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March 1, 2004

In the end, public editor

Daniel Radosh

In the end, public editor Dan Okrent's criticism of Peter Landesman and the Times Magazine is fairly mild, especially considering that he more or less agrees with my central contention (and, apparently, that of numerous New York Times reporters): that the article vastly oversells its facts. I'll have more to say soon (you're shocked, I know) about issues I think Okrent lets slide, but meanwhile, here's his main point, which raises as many questions as it answers.

"The barely more refined number - 30,000-50,000 - in the piece itself, put forward by the president of America's largest anti-slavery organization, is an example of the article's rhetorical problems. If your material is strong enough - and I believe Landesman's was - you don't need to underscore, capitalize or quantify, especially when there is really no way of coming up with a number accurate enough to be meaningful. If your material is strong enough, you don't need to cite prosecutions that may have involved smuggling women for voluntary or temporary prostitution, but not for what you'd call slavery. You don't need to bring in tangential references to other forms of sexual horror that have nothing to do with slavery. You don't need to rely on the testimony of a pseudonymous young woman, 'Andrea,' for the most dramatic, detailed and harrowing description in the entire piece."

All points I've made on this site, but Okrent fails to explain what makes Landesman's material "strong enough" without these elements? Black out every part of the original story that stems from one of the above not-needed sources, and you're left with virtually nothing outside of the visit to the Mexico brothel and a few recycled AP reports. Would the Times have even print the story Okrent thinks would have been better? Would you have read it?

After analyzing all the ways Landesman's piece falls short, Okrent sums up by saying, "So 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? I do the latter - I just wish he and his editors had been more circumspect in making the case."

But that's a false choice. No one is saying sex slavery isn't a genuine problem. The question is, is it the problem Landesman described, 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 impugnity)? Okrent seems to be saying that given the importance of sex slavery, better this story than none. That's an odd place to come down, and I hope he'll take advantage of the unlimited space on his web journal to explain himself further.

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