Journalistic Research or Child Pornography?

By Shepard, Alicia C. | American Journalism Review, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Journalistic Research or Child Pornography?


Shepard, Alicia C., American Journalism Review


Journalist Lawrence C. Matthews was at his home computer in Silver Spring, Maryland, at 1:13 a.m. September 19, 1996, when he sent an image over the Internet of a 7- or 8-year-old naked girl involved in a lewd sexual act. Unbeknownst to Matthews, the recipient, "Blonde 1024," was a federal law enforcement officer.

It was one of more than 150 images of underage children having sex that Matthews, 55, sent and received between July and December 1996, according to FBI agents. He could often be found in a chat room called "Preteen," where child pornography is frequently traded, according to court records.

"While in the chat rooms, Matthews would use screen names such as Mr. Mature, Dd4SubFem and LCMinMD," records say. "Once in the chat room, Matthews would ask that other members in the chat room send him, via computer, graphic files containing visual depictions of child pornography." Other times, agents say, he had sexually explicit computer conversations with individuals pretending to be 13- or 14-year-old girls.

On December 11, 1996, armed FBI agents searched Matthews' house, confiscated three computers, a scanner, disks and a printer, and later retrieved pornographic pictures from his hard drive. Last July, Matthews entered a conditional guilty plea to two counts of trafficking in child porn. In March, Matthews, who now works as a temporary producer for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison and fined $4,000.

The fact that the respected 30-year veteran radio journalist sent and received kiddie porn is not in dispute. But his motivation in doing so is.

Matthews, who is appealing his sentence, says he was working on a freelance article about child pornography on the Internet. He had done a similar stow in 1995 while working for WTOP-AM radio in Washington, D.C., and after leaving the station, says he wanted to update the story for a freelance piece. Although he says he'd talked to editors about selling the stow, he had no contract, which is not unusual for a freelancer. His involvement with child pornography was strictly for research, he says.

"I am not a pedophile, and there's not any evidence to indicate I ever had any personal interest in this in the past," says Matthews, the father of four. "I had done the stow before for WTOP, and I wanted to see what else is under this rock. Is it simply people trading pictures or is it evidence of something more sinister?"

Matthews says he found that the FBI couldn't seem to do much to stop child pornography on the Internet, and in fact, he contacted the FBI several times when he became concerned about some of what he saw.

But U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr. saw the journalist's actions differently. Last June, he refused to let Matthews use the First Amendment as a defense (see The Press and the Law, page 86). Federal law makes it illegal for anyone to possess or distribute child pornography, with the exception of law enforcement officials.

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