Update With Correction: In Letter, Eichenwald Defends Reporting on Justin Berry

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By: E&P Staff

CORRECTION: The original version of this story carried a headline that suggested that Eichenwald defended loaning money to a teen source. He has actually denied that the $2000 was a loan and says that the teen was not a newspaper source at that time. The story that follows has also been re-edited to remove the loan reference.

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In a long letter posted on the Romenesko media news site, former New York Times writer Kurt Eichenwald defended his reporting on a 2005 article.

Eichenwald writes that, having been on the receiving end of journalism for the past week, “It is now abundantly clear to me why our profession has such an ungodly reputation among the public. The first story says ‘cat.’ The second says ‘tiger.’ And the third says ‘office building.’ And all on the basis of no reporting.”

The journalist, who now works for Portfolio magazine, wrote the 2005 article on a teenage boy who performed sex for money on the Internet. Eichenwald paid the boy $2,000 to help him before he began reporting on the story, he writes in the Romenesko note, and did not, at that time, expect it to be repaid.

An editors’ note in The New York Times stated this week that the $2000 payment was made public as part of a criminal proceeding in Michigan, in which a man is charged with criminal sexual conduct and other related crimes.

In his letter, Eichenwald said that none of the journalists who wrote about him this week contacted Berry or the Michigan prosecutor who he says has the facts about the case. Only “a handful” contacted Eichenwald himself, with only “a smaller fraction” of those listening to the details of his end of the story.

Below are excerpts from the letter:

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… if there is no real reporting going on, what we have is journalist after journalist writing stories about what they *think* happened. (I will get to the abjectly false depiction of my sworn testimony by Debbie Nathan in a moment.) And the evolution is fast — we start with an editor?s note that is accurate, but misleading. That then becomes reinterpreted into a false accusation — that I paid a source for information, that I lent a source money, that I engaged in checkbook journalism — that is repeated ad infinitum. That false accusation then spins out of control, with ?reporters? suggesting that I engaged in all sorts of illegal and immoral acts. The details mentioned in the stories get fuzzier and more inaccurate. And then media critics like Jack Shafer hold me accountable for the changing and inaccurate stories, suggesting — without bothering to call me — that *I* am the one changing the details of the story.

When I do testify publicly, my statements are covered by a “journalist? who has publicly stated she engaged in ?libel per se? against me in the past, and who has been nursing a deep and public anger against me following a ugly confrontation in the fall. …

Did I make a mistake? Yes … I should have told my editors. But this was not an omission of malice. Once the reporting began, I was overwhelmed with a situation involving an abused, traumatized teenager going through unassisted drug withdrawal who almost immediately informed me of his knowledge of other children being exploited and molested. A financial transaction from a month before, which had nothing to do with my journalism, and which had been agreed to be zeroed out before there was even a reporting relationship, just slipped away amid the 18 hour days, seven days a week of turmoil and chaos.

Should I have disclosed what I did to readers? This is the question that infuriates me. The Times implies, through its editor?s note, that I violated the paper?s editorial standards by failing to reveal to readers a transaction performed by me as a private citizen that had no benefit to either Justin Berry or me. If that is the standard, fine. However, I am hard pressed to understand why it is then that these same editors *fought* me in the fall of 2005, arguing that I could NOT reveal the things I did for Justin Berry while acting as a reporter that brought benefits to him. These included such things as finding him a doctor, and locating a place for him to live. These were ACTUAL conflicts; while all of the associated costs were paid by Berry and his family, these could easily create a sense of obligation to me by him as a source. …

I have been a journalist for more than two decades. I have had my successes and my controversies. But never have I had an experience that more thoroughly underscores the recklessness and irresponsibility of our profession. And as of now, I am not taking it anymore. Do your jobs and do some reporting. Call the prosecutors. Read my testimony. Check the records. Stop writing about what you *think* happened.

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To read the full letter on the Romenesko site, click here.

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