'Times' Breaks Story on Pedophilia and the Web

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Last week Alex Jones, the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, spoke with Liane Hansen about the decision by The New York Times to hold the NSA spying story for a year. This week, he offers a commentary on a story the Times ran about a teenager lured into the world of pornography through his Web cam. Jones considers the story a piece of world-class journalism.


Nine days ago The New York Times published its scoop about President Bush's authorization for the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on telephone calls without obtaining a warrant. The Times had held the story for a year at the request of the Bush administration. We called Alex Jones, the director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, to ask about his thoughts on The Times' decision to grant the White House request. Alex Jones covered the press for The Times from 1983 to 1992 and is the co-author with Susan Tifft of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times."

In our discussion, Jones disagreed with The Times' decision to hold the story and, in an aside, commented that he was not happy that too often recently he found himself critical of his former newspaper. A day later, reading Monday's Times, Jones was reminded of the diligence, intelligence and wisdom that its editors and reporters bring to their work.

Mr. ALEX JONES (Director, Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy): Last Monday, The New York Times had a piece of superb journalism on its front page. It's a pleasure to be able to say that after so many months in which The Times sometimes hasn't seemed to be living up to its own high standards.

The article that stopped me cold was about a 13-year-old boy named Justin who had been lured into child pornography over the Web. He was a lonely kid and got a Web cam to try to find some friends online. But The Times report lifted the curtain on a horrifyingly predatory world in which kids like Justin are first flattered and complimented and ever so slowly enticed to perform sex acts on camera for a paying audience of pedophiles. It's anonymous, it's easy and it's lucrative for the kids who do it. So Justin became a cam whore, which was his word for it. Perhaps most dismaying of all, it happened under his unsuspecting mother's nose.

Kurt Eichenwald, The Times reporter who spent six months investigating this dark world, told in the article how he found Justin on the Web and enticed him to a meeting. At that meeting he identified himself as a reporter. Eichenwald not only persuaded Justin to cooperate, he successfully prodded him into abandoning the life and going to federal authorities to become a witness.

There are three things about this story that make it extraordinary. First, it was a tour de force of classic reporting, written with grace and packed with the detail and nuance that come from turning a first-class reporter loose on a complex story and giving him time to do it justice.

Second, reporting on pedophilia is extremely tricky. It's against the law even to look at a child porn Web site and Eichenwald had to walk a very fine line as he sought to do his work without violating the law. He also became involved in Justin's life. The Times dealt with this frankly with a transparency that was refreshing and welcome.

Finally, having found Justin, The Times did not simply listen to his story and then effectively throw him back into the ocean. Some may argue that the role of journalists is to report, not to intervene. This article was written with a clear belief that it's sometimes proper for journalists to act as well as to report.

Kurt Eichenwald and The New York Times saved Justin as well as telling his story. And they probably saved a lot of other Justins by telling that story. The Times did its journalistic duty with distinction, but in this special situation, Eichenwald and The Times also had a human responsibility and they met that, too. The New York Times is far from perfect, but with stories like this one, it has demonstrated once again that it is essential.

HANSEN: Alex Jones is director of the Jones Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the co-author with Susan Tifft with "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times." He was the press reporter for The New York Times from 1983 to 1992 and he won a Pulitzer Prize.

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