The New York Times prides itself on ethical journalism. The company boasts a 57-page "handbook of values and practices" for its newsroom. "Our greatest strength," the paper intones, "is the authority and reputation of the Times."
Last year, former Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald received one of countless honors showered on The Ethical, Authoritative Paper’s staffers: a University of Oregon award for ethics in journalism. Eichenwald was cited "for preserving the editorial integrity of an important story while reaching out to assist his source, Justin Berry, in reporting on Berry’s involvement in child pornography." The judges praised Eichenwald for going beyond reporting and helping Berry escape the pornography trade and facilitating Berry’s participation in prosecuting the adults in the porn ring.
Eichenwald and Berry appeared together at a congressional hearing, on the Today show with Katie Couric, and on Oprah Winfrey’s couch, where the crusading Eichenwald was credited with "Saving Justin." The University of Oregon judges were "impressed" by the ethical decisions Eichenwald and The Ethical, Authoritative Times made — as well as by their "transparency."
But now, the rest of the story: Turns out Eichenwald forked out $2,000 to Berry, who was the primary source and subject of Eichenwald’s massive Times investigative cover story on webcam child porn in 2005.
Eichenwald failed to disclose the payment. The Times admitted the payment only after it "emerged" in a criminal trial last week related to Eichenwald’s story. The payment was made in June 2005. The story was published in December 2005. The Times didn’t acknowledge the lack of disclosure until March 6, 2007, when it revealed in an Editor’s Note:
"Mr. Eichenwald did not disclose to his editors or readers that he had sent Mr. Berry a $2,000 check. . . . The check should have been disclosed to editors and readers, like the other actions on the youth’s behalf that Mr. Eichenwald, who left The Times last fall, described in his article and essay."
Eichenwald and The Ethical, Authoritative Times have offered explanations for the payment that don’t pass the sniff test. These rationales certainly wouldn’t get past the Times’ own editorial olfactory nerves if any of its competitors had committed the very same sin.
Eichenwald now says he and his wife hatched a plan as "private citizens" to give the money in order to learn the teenager’s real name and address. "If I can prove, based on that information, that this is a minor, we will contact law enforcement. Otherwise, we will invest the money in hopes of drumming up more information and luring out more information that might prove the point," he explained on media blogger Jim Romenesko’s website.
The paper also says Eichenwald was just trying to maintain contact with the boy out of concern for his safety and wasn’t acting as a journalist when he sent the money. But in a sidebar published with his December 2005 story, Eichenwald struck a far different tone. Less humanitarian, more investigative and journalistic:
"The only way to know if Justin was real, I decided, was to meet him in person. And to do that, I had to win the confidence of whoever was answering to his screen name. At The Times, it is standard practice for a reporter to identify himself at the outset, but doing that too soon would mean I might never know the truth. I decided to try to engage this person in conversation and persuade him to meet with me. At that time, I would disclose my identity and only then would I begin the real reporting that could be used in an article. . . .
"Soon thereafter, I proposed meeting in Los Angeles, and Justin agreed. My wife, Theresa, whom I had kept abreast of what was happening, worried that this could be a setup, and made me promise to take precautions. I did, but when I saw Justin at the airport, I was reassured. Although he was 18, he looked much younger and did not seem physically capable of harming me.
"I immediately identified myself as a Times reporter, and Justin, though taken aback, continued to speak to me; for more than an hour, we discussed my background, until he was willing to proceed. Over the next two days, I interviewed the person I now knew was Justin Berry."
The boy’s family has now repaid what has morphed from rescue money to a loan to a not-loan. Claims Eichenwald:
" . . . [T]he money was not provided for information, and was not provided to a source. The money was not a ‘loan’ (loans are given with the expectation of repayment. There was no such expectation when the money was given.) The money was not paid in exchange for Justin meeting with me."
Eichenwald says Berry bought toys with the money. But he also says Berry "had taken good money and turned it into bad." Huh?
Eichenwald is also incensed that anyone would challenge his excuses. He claims he was "overwhelmed" and forgot — until his memory was apparently restored during a criminal trial. He told Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman it just "slipped my mind in the flood" of events. "Paying for news is the quick, simple line that people are using," Eichenwald said. "But it’s not what happened."
Can you imagine how loudly the media ethics mavens would moan and snicker if anyone other than The New York Times provided such convoluted justifications for checkbook journalism?
"[I]t is essential that we preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias," the Times’ code of ethics lectures. Do as I say, not as I do, eh, Gray Lady?