I've just sent the following message to Dan Okrent.
Thank you for taking me seriously.
I swear I was going to write that even before reading the interview in OJR! I just needed a few days to get my thoughts together is all. Honestly, I do appreciate the time and effort you put into investigating Peter Landesman's article, and the obvious thoughtfulness that led you to your conclusions.
I hope you don't mind, therefore, if I ask a few followup questions. If you can continue to address the issues raised by this article, perhaps on your web journal, you'll be doing a continued service to Times readers.
To begin with, I accept your central contention that in magazine journalism, it is permissible for a writer to adopt a point of view and use the facts he's gathered to marshal an argument for it, and that it is not essential to bring in every possible counter-argument as long as all have been fairly considered during the research phase. I'm also glad you recognized that there are limits to how far you can take this. As you put it, "If your material is strong enough - and I believe Landesman's was - you don't need to" pile on material that is more dubious.
What I'm not clear on is why you believe Landesman's material was strong enough. I've attached a Word document of the article with all the elements that you argue should not have been included struck out (while leaving in, for now, other elements that I'm still not sure about). It amounts to a vivid description of a brothel in Mexico, a recap of fairly well-known practices of luring women into sex trafficking in Europe, and accounts of sex slave rings in the US apparently taken from, or re-reported from, the AP and other sources. Please take a look and tell me, would THIS article have made the cover of the magazine? Would it have been published at all? How much interest would it have generated if it had? Would anyone have bought the film rights? Tellingly, at least half of Landesman's interview on Fresh Air was dedicated to stuff that you believe was not necessary for the article.
In your conclusion, you write, "Do you tear Landesman apart because you don't believe his sources, or because you can't locate an audit trail to some of his assertions? Or do you accept the hideous realities he describes and emerge convinced that sex slavery is a genuine problem?" But that's a false choice. No one doubts sex slavery is a genuine problem. The question is, Is it the problem Landesman describes, both in quantity (30,000-50,000) and kind (toddlers locked in suburban basements with some separated into groups that can be beaten or killed with impunity)? Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be saying that given the importance of sex slavery, better this story than none. That's an odd place to come down.
The above parenthetical about the kind of sex slavery Landesman describes is, of course, drawn from Andrea's interview. In your column, you write that Landesman didn't need to include her but that since he did, he should have acknowledged some potential problems with her trustworthiness (you might have noted, in addition to the issue of multiple personality disorder, that Andrea was unable to give the interview without frequent breaks to cut herself). As you put it, "The question is not whether Landesman believes Andrea - what matters is whether he can persuade the rest of the world to believe her."
That's A question, certainly, (and one I raised earlier) but there's also the more important question of SHOULD Landesman believe Andrea. Since you've had the benefit that we have not, of reading the transcript of her interview (perhaps it can be posted online, unedited?), can you explain briefly why you feel "it is impossible not to believe it in its outlines and in much of its detail"? As you know, there is conclusive evidence that people, especially if they've been traumatized, can have false memories that they believe with utter certainty and can relate convincingly. Given that at least one fact Andrea related turned out to be wrong, it seems impossible NOT to wonder how much else might be. What other details of Andrea's story were checked before the editor's note was written? Did they all check out?
In your column you put a good deal of weight on the fact that "In the weeks after Landesman's article went to press," various news articles have appeared confirming that sex slavery does exist in the US and Mexico, including in places Landesman wrote about. But it's also notable that in all the reports I've seen of sex slavery (and I've now seen quite a few) not one has even remotely hinted at what Andrea describes. In no case that I've seen, for example, were victims younger than 12. That's horrible, of course, but Andrea's story involves girls as young as four, kept specifically for pedophiles. Have you seen any accounts other than Andrea's of pre-adolescent sex slaves (being trafficked and prostituted, I mean, not being kept by some individual sicko)? Or of anything like the "damage group"? If not, does that concern you at all?
Landesman got a lot of mileage, both in the article and in his publicity for it, out of Andrea's description of the damage group and her contention that, "The white kids you could beat but you couldn't mark. But with Mexican kids you could do whatever you wanted," and, in his paraphrase, "Mexican children, especially, were so disposable that it was possible to kill them and actually it not being that big a deal; they'd probably have to pay a little bit more money." I admit that this so perfectly taps into my liberal sensibilities (and perhaps that of most Times readers) that I didn't even realize until recently how little it makes sense. Why, exactly, should Mexican children be more disposable than white American ones? Andrea herself has been free for years but still doesn't know who she was or where she came from. Not to be callous, but surely that means she could have been beaten and killed and no one would have noticed, doesn't it? Why should traffickers feel comfortable forcing anal sex on white girls, but not giving them black eyes? On the flip side, if Mexican girls are killed (which Kevin Bales says is a likely scenario after two to four years) are their bodies easier to hide than those of white girls? Are they dumped in Mexico where no one is looking (and if so, can't the same be done with white girls)? Or are US police less likely to investigate when their bodies are found just because they are Mexican? That's a hell of an insinuation to make against police officers. Is there any evidence for it -- hundreds or thousands of unsolved murders of Mexican girls in the US?
Finally, there were a few concerns about the piece that I and others had that you did not address in your column. I understand that you have limited space, and that your concern is partly with putting forth a coherent philosophy of journalistic practice, so perhaps you didn't want to go off on tangents in print, but again, maybe you could use your web journal to address some of the following (or at least explain why you think it's not necessary to):
-- The authenticity of the slave auction web site
-- The concerns about third-hand reporting of the San Luis Rey ring
-- The question of why Landesman was able to get a first-hand look at sex trafficking in Mexico but not at all in the United States
-- The disparity between Landesman's assertion that "Most of the girls on Santo Tomas would have sex with 20 to 30 men a day" and the testimony of Teresa Gomez de Leon, of the Mexico City Human Rights Commission that girls on Santo Tomas "sometimes they have up to 10 sexual relations a day." (This may sound like quibbling, but not if it fits a pattern of --yes, I'm going to use the word-- hyping in Landesman's work).
Thank you again for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.
Update: The Lincon Plawg makes similar points, more aggressively.
Okrent replies: I'm afraid I have to disappoint you. It's not that I think your questions are unfair, nor is it because I'm unable to answer them (although, to be accurate as possible, I am unable to answer a few of them). But I've had my say, and have to move on to other things.
What I will say, on the record, is that the conclusions I drew were based on my examination of a great deal of Landesman's source material (including interview transcripts), a little on-the-ground legwork, and about a dozen interviews I conducted -- some with people who were Landesman sources, some with people familiar with his subject who were skeptical of his piece, and two with law enforcement authorities Landesman had never spoken to.
"Move on to other things"? OK, I can take a hint. What can I say other than that, yep, I am indeed disappointed. It was fun while it lasted, though. See you at the movies.