Tuesday, January 03, 2006

When Kurt Met Justin: Controversy Still Simmers Over Times Helping Youth Find Way Out of Kiddie Porn

Kurt Eichenwald offered an impassioned defense yesterday on NPR for his Dec. 19, nearly 7,000-word takeout in the N.Y. Times that opened a window into the sordid world of minors playing into the hands of pedophiles willing to pony up big bucks for sex acts performed on webcams.
It was a compelling, often troubling read, and showed how for all its missteps, hiccups and gross errors of judgment in recent years, the Times still matters more than any other newspaper and continues to set the table for what the rest of the national media will cover.
But what raised some hackles is Eichenwald helping the centerpiece of his story, Justin Berry, find a lawyer, tell his story to prosecutors and get him counseling.
Some media critics, like Slate's Jack Shafer, say Eichenwald crossed over the line from reporter to advocate. Eichenwald told NPR if Shafer reached that conclusion he didn't read the article carefully enough. Besides, since when does being a reporter mean you have to check your humanity at the door?
Point to Eichenwald, who said he was prompted to act when Berry revealed the identities of other children involved in Web sex acts, along with the identities of some of the perverts who were his benefactors.
Shafer's stance reminds me of the sanctimony displayed by one of my college journalism professors who proclaimed that political reporters should not vote lest they compromise their objectivity. Such tripe was among the reasons I switched my college and major -- to political science, and never missed the chance to vote, especially when I covered elections.
A few years later, I recall how a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times was chided by some colleagues for trying to help victims of a car accident on a bridge, as if she was supposed to let the passengers bleed out so she could get a better story. It is from such arrogance that the low esteem journalists are held by most of the public continues to flourish.
In this instance, being dispassionate was not an option, a conclusion that's easier to reach when you watch the video excerpts on www.nytimes.com of Eichenwald interviewing Berry. You feel unclean just hearing the details of a young life that spiraled out of control. After which, you can only applaud Eichenwald for helping to engineer the beginnings of Berry's redemption.
It's not the way your taught in J-school how to do your job, but too bad. Eichenwald stepped in only long enough to get Berry help. In the process, he not only did some good, but got a great story that's bound to give any parent pause and hopefully do the same for pedophiles who think the Internet is a sanctuary for their sickness.

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