NPR logo Sex, Checks and 'The New York Times'

Sex, Checks and 'The New York Times'

Former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald (left) and Justin Berry, the subject of Eichenwald's story about Internet child pornography, testify before a U.S. House committee in April 2006 about sexual exploitation of children online. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Crack open a bottle of hand sanitizer before you read this. The story of Kurt Eichenwald and Justin Berry is sordid in every way. It goes a little something like this:

On Dec. 19, 2005, The New York Times publishes a piece by Eichenwald about child pornography, featuring kid-porn "star" Berry. The story receives much acclaim. Berry's adult enablers and molesters are busted.

Simultaneously with the article, the Times publishes an essay by Eichenwald that supposedly details how he came to discover and make contact with Berry.

By January 2006, questions have arisen concerning Eichenwald's reporting on Berry while at the same time personally trying to get the young man off drugs and out of porn AND helping to pursue a police investigation of the purveyors and users of Berry's kiddie porn site. On Jan. 15, Byron Calame — the Times' public editor at that time — publishes a piece concerning the Eichenwald/Berry situation that essentially claims no journalistic lines were crossed. Executive Editor Bill Keller proclaims: "The question is did Kurt's intervention color the journalism. I can't see that it did in any significant way, except in the sense that it provided a dramatic conclusion to his story."

It's a shame the Times staff didn't dig a little deeper into their own story. Surely their investigative pencils were sharpened, having just recently used them to write up a 6,000-word self-expose on their Judy Miller/Scooter Libby scandal.

They did not.

Got your sanitizer ready? This is where it starts to get really grody.

In March of this year, in the trial of Berry's adult business partner, Greg Mitchel, it is revealed that Eichenwald wrote a check for two grand to Berry before their meeting. Though the money was subsequently repaid to Eichenwald by a relative of Berry's, it is contrary to journalistic ethics and Times practice for reporters to exchange funds with sources.

Once caught in this severe omission, Eichenwald's excuses for his actions are, frankly, lame. He claims he wrote the check and met Berry as a private citizen trying to help a young man who was caught out. It was only after meeting Berry that Eichenwald — according to Eichenwald — became interested in him as the subject of a story. Be that as it may, Eichenwald still had a responsibility to tell his editors about the financial transaction. Eichenwald writes on the media site Romenesko: "Once the reporting began ... a financial transaction from a month before ... just slipped away amid the 18 hour days, seven days a week of turmoil and chaos."

You know, I've been under deadline stress before. But never to the point I've forgotten about a two-grand check I've written to a kiddie porn star. Eichenwald did assure the Times that except for one further $10 transaction through a PayPal account, the two grand were the only funds exchanged with Berry.

While the Times cannot be faulted for being the victim of a lie, there was reason to suspect Eichenwald was being less than candid about his involvement with Berry.

In January of '06, the Times received an e-mail from Mitchel's mother. Among her accusations was that Eichenwald had "Fed Ex'd several thousand dollars" to help fund Berry's Web site. Eichenwald blew off the accusation, calling it a "crappy lie."

When the check became public, the Times did report that Lawrence Ingrassia, Eichenwald's editor, had queried Eichenwald about the e-mail. But the Times did not report as to why Ingrassia took Eichenwald at his word without further investigation — remember, this is all post-Jayson Blair, Rick Bragg, Judy Miller ... Ingrassia should have been reflexively concerned. Apparently, he was not.

That was that with that. But remember Eichenwald assuring that he'd only made the two-grand payment to Berry...?

Until the eighth of this month, when it's reported that sealed documents in the trial of another of Berry's business partners purport Eichenwald sent at least another $1,100 dollars to a PayPal account maintained by Berry and Mitchel, at times under another name.

And Eichenwald's newer, lamer excuse for actions he — according to him — may or may not have taken? "If these PayPal payments did occur in June 2005, I am deeply sorry that my inability to remember them has resulted in permitting a series of convicted felons to cast doubt on the nature of my wife's and my efforts to save a young man who was caught in the grip of a cycle of drugs and abuse."

Alberto Gonzales couldn't have said it better.

There are, then, three primary questions for the Times:

Does the Times now plan on having Eichenwald's reporting during his tenure at the paper "verified" in light of the additional undisclosed payments he made to Berry?

Does the Times plan to investigate if the money Eichenwald gave to Berry was used by Berry to operate his Web site merely to generate a story?

Does the Times plan to investigate or has it investigated why Ingrassia declined to confirm the veracity of the e-mail that accused Eichenwald of both exchanging funds with Berry and potentially funding Berry's Web operations?

I put those questions to Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, who told me that, ultimately, it's Keller who will decide "what, if anything The Times, will do in light of the latest revelations about Eichenwald."

If and when I hear from Keller, I will make that response available. But with so many questions as to who knew what when and where the money went, Keller has a responsibility to the Times' readers — and to the paper itself — to once again do some deep and public vetting of a story.

In 2006, Calame wrote of Eichenwald's piece: "Readers were well served by the special care that the reporters and editors at a newspaper with the Times's resources could devote to balancing the humanitarian and journalistic values involved in producing this sensitive and poignant article."

Actually, no. The Times' readers were treated to the convenient memories and selective investigations of its reporters and editors. All of us would be better served by the truth.