Reporting on Journalists Is Difficult

This week's reporter's notebook from NPR's David Folkenflik examines the difficulties that arise when journalists report on other journalists.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Yesterday, NPR's David Folkenflik reported on the efforts of former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald to clear his name. Mr. Eichenwald was criticized for actions he took while reporting a story about child pornography to rescue a young man from that world. In his Reporter's Notebook, David describes the difficulties of reporting on our own profession.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: I was reading a journalism blog when I came across a challenge issued by Kurt Eichenwald. He complained his critics weren't even willing to pick up the phone to call him before slamming him.

I thought, I'm willing to pick up the phone. All it would cost me was a few minutes. It ended up consuming six months.

From that first call, I got a taste of what Eichenwald was like - brilliant, hyperkinetic and infuriating. And I asked what everyone had asked: How could you forget that you had sent money to someone who became a source?

For a reporter, paying a source is a little bit like bribing someone. He know not to do it. Eichenwald had an explanation.

Mr. KURT EICHENWALD (Former New York Times Reporter): I believed that I had enough of a reputation and enough of a track record that when I say to other journalists, I don't remember that they could simply accept that or prove me wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: This guy was the nation's preeminent reporter on Enron. He wouldn't accept that explanation from any one else and I told him so.

We continued to talk on and off over the next few months. They were never short calls. I was on another story in New Orleans when I heard from a tearful Eichenwald. He was disclosing the secret that he found so shameful. He had such severe epileptic seizures for so many years that it had cost, in the words of his neurologist, significant memory disruptions.

For a man who makes his living pinning down facts - complicated facts - it was humbling. I flew to see him in Dallas and I was still somewhat skeptical. I expected to sit down for an interview for an hour or so to fill out his story. I spent 13 hours at the Eichenwald household. He had several seizures. And Eichewald told me, in excruciatingly detail, what his life had been like for the past two and a half years and the mistakes he had made.

Mr. EICHENWALD: I should have said I can't. I can't handle this anymore. I am in trouble. I am in severe trouble. I need to get out.

FOLKENFLIK: As I was reporting on this story, other journalists would glibly tell me that they have read the blogs on Eichenwald. He's unethical. He's a bad guy. I didn't want to write him off quite so quickly. Essentially, Kurt Eichenwald tried to save a young man at the middle of a maelstrom and ended up wanting to write a story about him too.

It turns out, it can't be done. Not without a lot of pain.

SIMON: The full story from Friday's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED is available on npr.org.

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