I think it's clear that 1) Debbie Nathan did sucker-punch Eichenwald with her first Salon article about how he *had* to have seen child porn images, and 2) Eichenwald has gone over the deep end out of fear of being prosecuted for his lies and very unusual behavior. Check this from FAIR:

Journalists don’t need to look at crime evidence, he says; they take the police’s word as truth. The same should go for child porn, he argues, wondering why would Nathan want to allow journalists to view these images...

It's totally bizarre for Eichenwald to make the claim that journalists not only do but *should* simply trust the police in criminal cases, of any kind. But his behavior in this case is bizarre in many more ways than that.
posted by mediareport at 7:26 AM on October 30, 2007

Extraordinary stuff - Nathan v. Eichenwald is like a battle between two personifications of journalistic vices. Hatchet job artist v. self-involved prima donna.
posted by athenian at 7:46 AM on October 30, 2007

I know it's not cool to kick a guy when he's down, but Kurt was once a total douche to me when I was very young and trying to break into the business and I never forgot it. So I'm not going to be weeping for him. And his behavior is really obsessive and weird and way off the normal reporter's reservation, "Star Trekian non-intervention policies" and all.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:05 AM on October 30, 2007

I think it's clear that 1) Debbie Nathan did sucker-punch Eichenwald with her first Salon article about how he *had* to have seen child porn images

Sure, but if Eichenwald can mount his own one-man crusade against child porn, why shouldn't Debbie Nathan mount her own? Somewhere, I see Nathan referred to as an 'advocacy journalist', but isn't this precisely what Eichenwald is doing?

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. When there's a kid running down the street, doused in napalm, I want my reporter to be trying to douse the flames, not worrying about how best to frame the shot. But Eichenwald really doesn't make a viable case for his intervention in this instance. As the story points out, he wasn't *just* a victimized kid, he was an adult by the time Eichenwald met him. And an adult who was running a child pornography business of his own.

There's lots of kids out there who need rescuing. Why this one? Why now, when he's actually an adult?

I'm guessing that this was the 'bait' that Eichenwald used to persuade Berry to climb into his van? "Pssst, kid? Would you like to see some puppies? No? Well, how about I tell you a way when you can make some serious money without any risk? No shit, I work in the industry. I'll totally hook you up. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours... if you catch my drift?"
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:00 AM on October 30, 2007

As a lazy journalist, I take comfort in the fact that I will never get wrapped up in one of these creepy scenarios.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:19 AM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Apparently the Supreme Court is debating today whether saying you have child porn (whether you do or not) is illegal or not. Which could really add to this guy’s troubles.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:37 AM on October 30, 2007

I expect this story will get a lot messier for everyone involved in December when Tim Richards goes to trial.

Tim Richards has already been tried and convicted. The sentencing remains to be done. The judge has stated that she will consider all evidence including the emerging Eichenwald evidence.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:47 AM on October 30, 2007

Wow. In rereading the earlier metafilter thread I was struck by how civil discussion on hot topics could be as short as two years ago. I cannot imagine that thread happening today. One of the most effective contributors in that thread has since been banned.

The other thing is I'm still wondering about the Nicholas Kristof child prostitute business. There is nothing about it on the Kristof wikipedia entry. If I was Nicholas I would be nervous, even if I was right as rain. If I was a journalist I would not touch this subject. As a consumer of journalism, I don't see how it would be possible for anything reliable on this subject to be available anywhere.
posted by bukvich at 9:56 AM on October 30, 2007

If I was a journalist I would not touch this subject.

I can't see how any journalist with even the tiniest amount of common sense would ever consider doing a piece on child porn. That path leads not to Pulitzer prizes but arrest and imprisonment. Perhaps it's best if the fourth estate just forgot that child pornography even exists.
posted by MikeMc at 10:08 AM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I can't see how any journalist with even the tiniest amount of common sense would ever consider doing a piece on child porn. That path leads not to Pulitzer prizes but arrest and imprisonment. Perhaps it's best if the fourth estate just forgot that child pornography even exists.

I think that Debbie Nathan's view that we need to decriminalize journalistic and academic research before we can really get anything close to effective journalism or research about the subject. But, considering Smedleyman's note about how we're still discussing the legality of even saying that you have child porn, I think we're a long way from that.

Also, I think that there are a lot of incentives to take the easy, emotionally-charged angle towards child sex stories rather than doing substantive journalism. We don't have any accurate way of gaging the occurrence of this activity outside of what the government tells us, and this is the one area where you can be arrested if you try to make substantive claims to the contrary—or even in concurrence. And with journalism like To Catch a Predator showing the easy way of covering this topic (while still ostensibly taking the moral high ground), why would anyone bother with substance on this issue when substance will get you thrown in jail? Why should Chris Hansen get all the bucks?
posted by Weebot at 11:26 AM on October 30, 2007

The flip side, of course, is the newspaper or radio reporter who gets busted for child porn and then later claims he's working on a story but his editor has never heard of the project. This happens every couple of years.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:57 AM on October 30, 2007

Disclosure: I know Debbie Nathan.

However, I don't see the problem with her Salon piece. She was making the point that in order to report accurately on this subject, you have to potentially do something illegal and this makes good reporting difficult so the law needs to change.

Eichenwald responded by having Salon *remove the piece from its site* -- not by having them run a correction, not by having them give him equal time to tell his side of the story, but by censoring her. He also tried to smear her by noting her work for an organization that defends *innocent* people accused of sex crimes, like the defendants in those Satanic Ritual Abuse preschool cases. That hardly makes her "pro pedophile."

Why is it surprising that she then went out and dug more up about him? He's using wealth, the full force of the law, the institutional might of the New York Times and the self-righteousness that attaches to this subject to try to crush a freelancer.

If he had been sensible, he would have simply demanded a correction of anything that he found factually wrong-- not demanded removal of the article and the serious damage to Nathan's career that could result from such a thing.

From what I recall of the original piece, she did not accuse him of a crime but said that it would be very hard to write such a story without committing one and she wondered about how this was achievable and advocated that the law be changed to deal with the problem.

I don't think we can say "Oh, the police would never lie about evidence so it's OK for reporters to never have access to this stuff."

And I do not believe for a second that Eichenwald embarked on this adventure without the initial intent to write about it. That is just not plausible. You are an investigative reporter for the New York Times and you come across child porn and you are not going to write about, just rescue the kid? I've got a bridge for you if you buy that...
posted by Maias at 12:47 PM on October 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

I don't know Debbie Nathan, but I've revered her ever since she did her takedowns of the crazed “ritual sex abuse” panic back in the 1980s. You young'uns may not remember when prosecutors seriously presented "evidence" of Satanic Rituals—"And then the Devil stuck a fork in my behind"—and juries convicted people and hardly anybody dared buck the tide; Nathan not only did, her reporting got innocent people released after years in undeserved jail. She's one of the heroes of American journalism, and her National Center for Reason and Justice does excellent work. I'd take her over Eichenwald even if the latter weren't such a patent loonie and whiner.
posted by languagehat at 12:57 PM on October 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm glad to hear that Nathan has done great work; I guess what got me thinking she'd sandbagged Eichenwald was the way she got her quotes from him, according to that FAIR piece (read the section "The trouble begins" again). Maybe she didn't literally misrepresent herself, but she certainly didn't give him any warning that she was using him as her lead example of a situation where the usual rules about viewing child porn apparently weren't being enforced. Her commitment to her agenda seems to have gotten in the way of her understanding that she could really be hurting someone who thought she was just asking for help.

I call that a sandbagging. I like to think I wouldn't have done it when I was a journalist.
posted by mediareport at 7:47 PM on October 30, 2007

I have to say that I wondered about Eichenwald a great deal when I originally read his NYT piece in 2005. The article didn't read like good journalism; in fact it was kind of squirm-inducing to read the parts where he talks about 'rescuing' this guy who didn't at first glance seem to *want* rescuing.

I know that some bloggers celebrate the elimination of barriers between writer and article; so did 'gonzo' journalism, no? But reading Eichenwald's original article really made me feel that the journalistic standards that the NYT *usually* practices are there for good reason.

Bottom line? Eichenwald would have had much better luck (probably criminally as well) writing the whole thing up in a blog and THEN going on Oprah.
posted by librarylis at 11:39 PM on October 30, 2007

languagehat, we have only his word for it regarding the "sandbagging...."

fyi, Nathan responds
posted by Maias at 5:08 AM on October 31, 2007

languagehat, we have only his word for it regarding the "sandbagging...."

Er, it wasn't languagehat who used that word; it was me. After reading more, including posts at your link to Nathan's blog, I'm prepared to retract the "sandbagging" accusation.

Here I go:

*retracts sandbagging accusation*
posted by mediareport at 4:01 PM on October 31, 2007

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