With the weather the way it’s been on the East Coast this winter–and with no pro football on TV for the first Sunday since August–January 25 was a good day to curl up with the weekend’s newspapers. And so, after church, I whiled away the afternoon by the fire, to the pleasant background sounds of my eight-year-old daughter’s games of make-believe.
I saved the New York Times’s Sunday magazine for last, until after the kids’ bedtime, partly out of deference to the disturbing-sounding nature of the cover story: “The Girls Next Door,” which announced the presence of thousands of young sex slaves allegedly imported into the United States each year, and held against their will in makeshift brothels in major American cities.
While reading this lengthy article, the contrast between the horror it described and my own bucolic domestic scene induced a rising sense of guilt. But another disquieting, though unformed, thought rattled around in my head as well–something I didn’t quite grasp until I handed the magazine to my wife and told her, “Read this. If it’s true, it’s shocking.”
If it’s true. That was my misgiving–indistinct, nagging doubts about the veracity of the thing. Nothing to do with Jayson Blair, or the Times’s dependable liberal bias: just the old police reporter in me wondering about the sourcing. Where were the big busts? The confessions? The photographs? (The Times’s pictures were taken in Mexico, not the United States.) If johns know to go to these places, why can’t the cops find them? And if this outrage is so prevalent, why were only a couple of girls quoted? One of them, who said she was sold by her mother to traffickers when she was four, seemed particularly sketchy. This woman provided the obligatory anecdote about the john who recited bible verses before committing child rape. An appalling crime–or a hoary cliché. But depraved things do happen in this world, and I certainly had no reason to doubt the motives or competence of the journalist who produced the piece.
His name is Peter Landesman, a young man who first earned attention as a writer with a novel (nothing wrong with that), and whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine previously, and in other outlets, including The Atlantic Monthly. I’ve never met Landesman, but his articles are the kind that one tends to remember. At the height of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, he interviewed a man who’d been shot and wounded by Serb killers, surviving only because another man who was shot fell on top of him. Landesman also authored a memorable piece for the New York Times about the Rwandan official who was one of the architects of that nation’s genocide–a woman. And it was Landesman who wrote a frightening piece from Pakistan on a high-ranking Pakistani official who spoke casually–and wistfully–about the possibility of nuclear war with India. If anything was wrong with any of these stories, no one raised any objections. I myself have written for The Atlantic Monthly and its rigorous fact-checking process shouldn’t be undertaken with a faint heart.
Yet these are cynical times we live in, times in which anyone with a computer and enough know-how to set up a weblog can give voice to his skepticisms. It turned out that a blogger named Daniel Radosh had them about Landesman’s exposé, and communicated them to his audience. In the process, Radosh found a sympathetic ear in influential online media critic Jack Shafer, of Slate.
“I can’t disprove the claim made in the article’s subhead that sex slavers hold ‘perhaps tens of thousands’ of women, girls, and boys against their will in the United States, but I seriously doubt its veracity,” Shafer wrote the next day. “Landesman’s breathless performance, in which he asserts that ‘hundreds’ of ’stash houses’ inhabited by foreign sex slaves dot America’s metropolitan landscape, offers almost nothing in the way of verifiable facts about the incidence and prevalence of this heinous practice. Landesman’s supporting evidence is vague. Where it is not vague, it is anecdotal. Where it is anecdotal, it is often anonymous, too. And where it is not anecdotal or vague it is suspicious and slippery…”
Thus did Shafer launch a first-class e-spat over the probity of a New York Times story. Before the week was out, Slate posted three more Shafer columns on the subject, as well as a rebuttal by Landesman’s editor, Gerald Marzorati. In the process of this back-and-forth a few minor mistakes and one significant omission were discovered in Landesman’s narrative. One of the factual errors was that one of the former sex slaves he interviewed–pictured on the cover–said she’d been taken in the late 1990s to a movie theater in an Oregon shopping mall and shown a film, Scary Movie 2, that wasn’t released until 2001. Another is that the woman known in the narrative as Andrea recalled being taken to a hotel in Mexico that had not yet opened at that time. More troubling was the revelation that “Andrea,” the sex slave who invoked the bible-toting child molester, has long been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. This condition is often associated with the trauma of child rape, but also with the telling of tall tales. Landesman revealed her mental illness neither to his readers nor to his editors; it only came out in a subsequent radio interview he gave.
Of course, the broader contention is not that Times was taken in by an unreliable woman, but by its naiveté. Blogger Radosh accuses the paper of having a prudish and unsophisticated grasp of the Internet, and suggests to his followers that the paper separate all the language about child porn and fetishistic behavior from the issue of slavery. The gist of Radosh’s criticism–and Shafer’s–came in his initial posting:
[A]fter following this story for months, and pointing out that sex slave rings have to operate somewhat in the open to attract customers, Landesman never witnesses any slavery first-hand. Sure he “visited a number of addresses where trafficked girls and young women have reportedly ended up,” but always after the alleged rings were broken up…
That’s what ultimately makes this so hinky for me. If a trained investigative reporter can’t get closer than one, two, or three steps removed from these alleged sex slaves, how are the johns finding them?
For his part, Landesman reacted furiously to having the veracity of his story questioned. That is understandable, especially since Radosh prefaced his blog entry by comparing Landesman to Stephen Glass. Landesman gave voice to his displeasure by threatening in a phone call and an e-mail not only to sue Radosh, but to bring about some other, unspecific mayhem (neither side will reveal exactly what was said). A phone call from Landesman was also made to Shafer’s home. He was not there; no message was left.
In the old days, before the recent unpleasantness involving the fallout over the Jayson Blair affair, this might have been the end of it. It’s likely that only the most Internet-savvy readers would even have even known there was a controversy. But the Times, they are a-changin’. These days such matters come to the attention of Daniel Okrent, the first-ever Times ombudsman, the man hired to restore the paper’s credibility. Okrent has a contract ensuring independence, a weekly megaphone in the Sunday paper, and–most important–all the impulses of a truly “public editor” (his actual title). In other words, he likes to air things out in public. And when Okrent started nosing around in this little row, the first thing to come of it was a forced apology from Landesman. Landesman’s editor, Gerald Marzorati, was also made to apologize, and wrote Shafer:
I edit reporting and writing, alas, not the behavior of reporters and writers. Peter, in a fury–and before I ever knew of Daniel Radosh’s blog posting–fired off an angry e-mail and placed an angry phone call. He was clearly upset about the Glass reference–it is a kind of blood libel in the business we do–and he was clearly out of line. When I found out about it yesterday, I e-mailed an apology to Radosh, and Landesman, I believe, has apologized to him, too. If you too felt or feel threatened, that apology extends to you, sincerely…
For the reason cited by Marzorati, Radosh probably owed Landesman an apology as well. The worst Landesman may have done–and this is unproven–is to hype a grave social issue. That’s a far cry from inventing characters and quotes on a serial basis, which Radosh sheepishly acknowledged while explaining to his audience that he had removed the Glass comparison from his site.
But the most important development may have been when Okrent, in his Super Bowl Sunday column, nonchalantly steered readers of the New York Times to the flap, even citing the web addresses so people could read Shafer’s columns. What this meant was that readers could decide for themselves whom to believe. I would argue that if this reaction is reflective of a new attitude at the Times–that if the paper’s institutional haughtiness and sense of its own omniscience are really in decline–then the entire Jayson Blair episode might have been worth it. I myself find the substance of Landesman’s story credible. Even if he was a bit gullible, or the attribution could have been stronger, the horror of sexual slavery is real, and a writer ought to be applauded for trying to expose it. No less a personage in American public life than George W. Bush would agree with that assessment. It was Bush who told the United Nations last year that sex tourism involving children “has appeared in my own country and we are working hard to stop it.” And no less a figure in American law enforcement than Attorney General John Ashcroft wrote the Times’s Sunday magazine a long letter lauding Landesman’s efforts.
A week earlier, The New York Times Magazine ran a spate of letters to the editor supportive of the paper, and expressing horror at the notion of sexual slavery. It’s tempting to make sport of the co-eds from Harvard who said they stayed up all night wondering how they can take time from their studies, their eco-activism, and pro-abortion advocacy to get involved in this fight. But there’s a less cynical way to respond, and that’s to say God bless them for their empathic hearts. And bless the Times editors on 43rd Street, too, for taking this issue on. And bless, most especially, Daniel Okrent, for tying to keep the place honest.
–Carl M. Cannon, White House correspondent for National Journal, is author of The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War.