New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald shows his fellow journalists how to build a deeply sourced investigative story in today's (Dec. 19) "Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World." Eichenwald plays a hunch into a bigger story. He convinces an important source—a boy whom pornographers and predators victimized—to confide in him. He pores over computer files the source provided, he digs for more information, he assembles a paper trail that leads to the profiteers of Web child-pornography, and he succeeds in opening a major criminal investigation.
Who but a monster would not automatically pat the reporter on his back for coming to the aid of the boy, Justin Berry, who is only 13 years old when we meet him in the story? Well, your friendly local press critic, for one. While I admire Eichenwald's journalistic enterprise and thoroughness, I'm astonished at how he loses control of his 6,500-word investigation when he appears two-thirds through it to serve not as a reporter but as the legal advocate and protector of the now 19-year-old Berry. *
For those who haven't read the story—and I urge everybody to do so—here's a summary: A battered and lonely kid, Berry subscribes to the EarthLink Internet service in 2000 so that he can get a bonus Webcam and use it to meet people—even "some girls my age," he says.
He registers his Webcam at a user site hoping to engage other teens. Instead, Berry hears from sexual predators, one after another, as they view him. Liking what they see, the predators give him gifts through Amazon's "Wish List." They pay him cash to take off his pants, more to drop his shorts, more for sexual performances. An online "fan" arranges for the 14-year-old Berry to attend a computer camp, where the fan molests him. Another fan helps the 15-year-old Berry rent an apartment down the block from his family's home where he can conduct his burgeoning pornographic enterprise away from mom's eyes. By 2003, the 16-year-old Berry has partnered in the porn business with his father and then with another adult. He offers four-tiered subscription rates for monthly, three-month, six-month, and annual memberships and takes "the cash to support a growing cocaine and marijuana habit," Eichenwald writes.
Suddenly, Eichenwald's detailed and specific story turns to haze. Between October 2003 and June 2005, when Eichenwald first encountered Berry online, Berry attempts to leave the life; he contemplates suicide; he re-embraces Christianity; he fills his porn sites with religious tracts. But then he backslides into the life, re-entering the Web porn business with a partner on a new site featuring himself and "other boys he helped recruit." These events, which stretch over about 20 months, consume only four paragraphs in Eichenwald's narrative. He writes:
Justin was now 18, a legal adult. He had crossed the line from under-age victim to adult perpetrator.
As this point—June 2005—Eichenwald the reporter appears as a character in the story to intervene into the adult Berry's life. The two got together in Los Angeles shortly thereafter. He writes:
In the days that followed, Justin agreed in discussions with this reporter to abandon the drugs and his pornography business. He cut himself off from his illicit life. He destroyed his cellphone, stopped using his online screen name and fled to a part of the country where no one would find him.
As he sobered up, Justin disclosed more of what he knew about the Webcam world; within a week, he revealed the names and locations of children who were being actively molested or exploited by adults with Webcam sites. After confirming his revelations, The Times urged him to give his information to prosecutors, and he agreed.
Justin contacted Steven M. Ryan, a former federal prosecutor and partner with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Washington. Mr. Ryan had learned of Justin's story during an interview with The Times about a related legal question, and offered to represent him.
In other words, Eichenwald helped convince Berry to quit porn and quit drugs. He found him a lawyer. The lawyer, in turn, persuaded federal prosecutors to give Berry immunity for serving as the state's witness.
What extraordinary intervention! The analogies aren't perfect, but imagine a Times reporter encountering an 18-year-old who had been thrust into the illicit drug business at 13 as a consequence of his neglectful family and unscrupulous dealers? Would he help the young man leave the drug trade and find him a lawyer at a Washington firm who is "a former federal prosecutor," as Eichenwald did Berry? Not likely. Would a Times reporter extend similar assistance to an 18-year-old female prostitute? An 18-year-old fence? A seller of illegal guns? No way.