Bernie Ward may have spent a generation in the news and media biz, but three years ago, it now appears, he was just a messed up guy with a computer and too much time on his hands.
Last December I published a piece here about Ward, a well known progressive talk show host at San Francisco’s radio station KGO. He had just been charged by the feds with possessing and distributing some child pornography images on the Internet. Ward’s lawyers claimed he’d downloaded and sent the pictures because he was working on a book about hypocrisy in America. He started the book in late 2004, after George W. Bush won the presidency on a “morality” platform.
Ward supposedly went online to see if people who acted righteous in public would change their behavior when cloaked in the anonymity and privacy of the Internet. He purportedly didn’t know it’s illegal for practically anyone to handle child porn–including journalists. I was interested in his claims because I think there should be a First Amendment legal exception for legitimate media people who want to investigate the prevalence of child pornography. By the time Ward was charged, two other big-name journalists had gotten in trouble over the years for mucking around with child porn. One, freelancer Larry Matthews, was arrested in the late 1990s for downloading material–and eventually convicted. He had not kept notes of his purported research and had no assignment to write a story. The other, former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, ended up jobless last year, after evidence emerged that he’d paid a teenage source thousands of dollars, become an administrator on a porn site that contained sexual images of a 14 year old, and failed to reveal any of this to his editors. Eichenwald has not been prosecuted, even though everyone else associated with the porn site was. Both Eichenwald and Matthews garnered support from colleagues who assumed their problems came from good intentions, from the desire to do real stories. How would Ward’s identical claim play out?
Last week, television stations in San Francisco obtained chat log transcripts of instant message conversations Ward had with the woman who turned him into the police for sending the child porn, the criminal evidence against him. The woman is an Internet dominatrix. The chat logs show that, whatever Ward was doing with her, it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called “reporting.” Instead, the logs make clear that Ward was spinning intricate bondage and discipline fantasies with the woman. He spent days communicating with her at length about how he wanted to be sexually humiliated. As for the child porn, Ward first sent it unbidden. Only later, after the woman notified police and started secretly cooperating with them to bust Ward, did she ask him for more pictures. He sent them, along with detailed accounts about having sex with his own teenage children.
Apparently, those scenarios didn’t happen in the real world and Ward’s incest tales were fantasy. He has not been arrested for child molestation, and the terms of his bail allow him unrestricted contact with his four kids. (Still! What must it be like now to be Ward’s children, knowing that he talked in sexual terms about them to a stranger on the Internet?)
Inexplicably, from a law enforcement point of view, three years went by before the government pursued an indictment against Ward for the small number of porn images he dealt with. This suggests that politics could be behind the decision to go after him after so much time. Regardless, Ward’s florid, extended, and aggressive communications to the woman who turned him in were not journalism reporting. If they were anything beyond sexual fantasy, they can only be seen as vicious, irrational attempts to “sting” people.
Vicious because it’s one thing for an investigative journalist to hang around a scene like a fly on the wall, taking notes on what goes on and occasionally interjecting a neutral remark. It’s quite another–and completely unethical–to offer money, gifts, or other inducements to change behavior. Especially when the new behavior being sought is horribly immoral, not to mention illegal.
Ward’s claim that he was trying to reveal hypocrisy in his Instant Message correspondent doesn’t wash either. Even if she supported the likes of Dubya, wouldn’t simply exposing her as a dominatrix show her two-facedness? Who needs child porn for that? It makes no sense.
So–book in the works or no book–Ward hasn’t got a journalism leg to stand on. As for the two other media people, Matthews and Eichenwald, we may never know exactly what they were up to, either. They also behaved recklessly when they took up the child porn story.
Meanwhile, conscientious, ethical investigative reporters won’t go near that story with a ten-foot pole. The law makes it too risky. The government makes dramatic, terrifying claims about how widespread child porn is and how it’s connected with the financing of international terrorism. The solution to this crisis, according to cops and politicians, is to censor the Internet and weaken Fourth Amendment protections to allow warrantless searches of homes and computers.
Do we realistically need to entertain these moves? Or are they based on hysteria? No one knows, least of all the media. We won’t find out until the issue of child porn is examined empirically, openly and professionally by competent reporters instead of covertly, by people whose troubles and phantasms get in the way.
DEBBIE NATHAN is a New York City-based journalist who writes about sexual politics and immigration. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org