I remember about a year or so ago, listening to NPR. It was probably This American Life. The story was so compelling that rather than leave my car to head to my destination, I just sat, listening to the story.
It was a story of Mark Whitacre, an executive at ADM (Archer, Daniels, Midland), who became an informant for the FBI. He had told them that ADM was in collusion with the Koreans and Japanese to artificially inflate the cost of lysine, so all colluders could get rich. This was done even though there were farmers that were struggling to pay for the escalating cost of lysine. He was wired up and met with representatives from competitors as he gathered evidence for the FBI for two years, all the while, his coworkers had no idea what was going on, and knowing he might be caught at any time.
Evenually, Whitacre deals a huge blow to the case, when he confesses that he has been embezzling money from ADM, to the tune of ten million dollars. He says all executives do it, and he was expected to do it too, and so he did. This story was written by reporter, Kurt Eichenwald, who has specialized in scandals on Wall Street. This book is scheduled to become a film by director, Steven Sodebergh, who also filmed a somewhat similar political thriller, Traffic.
So it comes as a surprise that I see his name on something so completely different for him, and on a story as harrowing as it comes. Reported in the New York Times, it tells the story of teen, Justin Berry, who, at the age of 13, got a webcam. He posted himself on the web, hoping to meet some girls, and instead, met some guys. Initially offered $50 to take his shirt off, he thought, why not, if someone is crazy enough to give me that much money just to take my shirt off?
Little did he realize that this would lead to a slippery slope. If he'd take his shirt off, what about his pants, and his boxers, and then, maybe do a little show, and then maybe have sex on camera with someone else, and so forth. He realized he could make lots of money on this. So his camera wasn't so good. No problem. Have an Amazon wish list that had the top of the line camera. So, he had only one camera. No problem, have his fans buy him more. But a faster connection.
Didn't his parents know? They just thought Justin liked being on the computer, and that being on the computer wasn't such a bad thing. Besides, Justin didn't exactly get along with his folks, and he had an adoring crowd who wanted to see his every move. As he got older, people paid for trips to visit them, for an apartment that he could go to, so he would be outside his parents watchful eye, and eventually fell into drug use. His own dad left the family, and when word was that he was in Mexico, he joined him there, only to tell his dad how he had so much money, and have his dad help him find prostitutes he could have sex with on his cam to make money.
He continued to do this for years, until he turned 19, until he agreed to talk to Kurt Eichenwald, and tell his story.
You had to feel Eichenwald, as much muck as he had seen in his life, was floored by Justin, floored by the fact that his story was not the only one of a teen convinced by a surrogate family to become a entertainer, about the kind of deceit it took to hide it from his family, and the emotional comfort he took from these strangers who claimed they loved him. Eichenwald must have told Justin that his life was totally messed up, that he was dealing with sleazebags, and it made him truly fearful. If it happened to Justin, it might happen to one of my kids.
I am a father. I can no longer be the objective reporter. I must help this kid out or be condemned to hell for my complete lack of feeling. And so Eichenwald must have proceeded to tell Justin that confession is good for soul, that what he was doing was far from normal, that he was damaged goods, and the only way he could save himself was to rat out those who had manipulated him all his teenage life, to turn over all his records, all his evidence, and to make amends.
There's a story behind this story that I'm sure is eventually going to make it into a book. Maybe not now. Maybe in a year or so. But I think, if it's to be truly honest, Kurt himself must be a character in this book. He must talk about why he chose to do what he did. It reminds me vaguely of the film Priest which is the film of a priest who hears the confession of a teenage girl that is being sexually abused by her father, with her mother oblivious to this fact.
The priest, felt bound by the sanctity of the priest-parishioner confidence, feels he must keep it secret, and yet, it's so horrible, he feels he must tell someone too. The film has a twist too. The priest is gay. He has his own secrets to hide as well.
Except this real-life story is so much more detailed, so much more jaw-dropping, that one can barely fathom it happened. The story concludes with Justin seeking out the church to deal with his problems, but I suspect he's damaged goods. This was a major addiction in his life. I don't think the church will provide him with what he's going to be missing. He got the kind of emotional support that he didn't have from his own family, by people driven more by their libido than by true goodwill. To be fair, they probably believed they loved and cared for him, but they could never have done so without the titillations that Justin offered. More importantly, he was a star. There were people who wanted to follow his every move, and yet, wanted to control his every move. Even so, he had control, or at least, he thought he did. To leave this all behind means to leave the pedestal, and while his name is splashed in a newspaper, the question is whether he can deal with this withdrawal.
The world that Justin inhabited is this brave new world, and it remains to be seen whether this is some anomaly, a result of troubled children, and troubled adults, pushed forward by technology, or whether this technology signals a change in the way people interact. Lest you think that Internet communication is somehow evil, many teens, now entering their twenties use chat all the time. They leave messages about their whereabouts for all their friends to read.
The outreach of an Internet community can have positive effects. I recall a story of someone with an illness who was part of some community, that recommended doctors, and helped pay for bills. People may not know the folks that live next door, but they may learn to meet folks who live all over the world, and relate to them through text and IM, and create virtual communities. Right now, this is a very tiny portion of the population, but will this grow over time. Think of how the telephone transformed the way we communicate. Will the Internet do the same?
But to get to the story at hand. I don't think I've ever seen an attempt to seem so journalistically neutral, and the complete abandoment of this notion when alarms go off in the head of the reporter who clearly didn't expect to be shocked, despite having seen the underbelly of disdainful practices in business.
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