MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
For years, investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald was a star at the New York Times. He covered the demise of Enron and Arthur Anderson. And in December of 2005, he gained further acclaim with his front page article exposing assorted new online front in child pornography. Well, that story became troubling for Eichenwald. He ended up leaving the Times and admitted he gave money to the subject of his story.
NPR's David Folkenflik has spent months digging into what happened. Now, he explains the ordeal that has brought the reporter to reveal a fiercely guarded personal secret.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: One admiring editor at the New York Time says Kurt Eichenwald is one of the best journalists in America. That he knows it and he makes sure other reporters in the newsroom know it, too. Eichenwald says his self confidence is hard one.
KURT EICHENWALD: I have always trusted my impulses. I have always believed that once I'm in the circumstances, whatever they may be, I will find the right way.
FOLKENFLIK: A visit to Eichenwald's home in Dallas now finds him very changed. There's less cockiness and more sleepless nights. He's dropped about 30 pounds and while he's working on a book, he wonders in darker moments if he'll ever land a job in journalism again.
His reversal of fortune began innocuously enough around the start of June 2005 when Eichenwald was researching a lead on Internet fraud. A fake law firm's Web page listed dozens of Web sites and one of them had the snapshot of a smiling youth's face.
By his account, further searching led a surprised Eichenwald to the postings of pedophiles describing the youth's sexual activity. The young man was Justin Berry. As a highschooler, he coaxed by older men to perform sexual acts online. By the time he was 18, Berry was both victim and perpetrator in league with several older men to run Web sites with hundreds of subscribers.
Eichenwald decided to help the youth and post as an online fan as he set out to try. Berry explains how the fake fan broke through.
JUSTIN BERRY: I thought these people were my friends at the time. And this friend didn't want anything from me, didn't want me to take off my clothes, and didn't want those degrading thoughts. It was nice to have someone who actually cared.
EICHENWALD: It would have been so much easier just to walk away and say, you know, this is not my responsibility. I am not here to save other people's children. I couldn't do it.
FOLKENFLIK: Over several weeks, Kurt Eichenwald got buried to leave the business, quit drugs, and agree to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
Berry, now 21, tells NPR he owes everything to the journalist who pulled him away from the pornographers.
BERRY: I lived under their control. I was basically brainwashed. I escaped this life with Kurt's help.
FOLKENFLIK: Eichenwald orchestrated a new life for Berry in Texas. Eichenwald arranged for a lawyer, drove him to stay with Berry's cousins, set up doctor's appointments, took him to counseling sessions.
In return, the reporter got the larger story of adults using the Internet and Web cams to get minors to exploit themselves online. This was new terrain for Eichenwald who had previously distinguished himself with prize-winning stories and best-selling books on corporate fraud.
EICHENWALD: Justin Berry was my guide. Justin Berry took me to the gates of hell, gave me the key and stepped aside.
FOLKENFLIK: From the outset, Eichenwald had consulted his wife, Theresa, and soon after, his friend Kevin Huddleston, an Episcopalian minister.
KEVIN HUDDLESTON: It really created for him a spiritual and faith crisis, you know. It was the real idea, how can human beings do this to each other? How can God allow this to happen in the world? It really has been - and continues to be, for Kurt - a dark night of the soul.
EICHENWALD: I should've 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: Colleagues at the New York Times were exasperated by his emotional behavior during a bruising editing process. Eichenwald's clinical psychologist says after the story was published, he diagnosed the reporter with PTSD, the stress disorder experienced by some combat veterans. The story itself was a blockbuster.
Eichenwald and Berry testified before Congress and appeared on "Oprah" together.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLIP FROM "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")
OPRAH WINFREY: Death threats, who's making them? How this boy became an Internet porn star.
BERRY: Hi, everyone.
WINFREY: The first time you were asked to take off your pants, what did...
FOLKENFLIK: Four men, ranging in age from their mid-20s to late 30s were ultimately prosecuted on charges of child pornography directly triggered by Eichenwald's reporting.
In September 2006, Eichenwald left the Times to become the chief investigative reporter for a glossy new business magazine and to make a fresh start. But he had done one big follow up story about online child pornography and that proved fateful.
Debbie Nathan is a freelancer who has written for the Village Voice and other alternative publications. She says Eichenwald's reporting belongs with the discredited coverage of infamous Times reporters.
DEBBIE NATHAN: Judith Miller, Jason Blair, Eichenwald is somewhere in that group.
FOLKENFLIK: In Salon.com, Nathan accused Eichenwald of breaking federal law repeatedly in his second big story because, she wrote, he would have had to view hundreds of salacious pictures of minors to describe them in print.
Eichenwald and his lawyers threatened to sue saying she was wrong and she had libeled him. He said he came across two such images that he promptly reported them to authorities and that he relied on descriptions posted by pedophiles in the online chatrooms. Salon.com ultimately retracted the story, telling readers that any implication Eichenwald broke the law was wrong.
As Nathan herself says, she is no neutral observer. She believes that child pornography and sex abuse laws are too severe.
NATHAN: Sex is such a highly charged issue on our culture that - particularly when it comes to child sex abuse that people are very, you know, irrational, many people are convicted who are innocent in my opinion.
FOLKENFLIK: And Nathan is a board member and donor for the National Center for Reason and Justice, a group that aids people, it says, are wrongly convicted of that very crime. The center distributes about $100,000 a year to their legal defense. Among them is Father Paul Shanley, the most notorious figure in Boston's Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.
None of Nathan's stories on Eichenwald disclosed her affiliation with that group, but her articles kept coming, from New York Magazine online and then the left-wing CounterPunch. Her writing fueled scores of postings on media, gossip and gay activist Web sites that were scornful of Eichenwald.
The reporter says he's lived it. Nathan repeatedly relied on information and theories from the very people he helped point out to prosecutors.
EICHENWALD: I never imagined there will be somebody who would be going door to door in the prisons looking for allegations to bring against the people who are helping children.
FOLKENFLIK: Over the months, attorneys for the child pornography defendants introduced evidence and Nathan's reported that Eichenwald had sent Berry and his business partners about $3,100 and that he had been given an administrator's account on Berry's Web site.
Those stories raised red flags. In mainstream American journalism, you don't pay your sources. And Eichenwald hadn't told his editors about the payments.
Times business editor Lawrence Ingrassia writes in an e-mail to NPR that Eichenwald's actions were disturbing and violated the paper's standards. The paper rebuked Eichenwald.
Eichenwald and his wife say they did make those payments and that there is probably another payment out there of up to a thousand dollars that hasn't been reported. But the Eichenwalds say they were trying to build trust with Berry in a few short weeks. Eichenwald had a pretty unusual explanation for why he had failed to tell his editors.
EICHENWALD: I believe 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: Yet the reporter is known for fanatical attention to detail. He conducted hundreds of hours of interviews and waded through thousands of pages of documents to unspool the complexity of the Enron fraud.
Glenn Kramon an assistant managing editor at the New York Times says colleagues found it hard to square that Kurt Eichenwald with a forgetful one.
GLENN KRAMON: Some people at the Times are very angry at him for not disclosing these payments. I think they think it embarrasses our entire profession.
FOLKENFLIK: And Eichenwald's new editors at Portfolio Magazine were getting increasingly uneasy, too. This August, Eichenwald left the magazine just days after his mentor did.
It was also a time of more reports by Nathan. All Eichenwald could say, once again, was that he couldn't remember precisely what he had done.
EICHENWALD: It just became fodder for more attacks and for people saying, suggesting, that I was obviously hiding something because I was saying I forgot. I'm saying I don't remember.
FOLKENFLIK: And so Eichenwald has decided to come clean on a secret he guarded for years, even though that secret could be used to attack his ability to function as a reporter.
Eichenwald suffers from epilepsy and that's public knowledge. Back in 1987, he wrote he had been tossed out of Swarthmore for a while and lost a job because of the reaction to his frequent and powerful seizures.
But Eichenwald left out a crucial element. In a statement, his neurologist now says, years of seizures have caused the reporter, quote, "significant memory disruptions." Sometimes the medications that help keep the seizures under control makes the memory problem worse. Medical authorities confirmed such memory loss can indeed result.
Think about that. A former senior investigative reporter for The New York Times has trouble remembering many names, dates, conversations he's had, trips he's taken, pretty much the raw materials of the reporting process.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)
FOLKENFLIK: As we go to pick up his children at school in Dallas, Eichenwald says he forgets things all the time.
EICHENWALD: There have been times that I have found myself in places and I don't know how I got there, and I don't actually know where I am.
FOLKENFLIK: In the past, he's called his wife. Now, he's got a GPS.
EICHENWALD: And I could just hit where to go home.
(SOUNDBITE OF GPS MACHINE)
Unidentified Woman: Turn right.
EICHENWALD: And that's, it'll tell me how to get home.
FOLKENFLIK: Eichenwald had always believed he could mask his disability.
EICHENWALD: There are reporters who are stupid. There are reporters who are lazy. There are reporters who are drunk. I'm none of those things. And I didn't want to be judged on my challenges. I wanted to be judged on my work.
FOLKENFLIK: So Eichenwald paid extra for typed transcripts of court hearings, taped interviews and obsessively read documents and notes until he could recall them. But Eichenwald says he didn't record his activities involving Justin Berry until he recognized there was a story several weeks after first making contact with the team.
Glenn Kramon, The Times editor, says Eichenwald should have told editors about his condition. But, he says, Eichenwald's stories are like money in the bank, including the Berry story.
KRAMON: It stands up beautifully. I don't think there are any challenges to the integrity of the story and many great things that resulted from it.
FOLKENFLIK: The four defendants in the child pornography cases pleaded guilty or were convicted by juries. One was also convicted of sexually assaulting Berry.
But Eichenwald's wife, Theresa, says he is now being judged solely by his battered reputation.
THERESA EICHENWALD: It doesn't take much for word to spread even if it's incorrect. And somehow that becomes reality. We've heard him attacked on every front and called all sorts of things from pedophile to homophobe to anything else, and he doesn't deserve it.
FOLKENFLIK: She says they're anxious about the future.
EICHENWALD: He's, you know, ended up leaving a job. And we worry about his source of income and are things going to shrivel up.
FOLKENFLIK: As I'm interviewing Theresa Eichenwald at her family's home in Dallas, she says she keeps expecting me to ask, do they regret it? Was it worth intervening to save Justin Berry? The question hangs over everything. But Kurt Eichenwald, overhearing it, darts into the room.
EICHENWALD: Not to interject, you've gone back and forth on that. Think about the question. Think about the answer. Think about what you've actually said to me.
EICHENWALD: All right. I think my answer then has always been it's impossible to say because we did a lot of good and it's just hard to see we'll go through all this.
FOLKENFLIK: You could spend your entire career at a newspaper and never be able to say you saved a life. Former star Times investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald says he did just that and is paying a terrible price for it.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.