December 19, 2005

For those who don't share my personal obsession, feel free to substitute any article by Judy Miller

I approached today's front-page NY Times article on camwhores with trepidation — it being exactly the kind of story the paper has been getting wrong since the dawn of the Web.

From what I can tell, though, writer Kurt Eichenwald gets it exactly right. While no one with any web savvy will be very surprised by his findings, we haven't actually seen them reported out so thoroughly before, and that counts for a lot. The only thing I wondered about was this graf: "A six-month investigation by The New York Times into this corner of the Internet found that such sites had emerged largely without attracting the attention of law enforcement or youth protection organizations. While experts with these groups said they had witnessed a recent deluge of illicit, self-generated Webcam images, they had not known of the evolution of sites where minors sold images of themselves for money."

At first I thought it was odd that experts could be unfamiliar with teen cam sites — they must have better spam filters than I do. But it actually sas that they do know of them, just not of their "evolution." What that means, however, is left unclear.

That's a minor point, though. What I really want to say is that the most impressive element of this story is Eichenwald's online essay describing his reporting methods in detail, including red flags that were raised and how they were checked and rules that were bent and why. Regardless of whether you agree with the Times' decisions, the essay is a great step forward for transparency. Can you imagine how differently an article by, let's say, oh, Peter Landesman, would have been received if it had been accompanied by such a sidebar.

Whereas Eichenwald writes, "As his emotional and physical health improved, Justin said he would fully cooperate with a story about self-generated child pornography on the Internet, allowing The Times to print his name. My editors and I decided to delay accepting his offer, however, until we were certain that Justin was competent to make the decision, something that would only be accomplished if he continued his recovery from drugs." Landesman would have had to say, "As she continually left the room to cut herself, Andrea agreed to cooperate with a story. My editors were unware of her behavior or her dubious diagnosis of multiple personality disorder until after it was too late."

Eichenwald: "Justin disclosed the names of other children at risk, and told of a trove of evidence about his online pornography business: computer hard drives, kept at his mother's home in California, that contained years of financial data, including records of client payment, saved online conversations and other information. Editors agreed that The Times needed to review the evidence to verify Justin's story."

Landesman: "My second-hand source told me some stuff about scared underage girls in communion dresses that was way too good to check with his source, who was the person who actually witnessed the scene. Good thing I didn't, since I would have found out that it never actually happened. Editors agreed that the Times needed to ignore the evidence once it came to light."

Jack Shafer (of course) is not so quick to let Eichenwald off the hook, and Eichenwald responds. Bonus: Jack compares Eichenwald favorably to unnamed "other reporters writing about the sexual exploitation of children" who go in for sensationalist hype. Hmm.

Melissa Gira worries about the inevitable oversimplification of this issue that is to come from anti-sex pundits, and points out (as I alluded) that it's not exactly a new phenomenon. Here's Salon in '01.

Scott Macaulay thinks Eichenwald is writing with one audience in mind: Hollywood executives. I don't know if that's true on a conscious level, but it's safe to say that the tropes of Hollywood movies have infected newspaper reporting in a way that may not be for the best.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I guess Landesman isn't rising to the bait anymore. That's a shame.

L. Brent Bozel III and Kurt Eichenwald seem to display the same obsessive sexual proclivities.

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