Today I felt my heart lifted even as my gut was wrenched. Kurt Eichenwald, writing for The New York Times, ditched a traditional rule of journalism by becoming a compassionate part of the story. And The NYT pulled out all the stops, backing him every step of the way. Three cheers for Eichenwald and the NY Times!
Update 12/30/05: Kurt Eichenwald updates us on the aftermath his series of articles have at least temporarily wrought in the online pedophiliac camworld. From the article: “The shutdown of the portals, all of which have been in operation for at least four years, came days after an article in The New York Times described how minors, often with the assistance of their online fans, had begun operating pay pornography sites featuring their own images sent onto the Internet by Webcams.” Child Pornography Sites Face New Obstacles (New York Times, December 30, 2005)
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Researching background material on a fraud case, Kurt Eichenwald found references to Justin Berry, a teen porn star operating his own online business. The story tweaked Eichenwald’s fraud antennae, and in the following days and weeks, he uncovered a story that would only serve to sicken and depress me, were it not for the footnote of redemption and Eichenwald’s intervention.
|Kurt Eichenwald covers business and has written extensively about business and corporate corruption—including Conspiracy of Fools (Aaron), and The Informant. He has written for the NYT since 1988, has won the George Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism twice, and was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
What unfolds from Eichenwald’s story is a gut-twisting tale of naivete and seduction, it’s a visceral illustration of how the unwitting use of a powerful tool has profound, life-shattering effects (see my paper: “Integrity on the Internet”).
Young Berry, encouraged by the flimsy anonymity of a screen name and a webcam, believed he found genuine paternal friendship in the drooling, pederastic grins of predators. Step-by-step, by degrees of compromise, he slipped into a pit of evil. (A theme repeated everywhere by men and women snared by the lure of anonymous sexual exploration online.) Berry ultimately set up a series of webcam-based child-porn businesses, calling himself a “camwhore,” because he would do just about anything in front of a web-camera for the winning bidder.
Fast forward six years: Nineteen-year-old Berry finally wanted out. Having learned to fear the predators he performed for and took cash from—he finally hated what he had become. But not only had his lifestyle trapped him, he was bound by cocaine and marijuana addiction. When Eichenwald first contacted him as a journalist, Berry suspected he was actually FBI, and ignored him. Later, Eichenwald approached Berry as an anonymous fan, without the “journalist” hat on. When Eichenwald suggested meeting face-to-face at an LA airport within weeks, Berry was suspicious again. Yet he decided it didn’t matter anymore. Deep inside, he wanted release:
“[P]art of him hoped he would be arrested, putting an end to the life he was leading.”
In LA, Eichenwald immediately identified himself as a reporter–and Berry didn’t run. They continued talking. Over the next few days, Eichenwald encouraged Berry to shut his website down, to stop answering his cell phone, to stop answering instant messages, and to end the drug use. Amazingly, Berry not only agreed—he complied. With the Times’ consent, Eichenwald brought Berry to Washington, set him up in a new residence, provided medical and psychological care, and began documenting the case. Again, Eichenwald goes a step beyond: he convinced Berry to turn his transcripts and payment data over to the FBI and become a witness. More than 1,500 men are now under investigation.
I wish there was more coverage of this tantalizingly brief line near the end of the story:
“He has sought counseling, kept off drugs, resumed his connection with his church and plans to attend college beginning in January.”
While “resumed connection with his church” could mean nearly anything, I’m intrigued. What I see in this baptismal picture is a redeemed young man. Granted, a picture doesn’t reveal the state of a soul or the depth of commitment to Christ: but this picture could have been taken at any of a number of Pentecostal baptisms I’ve attended. This sure seems like more than the usual profession of faith through the rite of baptism: this photo captures a moment of worship.
After the grueling, seamy, reportage … this … this is what lifted my heart. Who knows whether Kurt Eichenwald is a man of religious conviction and practice? I don’t. But, regardless, he was as much God’s hands to Justin Berry as the most fervent Evangelical or Fundamentalist ever hoped to be. And he could not stand by while knowing the names of specific children still being victimized. He acted, and I believe lives will be saved. I’m grateful that in this story Eichenwald and the The Times adhered to conviction and compassion over journalistic rules.
As with my recent posts on youth pastor, Eric Brian Golden, I am concerned about some issues raised in this piece and in another, related item by Chris Hansen at NBC’s Dateline (links below). As noted above, more than 1,500 individuals (reportedly, all men) are being identified by the records Berry turned over. What seemed to surprise both Eichenwald and Berry were the type of men in his customer list.
In its investigation, The Times obtained the names and credit card information for the 1,500 people who paid Justin to perform on camera, and analyzed the backgrounds of 300 of them nationwide. A majority of the sample consisted of doctors and lawyers, businessmen and teachers, many of whom work with children on a daily basis. (Emphasis mine.
When NBC Dateline set up a 3–day sting operation in Washington, D.C., with vigilante group “Perverted-Justice,” they documented nearly two-dozen men who actually came to the sting-house to meet with a minor for sex. About them:
The men who show up at this house looking for a liaison with a child come from very different backgrounds. … A man letting himself into our house makes his living working with children—he’s a special education teacher. … A man with the screenname “Gbabbnsp” is an emergency room doctor. … What about another guy? … While the two are chatting online, we conduct a background check and are absolutely shocked by what this man does for a living. That’s right— [he’s] a rabbi, the man who sent several pornographic pictures of himself is a man of God. He’s been a staff member of a Jewish organization that provides educational programs for Jewish high school students. (“On the Hunt for Internet Sex Predators,” December 16, 2005)
MSNBC reports that “50,000 predators are online at any given moment,” and that “One in five kids [online] has been sexually solicited.” I used to worry that church was becoming too Big Brotherish by insisting on criminal background checks on ministerial and church volunteer applicants. I’ve changed my mind. While criminal background checks cannot catch everybody, what seems clear from my reading today is that those who are practicing pedophiles frequently work with children professionally or avocationally. (Note: That is not to say that anyone who works with kids is automatically suspect. But the implication is clear: positions involving child-supervision are magnets for pedophiles.) This is not news, of course. But stories like this really bring it home to me.
What to do:
One of the best lawyers serving the church today is a Spirit-filled Pentecostal, and he’s also the main lawyer (general counsel) for the Assemblies of God: Richard R. Hammar. He has prepared a few resources that could be helpful to you: Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse While we can’t screen everybody our kids come into contact with, there are certain things we can, and must do for our children:
» Keep channels of communication open with your kids.
» Keep computers in a visible place, not behind locked doors.
» Use net filtering/monitoring software on all Internet-connected machines. Let your wife choose the password.
» Monitor and question excessive amounts of online activity.
» Monitor the acquisition of computer hardware by your kids—especially webcams.
» Monitor phone usage and know who’s talking to your your kids.
» Monitor the gifts and packages your kids receive in the mail.
» Make sure there are at least two adults at every church or school function your child attends.
» Make sure there are at least two adults home at any “sleep-over” your child attends.
There may be other, better guidelines you have in place. Please feel free to suggest them.
Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World The 13-year-old boy sat in his California home, eyes fixed on a computer screen. He had never run with the popular crowd and long ago had turned to the Internet for the friends he craved. But on this day, Justin Berry’s fascination with cyberspace would change his life. By Kurt Eichenwald.
Also see the related Times’ articles:
» Video: Interview with Justin Berry
» Graphic: An Easy Path to Trouble
» The Customers: Where the Credit Card Trail Leads
» The History: A Shadowy Trade Migrates to the Web
» Reporter’s Essay: Making a Connection With Justin
» Documenting a Crime That Thrives on Anonymity
New link – January 16, 2006: Doing Good and Telling a Good Story: A Delicate Balance
New York Times public editor Byron Calame reviews how Eichenwald and the Times maintained ethical boundaries in this story, and reveals Justin Berry’s humanitarian work with the homeless. Using money left over from his years in the pornography business, “Justin purchased several tons of clothing [and] oranges and rented a truck. … He then began heading into homeless areas around Los Angeles every night, where he delivered clothing and oranges to the homeless.”
A Heartbreaker From Eichenwald And The Times
This brief article rapidly dispatches any claim that Eichenwald may have violated ethics in how he conducted himself during this investigation.
The New York Times Legal Aid Society — The newspaper helps a very young pornographer find a lawyer By Jack Shafer.
The Slate takes Eichenwald to the woodshed for intervening. Eichenwald responds handily.
Under the Sycamore Tree: The Axe Handle Applied
Barry York writes a deft take on this issue from the perspective of using tools properly. He quotes Neal Postman and makes an analogy using Boniface and his wooden-handled axe. “What the world bows before to satisfy its own lusts, we must take and use as leverage to chop down the idolatry. Young people need training in wisdom from the mature on how to guard themselves from the dangers of the Internet while at the same time being shown how to use it for Christ’s glory. Rather than doing Google searches to see the latest shenanigans of a movie star, the church must be searching out the wisdom and knowledge now available at its fingertips like it never has been before. Instead of blogging turning into a display of idleness and empty words for which we’ll be judged come the last day (Matthew 12:36-37), Christians must use it to get someone out there in cyberspace to really think about something important for a minute.”
Dangers children face online
Dateline NBC: Hidden camera investigation turns spotlight on Internet predators, by Chris Hansen.
On the hunt for Internet sex predators
Dateline NBC: Respected members of the community have a potentially criminal secret — one involving the possible sexual exploitation of children. What happened to these men after the first ‘Dateline’ report? By Chris Hansen.
Courting Danger Online–Teenagers and the Internet
From the The Albert Mohler Radio Program. Mohler is the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Dr. Judith Reisman
Dr. Judith Reisman is sought worldwide to speak, lecture, testify, and counsel individuals, organizations, professionals and governments regarding: fraudulent sex scientists, sex education; and the power and effect of images and the monopoly media to alter human behavior.
Girl Model Sites Crossing Line? By Julia Scheeres, for Wired magazine.
Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse Richard Hammar
[tags]BlogRodent, Pentecostal, Justin-Berry, Kurt-Eichenwald, camwhore, webcams, The-New-York-Times, NYTimes.com, Richard-R.-Hammar, Richard-Hammar, child-sexual-abuse, sexual-abuse, pedophilia, porn, pornography, exhibitionism, redemption, salvation, grace, baptism, water-baptism[/tags]