BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. If you ask me, the Internet is the most significant technological development since man first used fire. It is transforming society in innumerable ways, but like fire, it can be violently and tragically abused – to help terrorism, for instance or to propagate hate or enable child pornographers and sexual predators. In his two-part New York Times series "Dark Corners" this week, reporter Kurt Eichenwald offers a glimpse into the world of so-called "child love" chat rooms, where pedophiles have coalesced to form a sort of social movement, one constantly seeking ways to facilitate and justify fantasy and real-life sex with minors. He exposes, for instance, the evolution of so-called "modeling" sites, which try to evade the law by clothing their subjects in skimpy garments and posing them provocatively. An editor's note reminded readers that it's a crime to view child porn, and informed them that The Times, quote, "complied with the law," disclosing what it found to appropriate authorities. It wasn't the first time Eichenwald had run up against the journalistic mantras of not involving law enforcement and not getting involved in your story. Last year, during the reporting of a long piece about child webcam pornography, he convinced his primary source, Justin Berry, to turn federal witness and to assist in a massive government crackdown. It raised the eyebrows of some media watchdogs, but Eichenwald insists that the moral choice was clear.
KURT EICHENWALD: I do not believe that we as journalists, simply to satisfy each other, have some ethical obligation to be inhuman. I do not believe that if a congressional reporter walks into an office and sees a congressman raping his secretary on the desk that the only thing he can do is take out his notepad and write down the details.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the arguments that have been put forward, chiefly by Jack Shafer of Slate, is the slippery slope argument, that your arrangement with Justin in this story, and with law enforcement, changes the expectations for all journalists in the future in their handling sources in these very sketchy areas, that the next source may expect for the reporter to somehow broker his relationship with law enforcement, or that the source may fear that you're, in essence, a spy for law enforcement and putting future journalists at risk.
KURT EICHENWALD: Now, what I thought the criticism was going to be was that I left 14 kids out there. There were 15 kids who did interviews with me who were wrapped up in child pornography; 14 of them said, I know what I'm doing and I'm safe, and don't worry about it -- didn't go on the record, didn't authorize me to do anything other than utilize their information. One of them got out of the business, and when I realized that he was aware of children being raped, I convinced him to go to the government. But it wasn't much of an effort. It took about a minute and a half. I don't see how that creates any form of a slippery slope. If a source comes to you and says, there's a woman being murdered in the apartment down the street, well, yes, I do think that a reporter should say, you should go call the cops.
BOB GARFIELD: So if there's no Jack Shafer rule governing the relationship between a reporter and the source -
KURT EICHENWALD: Well, let's not pick on Jack. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: But what rules should govern those relationships, when clearly, in order to get the story, they have to go beyond the very formal constraints of source/reporter relationship?
KURT EICHENWALD: Our question here is, what are we? Are we a bureaucracy or are we a news-gathering organization? You know, bureaucracies are concerned about rules for the sake of the rules. I believe as a news-gathering organization, we don't actually even have rules. Really, we are working off of guiding principles in how do we protect the journalism, as opposed to how do we, you know, kneel at the altar of certain rules that may or may not apply in this circumstance, but that some people invoke as absolute and other people ignore completely?
BOB GARFIELD: When you encounter children who are in clear and present danger, what's your to-do list? Is it, tell my editors, call the cops, write the story? How does it work?
KURT EICHENWALD: It depends. There have only been a few instances of that. There was one instance in the course of the past year where I became very concerned because there was a pedophile who was online seeking advice on how he could transform his physical relationship with a seven-year-old girl into a sexual relationship, and it was very clear that he was intending to do something about this in the next few days. It was an event that was going to happen, not something that had happened. In that circumstance, I called my editors and said, I need to report this to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and I was given authorization. I reported it to the National Center. They checked it, and then they made a criminal referral, and, as I understand it, the person was arrested.
BOB GARFIELD: Because this stuff is so horrifying and because you are always at risk of breaking the law yourself when you're coming across the material, how does law enforcement get involved here, and what was your relationship with it?
KURT EICHENWALD: The law is very clear. It is illegal to download, it is illegal to save and it is illegal to view child pornography. Now, there is a safe harbor under the law, and that safe harbor is if you've gone someplace, you get there, you didn't know what you were getting and you are in a child porn site. If you immediately report it, delete your cache files and delete any other related files that may have come from the website, you can be deemed as having been somebody who is innocently coming across these things. Now, I found the model sites because I clicked on a link that was posted in one of the conversations. I didn't know where I was going to. The first site I went to was fine. I clicked on something from there, and it took me into the bowels of hell. I am required by law to notify law enforcement of the sites I found. That's all I'm required to do. I'm not going to give them my notes. I'm not going to give them sources. I just have to say, if you go to www.this.com, it's a child porn site. Had I not done that, had I said, well, I'm a journalist and therefore the law doesn't apply to me, I could be arrested.
BOB GARFIELD: The bowels of hell. I want to ask you about your personal journey into the bowels of hell. It's clear how you feel about the child victims of pornography. I'm wondering what you think about the pedophiles themselves.
KURT EICHENWALD: You know, on some level, for some of them – and this might surprise people, because I do seem to have [LAUGHS] – when you hear me, I sound like have hatred – many of them, I feel sorry for them. Nobody would choose to isolate themselves in this way. And there are those who recognize that their desires are, in fact, damaging to children, and so they make sure they stay away from kids. And I actually have respect for those people. For those who rationalize it, for those who sit there and say, you know, children benefit from sexual relations with adults, for those who say that they're fighting for children's rights to have sex with adults, I have nothing but contempt for them. You know, I have seen more kids sobbing in front of me, I have had more instances of witnessing an image that haunts me for months. This is the first time in my life that I've needed to go into counseling sponsored by, you know, The Times, where I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I had to stop doing this for three months. You know, my wife periodically will say, you know, are you sure you can keep handling this? I'm not sure. But there is nothing more important in this country, in terms of transforming the social fabric of our nation, than the Internet. And reporters are duty-bound to let readers understand how it is transforming us, both for good and for bad. And if we ignore the bad, then we, I believe, are abdicating any right we have to say that we are journalists.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Kurt. Well, thank you very much.