Reporters are supposed to get close to their sources, but what's too close? I criticized New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald for achieving extreme proximity to primary source Justin Berry in the process of investigating his exposé on Web-based child pornography.
In the Dec. 19 package, Eichenwald writes of persuading the 19-year-old Berry to quit using drugs and leave the pornography business, into which he was "lured" at the age of 13. Eichenwald also referred Berry to an attorney last summer, introduced him to a doctor, and suggested he seek counseling, which he did. Thanks, in part, to the reporter's efforts, Berry became a witness for federal prosecutors and was granted immunity.
In my piece and in a civil e-mail dialogue with Eichenwald that followed (attached to the bottom of my piece), I argued that his intervention into Berry's life had left him too invested in his source's fate to report the story faithfully. Reporters can do good while doing good journalism, but the former can subtly overtake the latter if they're not careful.
After my Eichenwald article appeared, a reader pointed me to KurtEichenwald.com, a professional-looking Web site promoting Eichenwald's books, his newspaper journalism, and his availability as a speaker through the Lavin Agency. "Copyright 2005-2006 © Kurt Eichenwald," read the legend at bottom of the home page.
According to the Whois page on NetworkSolutions.com, KurtEichenwald.com is registered to the author's publisher, Random House, and the page's DNS servers include ns1.xpertcreations.com and ns2.xpertcreations.com. When I browsed to Xpertcreations.com, I found a Web developer and Internet marketing concern by that name promoting the KurtEichenwald.com page as one of its September "Clients of the Month." Xpertcreations.com listed Justin Berry as the firm's president as well as his phone and fax numbers and e-mail address.
Eichenwald says that nobody assigned Berry to design KurtEichenwald.com, and nobody paid for his work. KurtEichenwald.com isn't even the journalist's official Web site. That distinction belongs to ConspiracyOfFools.com, named after Eichenwald's recent book of the same name, and is also registered to Random House.
Eichenwald, who described Berry's computer talents in the Times, says the young man presented him with a mock-up design for an Eichenwald site in late August 2005, when the Times story was still in process. When Berry asked if he could put the site up on KurtEichenwald.com, the reporter says he didn't give the issue "much consideration" before securing permission from Random House to use the address. (The publisher had purchased KurtEichenwald.com to prevent a Web squatter from taking the name.)
After a couple of weeks, Eichenwald says he was no longer "comfortable" with the site being up. He explains that Berry was in a volatile emotional space during those weeks, and he was glad to give the young man something constructive to do. After Berry had gotten "his head on straight," the creation of the Web site had served its purpose. Eichenwald asked him to pull the plug, which he says Berry did.
What caused the site's resurrection? Eichenwald, who didn't know the site was live again until I notified him, says he called Berry, who explained that he wanted to display his work to someone. Both xpertcreations.com and KurtEichenwald.com went dark this afternoon following my inquiries to Eichenwald. Berry did not return a call for comment.
Eichenwald doesn't regret letting Berry use the address to showcase his skills.