Investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald was a star for years at The New York Times, and he won new acclaim in December 2005 with his front-page article exposing a sordid new online front in child pornography.
Eichenwald's reporting stemmed from his efforts to aid Justin Berry, who was both a victim and perpetrator of a Web pornography ring, and who was in league with several older men.
The ensuing story about Berry's world was a far cry from the coverage of corporate fraud that won Eichenwald journalism prizes and landed him on best-seller lists. He helped Berry get legal representation and arranged medical care, counseling and housing with some of the youth's relatives in Texas. Some media critics questioned the degree of Eichenwald's involvement in the life of the subject of his big story.
Eichenwald left the Times last fall for another job. Over the past seven months, during the prosecutions of two men involved in Berry's ring on related child-pornography charges, revelations have surfaced that have raised more profound questions about Eichenwald's own actions. Most notable was his failure to inform editors at the Times that he and his wife had made a series of payments worth at least $3,100 to Berry and his business partners.
Eichenwald said the payments were part of the effort he and his wife, Theresa, made to extract Berry from the child-porn business — and that he simply forgot to tell editors.
Critics jumped all over him for what they suggested was an implausible claim. The Times rebuked him in print.
Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor at The New York Times, says that colleagues found it hard to square this image of a forgetful Kurt Eichenwald with the reporter who had produced such careful coverage of the complex Enron case.
"Some people at the Times are very angry at him for not disclosing these payments," Kramon says. "I think they think it embarrasses our entire profession."
A Long-Held Secret
In a story airing Friday on NPR's All Things Considered, Eichenwald reveals a secret that he had carefully guarded for more than two decades: His epilepsy had triggered so many and such severe seizures that, according to his neurologist, he suffers from "significant memory disruptions."
Eichenwald's famed meticulous reporting methods on corporate intrigue masked his deeply unreliable memory for names, facts and events. Medical authorities such as Dr. Gregory Bergey, director of the Johns Hopkins Epilepsy Center, confirm such memory loss can indeed result from those repeated seizures.
"There are reporters who are stupid. There are reporters who are lazy. There are reporters who are drunk," Eichenwald says. "I'm none of those things. And I didn't want to be judged on my challenges. I wanted to be judged on my work."
He never wanted to acknowledge his memory loss to his editors because, he says, he believed they wouldn't let him be a reporter. Back in the 1980s, he had been temporarily thrown out of college and lost a job because of the negative reaction to his sometimes forceful seizures. But the backlash from the Justin Berry story was too great — forcing Eichenwald's disclosure.
"I believed that I had enough of a reputation and enough of a track record that, when I say to other journalists, 'I don't remember,' that they could simply accept that — or prove me wrong," Eichenwald says. "But instead, it just became fodder for more attacks — and for people saying, suggesting, that I was obviously hiding something, because I was saying I forgot."
Scorned for His Faulty Memory Defense
After Eichenwald left the Times in September 2006, he joined Portfolio, a glossy new business magazine, which made its debut earlier this year.
But his reputation kept taking a beating, largely because of pieces by freelance reporter Debbie Nathan, who says she considered Eichenwald's coverage and ethical missteps a scandal. Her stories about Eichenwald were picked up by media, gossip and gay advocacy bloggers, who poured scorn on Eichenwald and his ethics.
Nathan is an advocacy journalist who argues that federal laws on child pornography and child sexual abuse are too strict. "Sex is such a highly charged issue in our culture that — particularly when it comes to child sex abuse — people are very irrational," Nathan says. "Many people are convicted who are innocent, in my opinion."
But Nathan's stories about Eichenwald for New York magazine's Web site and for CounterPunch failed to disclose a key affiliation: She is a board member and donor for the National Center for Reason and Justice, a not-for-profit group that distributes money to help the legal filings of people it says have been wrongly convicted of child sexual abuse. The center distributes about $100,000 a year to their legal defense. Among the recipients of this aid: Father Paul Shanley, the most notorious figure in Boston's Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal.
Eichenwald is livid that Nathan relied heavily on information and theories from some of the very people whom he helped point out to prosecutors — defendants in the child-pornography cases. All four defendants pleaded guilty or were convicted by juries. One was also convicted of sexually assaulting Berry.
A Battered Reputation
Times editor Glenn Kramon says Eichenwald should have told editors about his condition. But he says Eichenwald's articles were like money in the bank — including the Justin Berry story.
"It stands up beautifully," Kramon says. "I don't think there are any challenges to the integrity of the story and the many great things that resulted from it."
Eichenwald quit Portfolio magazine in August, just days after his mentor there also left. The top editor at Portfolio had become uneasy about the fallout over the Berry story, and Eichenwald's departure coincided with a new batch of Nathan reports.
Eichenwald's wife, Theresa, says he is now being judged solely by his battered online reputation.
"It doesn't take much for word to spread — even if it's incorrect. And somehow, that becomes reality," she says. "We've heard him attacked on every front and called all sorts of things — from pedophile to homophobe to everything else — and he doesn't deserve it."
Eichenwald concedes making mistakes. He says he should have told editors about the payments. He was too close to the Justin Berry story to write it. But he says he had no choice but to try to pull Berry from a cycle of exploitation.
"It would have been so much easier just to walk away and say, 'You know, this is not my responsibility. I am not here to save other people's children,'" Eichenwald says. "I couldn't do it."