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March 07, 2007

NYT admits reporter paid source

Here's an interesting ethical dilemma, or two....

The New York Times acknowledged yesterday that former Times staff reporter Kurt Eichenwald paid a source $2000:

NEW YORK - The New York Times acknowledged Tuesday that a reporter who wrote an acclaimed 2005 article about a teenage Internet pornographer helped gain the boy's trust by sending him a $2,000 check.

Former Times staff writer Kurt Eichenwald made the payment in June 2005 to Justin Berry, who at the time was an 18-year-old star in a seedy network of child-porn sites.

Six months later, Berry became the leading figure in Eichenwald's expose on Web sex sites run by teenagers. The Times investigation prompted congressional hearings, led to arrests and fueled reforms in the way Web-hosting companies screen their clients. [Yahoo]

The story is much more complex because Eichenwald developed a personal relationship with Berry months before the expose. The reporter and his wife helped convince the teen to stop making porn, quit drugs, and become a police informant. Eichenwald's editors were aware of the unusual connection between the reporter and his source, and noted it in a sidebar to Eichenwald's article. However, Eichenwald didn't tell his editors that any money had changed hands.

Here's the really weird part. Eichenwald says the check was just a ruse to get the kid's real name and address.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Eichenwald, who left the Times in October, explained that he had sent the teen a check as part of a ploy to learn his true name and address.

At the time, he said, he didn't intend to write about Berry, but had come across his distressing Web identity while researching an unrelated article. Eichenwald said he and his wife decided to try to get help for the young man.

"We were gambling 2,000 on the possibility of saving a kid's life," he said.

Eichenwald said that when he finally decided to write about Berry after meeting him in person, he asked for the money back. Most newspapers, including the Times, prohibit reporters from paying sources. The $2,000 was eventually repaid by Berry's grandmother, he said. [Yahoo]

The most interesting ethical twist is that Eichenwald asked for the money back when he decided to write about the kid. Clearly, he couldn't ethically write about the kid unless he got the money back.

However, it seems equally problematic for a reporter to dangle money in front of a vulnerable subject only to snatch it back again. Promising a drug addicted teen pornographer $2000 and then asking for the money back seems cruel. I'm sure the kid's grandmother wasn't thrilled about having to cough up two grand to cover a debt some reporter created for a story.

Eichenwald said he initially offered the money in order to locate the kid so that he could help him. If this is true, it's an important detail. Setting out to bribe a source is definitely wrong. Deliberately tricking a source with the promise of a bribe is iffy at best. It's certainly unethical for conventional reporting. Maybe a journalist doing cloak-and-dagger undercover reporting on nuclear secrets could justify a bribery ruse if they cleared the whole deal with their editor in advance. That said, what might be within the outer realm of professional ethics as an undercover national security reporter is well out of bounds for a staff writer covering teen pornographers.

It's not clear from the article whether Eichenwald intended to get the money back all along, or whether he intended to let the Berry keep the money, but later changed his mind when he decided to write about him.

It seems clear to me that Eichenwald should have recused himself from the story after his financial dealings with the subject. At the very least, Eichenwald should have disclosed the monetary arrangements to his editor. The more interesting question is what else he did wrong, if anything.


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However, it seems equally problematic for a reporter to dangle money in front of a vulnerable subject only to snatch it back again. Promising a drug addicted teen pornographer $2000 and then asking for the money back seems cruel.

Depends on his ability to repay it. I'm not too sure of the details of this story, but a $2000 loan (which is what this amounts to) could have been instrumental in getting the teen out of some short-term troubles.

But more importantly, the kid could have refused to repay the money. He had a choice here -- keep the dough and not have the story printed, or repay it and have his story told. I don't think he's as much of a helpless victim as you seem to think.

According to the NY Magazine report of Eichenwald's testimony in the Ken Gourlay trial today, "Eichenwald said, he saw a post "offering Justin for sale to the highest bidder for the night." Fearing Berry was under 18, Eichenwald offered to send $2,000, but only if Berry provided a full name and a mailing address."

The statements by Mr. Eichenwald in court seem to be at odds with facts established in the cases of US v. Mitchel and US v. Richards, as well as other matters of record.

At the time Eichenwald first contacted Berry, Berry had been out of the webcam porn business for about 6 months. He had lost his "mexicofriends.com" website when the registration expired in March, 2005. His "justinsfriends.com" website was dormant. Justin hadn't put on a "show" since October or November, 2004.

On June 8, 2005 Eichenwald sent Berry a $2,000 cashier's check from Dallas, Texas. Berry received the check the following day in Bakersfield, California. According to Berry's computer files, that very same day he began reworking the justinsfriends.com website in order to put it online again.

The following week Berry traveled from Bakersfield to Dublin, Virginia, where his former business partner and lover, Greg Mitchel lived. Mitchel owned the name "justinsfriends.com" and Berry needed to make a deal with him in order to start the site up again. They made their deal. While he was in Virginia Berry participated in a masturbation session with an underage boy named Taylor which Mitchel filmed. Berry needed help setting up the site and on June 17, 2005, he hired Tim Richards to oversee the site. Richards was to receive a 25% cut of the income.

Justinsfriends.com went back online over the weekend of June 18-19, 2005, Berry advertised justinsfriends.com as a legal adult webcam site on eb15.com (which is now defunct). Starting on June 19, 2005, Berry began putting on "shows" by masturbating in front of his webcam. This was legal since Berry was almost 19 years of age at that point.

Berry met with Eichenwald on June 30 - July 1, 2005, in Los Angeles. He then returned to Bakersfield put on a "show" on July 3, 2005, and hired two other young men to put on a show on July 4, 2005.

A couple of days afterward, Berry abandoned the website and flew to Dallas where Eichenwald lives.

Almost all of the content on justinsfriends.com was legal. According to the FBI reports, only three videos were identified as containing illegal material. Two of these videos were of Berry having sex with Mexican prostitutes when he was 17. The third was the video of Berry with the underage minor made in Virginia. Berry placed all of these videos on the justinsfriends.com website after he was paid the $2,000 by Eichenwald, and Berry identified all of the website content as being legal.

Anonymous, Kurt Eichenwald says he sent the kid the money because the kid was a desperate drug-addicted wreck whose life was in danger. So, if it depends on the kid's ability to pay back the moeny, KE is totally screwed. How many drug addicted teenagers in need of as $2000 contribution from a stranger are in a good position to pay that money back? And supposing he was able to pay, then the deal would amount to (re)pay-for-play if the kid paid KE back in order to get his story in print.

As it turned out, the kid probably didn't have the ability to repay the "loan," as evidenced by the fact that his grandmother repaid the money for him.

I hadn't considered the possibility that Eichenwald and the kid explicitly agreed that this money was a loan, as opposed to a gift. That's not what it sounds like from the NYT's description of events, but you never know. Either way, it's a very sketchy deal from a journalistic standpoint.

So, if it depends on the kid's ability to pay back the moeny, KE is totally screwed.

Sure, but how is this cruel to Justin Berry? There may be an ethical dilemma here, but I don't see how Berry is helpless here.

And supposing he was able to pay, then the deal would amount to (re)pay-for-play if the kid paid KE back in order to get his story in print.

Yes, which is what I said in my post above. Eichenwald was absolutely not "snatch[ing] his money back". Berry could have told Eichenwald that he couldn't repay the $2,000 and the only result would be that he'd be just as anonymous as he always was.

How many drug addicted teenagers in need of as $2000 contribution from a stranger are in a good position to pay that money back?

Not many, but Justin Berry may have been a rare exception -- see Stephen Maturin's comment above. Berry seems to have used the $2,000 as seed money to restart his business, if the NYT Magazine story is to be believed, and I don't see any reason why it shouldn't.

Either way, it's a very sketchy deal from a journalistic standpoint.

I agree with you there. But I don't agree that its sketchiness has anything to do with the situation Justin Berry was put in.

Who knows how much KE knew about the situation Berry was in? He says he knew the kid was a teenage drug addict on the edge of some kind of catastrophe.

I don't think the ethics of this deal have much to do with the kid's ability to repay the fake gift/loan.

If it was a loan, ex ante, then maybe you have a point. However, if the money was presented as a gift, it's a moot point.

How many people do you know who could pay back $2000 they thought they'd received as a gift. Anyone I know would have long spent the money paying off their credit cards, or on rent, or whatever.

Anyone who would accept two grand from a stranger is probably facing some very complex financial circumstances, to say the least.

To find out the REAL story of Justin Berry visit www.freecasey.com and www.TheTruthAboutJustin.com

like torture [negative pressure to talk], bribes [positive pressure to talk] will distort what is finally said.

We can suspect that a bribe does not coerce false statements as readily as torture but then, who was torturing "Curveball"?

A hundred years ago I used to be a music journalist. And I had a big problem. The problem wasn't money, at least not for me.

The problem was that I was a music journalist at a time in music when there was actually a "movement" going on: A scene that linked up all the major cities in the country, and across the pond. It was very heady and exciting, and tragic as well.

I shouldn't say "the problem" I should say "my problem" was that I tended to become friends with the bands that I liked, or I was asked to cover bands/people that I was already friends with.

Because of that, and for other reasons I've always thought that the DCPress should NOT socialize, meaning eat, drink, or hang out with, DC officials, just as an example. And clearly pay for play in journalism, no matter which direction it goes, is clearly unethical.

When it came to covering bands I didn't like, what was the point, the gratification for me, in writing, basically, in too many words, that "they suck?" Nothing. I didn't want to knock people, or dash they dreams.

Hence, I got out of the business after a period of time. Mudcat, however, is still a music writer, vs journalist, and that's a horse of a different color.

Who knows how much KE knew about the situation Berry was in? He says he knew the kid was a teenage drug addict on the edge of some kind of catastrophe.

I don't think the ethics of this deal have much to do with the kid's ability to repay the fake gift/loan.

If it was a loan, ex ante, then maybe you have a point. However, if the money was presented as a gift, it's a moot point.

Okay, let's say Berry was a teenage drug addict on the edge of some kind of catastrophe. A reporter gives him $2,000 to get his life in order. Berry doesn't use that money to get into rehab or to repay loan sharks or anything like that, but let's leave that aside. The reporter then comes back to Berry and says, "My editor says I can't run the story unless you repay the $2,000 I gave you."

That's the cruel situation that Berry found himself in? Whether you call this a loan, a gift, an ex ante loan or anything else is completely beside the point that Eichenwald wasn't being cruel to Berry. Period, end of story.

How many people do you know who could pay back $2000 they thought they'd received as a gift. Anyone I know would have long spent the money paying off their credit cards, or on rent, or whatever.

Actually, a fair number of people I know could, depending on the circumstances. But that phrasing completely misstates the case here. You have presented no evidence whatsoever that Berry was facing any legal pressure to repay the money. Here was the dilemma Berry was facing: if he didn't give back the $2,000, the New York Times wouldn't print a story about how he was a drug addict and internet porn personality.

Anyone who would accept two grand from a stranger is probably facing some very complex financial circumstances, to say the least.

Take a look at your homepage, just below your picture and the words "About" and "Support". You do realize what that PayPal button is for, right?

Eichenwald admits that he offered the money as a ruse. Was he upfront with the kid that the money was a loan? Because if he wasn't, he was being extremely sleazy.

You don't give people money and ask for it back again, especially when it's overwhelmingly likely that they will spend the money first and wind up in debt to you. We know the kid spent the money, and his grandmother had to pay Eichenwald back so that Eichenwald could write a story, which he should never have been writing in the first place because of his conflicts of interest. So, an innocent third party is out two grand because KE decided to play games behind his editor's back.

I'm happy to accept money from strangers--but I assume that PayPal contributions are gifts/donations/payments to support a service. I would be outraged if someone sent me a donation and then asked for the money back, especially if that person told me they needed the money back because they deliberately violated their workplace ethics policy in order to deceive me in the first place. It would be even worse if this happened with someone I liked and trusted. Apparently KE and Berry had a personal rapport.

Eichenwald admits that he offered the money as a ruse. Was he upfront with the kid that the money was a loan? Because if he wasn't, he was being extremely sleazy.

You keep saying that Eichenwald's behavior towards Berry is sleazy. If the check had bounced, that would have been a ruse. If he had tricked or forced Berry into signing a contract requiring him to repay the money, that would have been a ruse. The same section of the article states that Eichenwald "didn't intend to write about Berry" and that "he and his wife decided to try to get help for the young man". The ploy, such as it was, was to give Berry $2,000 so he could contact him and help him out. That part of the story isn't sleazy in the slightest.

You don't give people money and ask for it back again, especially when it's overwhelmingly likely that they will spend the money first and wind up in debt to you. We know the kid spent the money, and his grandmother had to pay Eichenwald back so that Eichenwald could write a story, which he should never have been writing in the first place because of his conflicts of interest. So, an innocent third party is out two grand because KE decided to play games behind his editor's back.

That's completely irrelevant to your claim that Eichenwald was somehow snatching the money back again. Eichenwald gave Berry the money. He didn't blackmail Berry or take him to court or threaten to ruin his credit rating to get repaid. He simply said that he wouldn't be able to write a story about him unless he returned the $2,000. This is not cruelty and Eichenwald was not snatching the money back.

I'm happy to accept money from strangers--but I assume that PayPal contributions are gifts/donations/payments to support a service. I would be outraged if someone sent me a donation and then asked for the money back, especially if that person told me they needed the money back because they deliberately violated their workplace ethics policy in order to deceive me in the first place. It would be even worse if this happened with someone I liked and trusted. Apparently KE and Berry had a personal rapport.

Again, you're implying that there was a conscious deception -- something that is not borne out by the facts of the story. People don't give $2,000 to drug addicted teenagers with the expectation that they'll be able to get it back again with a story to boot. Eichenwald lucked out. And even if this were all part of a devious master plan on Eichenwald's part, he would be guilty only of being the world's most inept conman.

And if someone gave you a PayPal donation of $2,000 and asked for it back, you'd be justified in being annoyed. "Outraged" is a bit much, but to each his or her own. But if you claimed that this somehow constituted cruelty or accused that person of snatching the money back or behaving inethically, you're being ridiculous.

So, now you're saying that Eichenwald intended to let the source keep the money at first? Because that doesn't sound any better. According to this scenario, he offered the kid money, ostensibly in order to help him. Then, Eichenwald turned around and asked for the money back because he'd changed his mind and wanted to write about the kid after all?

If the kid thought the money was a gift, then Eichenwald had no right to ask for it back. It was unethical for him to even raise the possibility of giving the money back once he'd given it. Eichenwald should have known that he was tainted as a reporter for this story and backed off. He's the adult with the journalism background. Why put the kid in the position of having to decide whether to pay the money back. It seems like Eichenwald was trying to shift responsibility for the ethical choice onto the kid, and the financial burden onto the grandmother.

Who was he to tell the kid, "Either you pay me the money back, or I won't tell your story"? If the $2000 was a sincere gift, KE should simply have resisted the urge to write about the kid in the first place. He could have asked the editor to assign another reporter, if he believed the story needed to be told. (It was an important story that later gave rise to official hearing that might eventually protect other kids.)

I don't know why the kid wanted his story told, or even whether that desire was a factor in the kid's decision to ask his grandmother to repay KE. If the kid felt it was morally important to tell the story in order to protect others, KE was exploiting the kid's conscience to get his money back. That's an unfair position to put someone in, especially if you harm others (the grandmother) in the process.

Money is just the half of it.

So, now you're saying that Eichenwald intended to let the source keep the money at first?

I never made any claim otherwise, and your implication that I did is wrong.

Because that doesn't sound any better. According to this scenario, he offered the kid money, ostensibly in order to help him. Then, Eichenwald turned around and asked for the money back because he'd changed his mind and wanted to write about the kid after all?

If you want us to believe the part of the story where Eichenwald sent the check in order to find out Justin Berry's name and address, then you should explain why we shouldn't believe the next 3 sentences where he states that he didn't intend to write a story about Berry and he and his wife sent the money to try to save Berry's life. Further, you should also explain how the sentence "In the months before the story ran, Eichenwald persuaded Berry to quit the porn business [not right away if the NY Magazine story is to be believed, but still], stop using drugs and become a law enforcement informant" fits in with your whole thesis about Eichenwald's cruel behavior.

If the kid thought the money was a gift, then Eichenwald had no right to ask for it back. It was unethical for him to even raise the possibility of giving the money back once he'd given it. Eichenwald should have known that he was tainted as a reporter for this story and backed off. He's the adult with the journalism background. Why put the kid in the position of having to decide whether to pay the money back. It seems like Eichenwald was trying to shift responsibility for the ethical choice onto the kid, and the financial burden onto the grandmother.

Eichenwald had no right to demand that Berry give the money back, and nothing in the story indicates that he did. I'm sure there may be any number of ethical questions raised by Eichenwald's actions, but none of his actions towards Berry amount to cruelty or money-snatching and that is the point I'm making and have been making from the start.

Putting Berry -- an 18 year old adult no matter how many times you call him a kid -- in the position of having to make the decision himself is not a cruel or wrong thing to do. The choice simply was not an onerous one. I apparently can't say this enough times -- Berry could have told Eichenwald that he was unable to repay, and the only thing that would have happened would be that the story wouldn't be told by Eichenwald (more on this below).

You keep bringing up the fact that Berry's grandmother paid the $2,000. Why should I, or Eichenwald, or anyone else care about that fact? Eichenwald did NOT shift the financial burden onto Berry's grandmother. Berry did that all by himself.

Who was he to tell the kid, "Either you pay me the money back, or I won't tell your story"? If the $2000 was a sincere gift, KE should simply have resisted the urge to write about the kid in the first place. He could have asked the editor to assign another reporter, if he believed the story needed to be told. (It was an important story that later gave rise to official hearing that might eventually protect other kids.)

Where the hell is everyone else in this story? Why is Eichenwald the only person who had the power to bring this story to light? Justin Berry had become a law enforcement informant and quit drugs (Again, "In the months before the story ran, Eichenwald persuaded Berry to quit the porn business, stop using drugs and become a law enforcement informant") -- was there nobody in the police department or in Narcotics Anonymous or in his family who could make the suggestion to Justin to find another reporter or talk directly to a legislative staffer?

I don't know why the kid wanted his story told, or even whether that desire was a factor in the kid's decision to ask his grandmother to repay KE. If the kid felt it was morally important to tell the story in order to protect others, KE was exploiting the kid's conscience to get his money back. That's an unfair position to put someone in, especially if you harm others (the grandmother) in the process.

The question is why Justin Berry wanted his story told by Eichenwald. Maybe he felt that he owed something to Eichenwald for (according to the same news story you quote) turning his life around, and decided that paying Eichenwald back so that Eichenwald could get a hard-earned story out of it was the least he could do. Eichenwald really likes to do things (a.k.a. "exploiting the kid's conscience") the hard way, doesn't he? Give a stranger $2,000 so he can turn his life around; let him cash the check; spend months convincing him to leave porn, quit drugs, and help the police catch others involved in child sexual abuse; and only then write a story which he wouldn't even be able to publish if Justin Berry was unable or unwilling to repay him.

Eichenwald's cunning and cruelty really know no bounds.

I'm agnostic about whether Eichenwald intended to write about the kid. He says he didn't intend to write about him, and I'm willing to take that claim at face value.

Do you have an opinion about whether Eichenwald intended for Berry to keep the money when he initially handed it over. Or, was it just a ruse to learn Berry's name and address for some further (philanthropic) purpose? If it was any kind of ruse, it was almost certainly unethical, regardless of the journalistic relationship.

Sorry, but it's morally wrong to insincerely promise people money in order to trick them into giving out personal information--even if you, a stranger, think that you're doing it for their own good.

If you want to give people money in ways that force them to reveal their personal information, that's arguably defensible. If these are adults, they can decide whether the money they're going to get is enough to make it worthwhile to reveal themselves to the would-be "benefactor."

However, false promises of money in exchange for private information are like any other kind of false promise--wrong. Possibly well-intentioned, but wrong.

I don't know if KE made a false promise, i.e., whether he offered the kid money as a gift while knowing he would eventually ask for the money to be repaid.

Maybe he just gave the kid money out of the goodness of his heart. If so, it was cruel to later turn around and ask for the money back just because he later decided he wanted to write about the kid.

Eichenwald should never have asked for the money back, no matter what. The fact that he couldn't force the kid to give him the money is neither here nor there. If the kid cared about the NYT story, he in effect could force the kid to pony up. He had that leverage.

It's wrong to give peopple things and then ask for them back. Gifts are gifts. Once you've given a substantial gift to someone, it's your responsibility as a journalist to back off them as a source. You don't burden the source with the choice "pay back my "gift"" or have me not write the story. If an emotional bond developed between KE and the kid, that's all the more reason for KE to have backed off the kid as a story.

Eichenwald handed over the money to the kid knowing the kid would likely spend it. Then he asked for the two grand back and (we presume) told the kid that if he didn't get the dough, the story couldn't go forward. Eichenwald should never have gone forward with the story, and he shouldn't have tried to burden the kid with that decision.

I've thought about this back and forth since my last posting, and I think that we could end up going back and forth on this forever. I'll check the site tomorrow and if you want, I'll comment one more time.

Lindsay, Anonymous:

Have either of you considered the idea that getting the kid to pay Eichenwald (notice I didnt say "pay back") $2000 doesn't at all undo the ethical problem of having given money to a source in the first place? The money was given. Spent. It can't be ungiven. In my opinion, from an ethical standpoint, that bell can't be unrung with a reverse payment of $2000 months later. If there was indeed corruption or the appearance of such involved, then it happened the moment when the original gift cemented their relationship. That the kid gave the reporter $2000 months later doesn't change any of the relationship dynamics that have already occurred. And those were the dynamics that made the story possible in the first place.

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