Tuesday, December 27, 2005

(Updated and bumped to the top)

In the same column by Howard Kurtz, he also reports on a New York Times reporter,Kurt Eichenwald, who was doing a story about child pornography. In the course of reporting on the story he came to know a 18-year-old boy who was filming pornography in order to support his drug habit. Eichenwald persuaded the boy to give up drugs and start cooperating with the FBI to stop other children from being lured into this world and to arrest some of the ringleaders.

You and I might think that this was a good thing. No one should stand by and see other children pulled into such a life if we could stop it. But in the crazy ethics of journalists, this becomes a serious question. It's reminiscent of the question once asked Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace about whether, if they were with a group of enemy soldiers who were going to ambush American soldiers, they would give a warning. If I remember the discussion correctly, Jennings said that he might and Mike Wallace criticized him for giving up his reporter's objectivity. Jack Shafer of Slate does not think that this is what journalists should be doing and he has some questions about Eichenwald's involvement in the child porn story.
What extraordinary intervention! The analogies aren't perfect, but imagine a Times reporter encountering an 18-year-old who had been thrust into the illicit drug business at 13 as a consequence of his neglectful family and unscrupulous dealers? Would he help the young man leave the drug trade and find him a lawyer at a Washington firm who is "a former federal prosecutor," as Eichenwald did Berry? Not likely. Would a Times reporter extend similar assistance to an 18-year-old female prostitute? An 18-year-old fence? A seller of illegal guns? No way.

To the argument that Eichenwald deserves our praise for aiding the adult Berry, who has been victimized, I offer this counterargument: Hasn't the Times put the next reporter assigned to the online pornography story into a nasty jam? Will the just-turned-18-years-old subjects expect future reporters to 1) help get them a lawyer who will 2) assist them in becoming witnesses for the prosecution, because Eichenwald helped Berry? Will online pornographers and other allied criminals now regard reporters as agents of the state? Don't be surprised if they start treating reporters as cops.
I'm still trying to figure out why reporters were more likely to help the teenager caught up in webcam pornography than a teenager caught up in drugs, prostitution, or the sale of illegal guns. It's enough to make me seriously glad not to be a reporter where there seem to be serious ethical questions of whether or not it is proper to help a kid caught up in a criminal world.

At the end of Schafer's Slate column there is an interesting and revealing exchange of letters between Shafer and Eichenwald on the journalistic ethics involved. Here is Eichenwald's defense.
But, as the story makes clear, once Justin began speaking to me, he revealed the identities of specific children in specific places who he said were being molested, filmed and exploited by adult pedophiles. He knew who they were, he knew where they were. And he knew where online to find some of the evidence, which I had the great displeasure of seeing.

So, that was the position I found myself in. I was months from being ready to publish. Yet, I knew the names of specific children who, the evidence suggested, were being sexually assaulted at that very moment.

What were our choices? Printing a story that said "these kids are being assaulted, a source says, and video documentation backs him up." (Justin was not yet on the record) hardly seems feasible. We could have done nothing, and just waited to disclose it all when we published; by that point, at least one of these kids could have been dead; we had evidence suggesting that more than one of the guys with kids could be violent. What would I do? Call these people for comment before we published, giving them the chance to take or dispose of the witnesses? (Please note, one of the guys was stopped in his driveway, ready to move the kid to another location, apparently because he had figured out following the arrest of [Greg] Mitchel that something was up.)

Of course, we could have reported these crimes to the government ourselves—but I thought that crossed a line from reporter to witness. Plus, there were source confidentiality issues in play at that point—how do I reveal this, without revealing the source?
Read the rest of the dialogue. It's enough to almost make me long for the days of yellow journalism when reporters gloried in their involvement in a story and didn't try to hide everything they did behind a veneer of being a disinterested observer.

UPDATE: As I think more about this question, it makes me ponder the motivations of those who adopt journalism for a career. Time and again, I have heard reporters say that they first decided to go into journalism because they wanted to make the world a better place. I've always thought that this explains their adversarial attitude towards the government in specific, but their more general reliance on the government to solve the problems that they hope to expose. They can get stories about exposing problems in the government, but when it comes to fixing problems, they have a lot of faith that the government holds the power to somehow end poverty, racism, and whatever inequities they might find. That's always been my guess about why the media leans left in their ideology - they come from that side of the ideological spectrum that searches for the perfect solution that will fix all that is wrong.

Anyway, if you got into the business to make the world a better place, how do you match that attitude up with noninterference when it comes to being in a situation where your personal intervention may help an individual? Do those journalists, like Shafer, who are troubled by the idea of a journalist helping a drug-addicted teenager get help and a lawyer and then reporting on the story ever ponder whether or not they want to be in a profession that draws ethical lines against helping someone just because that person is part of a story?

And if noninvolvement in a story is essential, what about when the journalist's reporting on a story will entail changing the course of the story? When Dana Priest reported on how we were holding terrorists in secret prisons abroad, her article changed the story and served as a catalyst for a series of events that probably would never have happened without her story. It's like when an anthropologist changes a culture merely by writing about it. This happens probably with any big story that a journalist reports from political maneuvering to war news. Political candidates will change their tactics based on how or whether the media reports on them. It is quite clear that the terrorists in Iraq are using the media as a tool in their campaign. We'll never know how many people's lives would have been saved if no one reported on the latest bombing or murder. I'm not saying that reporters shouldn't report on anything because, by so doing they will change the story. I'm just pointing out that reporters' mere presence and actions change every story and why should there be objections when one reporter got involved personally with helping one kid? At least, that is a time when a reporter's involvement actually made someone's life better.

UPDATE II: In his post looking at the New York Times' lack of transparency in the NSA story, Jay Rosen links back to my post about Eichenwald's story and hints at the hypocrisy of journalists who like to pretend that they have no effect on events, but then seek out Pulitzer Prizes based on the impact that they had.
...serving as a catalyst for a series of events can be the kind of evidence--showing the story's "impact"--that gets submitted to the Pulitzer jury along with the big investigative article.
So, the line that they try to draw is to not be an active participant in the story, but otherwise to seek to have an impact on the story. If this seems like a distinction without a difference to you, you probably don't have the tender moral sensibility to be a journalist.