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February 15, 2004

With the New York Times'

Daniel Radosh

With the New York Times' "nothing to see here, move along" approach failing, the paper attempts to put the Landesman controversy to rest today with a lengthy editors' note. You'll be shocked to hear that I'd like to poke that baby awake again.

With ombudsman Dan Okrent affirming again that he's continuing to investigate (in the midst of an entertaining Q&A about his first 11 weeks on the job), my hunch is that he's been asking enough questions that the Times now feels the need to at least attempt to come up with answers -- and that this editors' note is not so much a "response to questions from readers and other publications" as it is a preemptive response to Okrent.

The note does not even attempt to address what I have always said is the article's biggest problem -- that it oversells a meager amount of evidence. But it also falls a bit short on some matters it does address. Here are a few sections worth a second look:

Some readers have questioned the figure of 10,000 enforced prostitutes brought into this country each year.

No, actually, we've questioned the figure of 10,000 sex slaves. "The distinction is important," Landesman writes, "These girls weren't working for profit or a paycheck. They were captives to the traffickers and keepers who controlled their every move." Of course any coerced sex work is abhorrent, but let's hope this is an honest slip-up and not the first step toward "sex slave-related program activities."

The source of that number is Kevin Bales, recommended to the magazine by Human Rights Watch as the best authority on the extent of enforced prostitution in the United States, who based his estimates on State Department documents, arrest and prosecution records and information from nearly 50 social service agencies.

Does it sound to anyone else like the Times is trying to pass the buck to Human Rights Watch -- perhaps because the editors failed to vet Bales themselves? Maybe they're embarrassed at not discovering what Jack Shafer did: "Searching Nexis and Google, I found no mention by Bales about this vigorous trade. Nor does he mention anywhere in [his book] about swarms of sex slaves arriving in the United States. He tells Landesman that between 30,000 and 50,000 sex slaves are in captivity in the United States at any time, but I can't find an earlier instance of Bales making that allegation. Did he just discover the peril?" It is valuable to know that Bales did not just pull the numbers out of thin air -- as readers could be forgiven for thinking based on the article. Still, shouldn't Landesman and the Times have asked to see Bales' primary sources, rather than depending on his interpretation of them?

The editors' note then goes on to retract a couple of factual errors and clarify one instance in which an overdramatic Landesman uses present tense to describe a trafficking operation that was shut down three years ago. Then it gets to Andrea:

The woman in her 20's known to her traffickers as Andrea recalled an incorrect name for the hotel to which she was taken in Juarez, Mexico. The Radisson Casa Grande had not yet opened when she escaped from her captors.

I haven't mentioned the Radisson detail before, but as it happens, Tracy Quan -- who has written me several very sharp and frequently funny e-mails questioning Landesman's article from a former call girl's point of view -- brought it up as part of a broader problem that the Times still has not addressed: "I also wondered why so many basic problems were not discussed. For example, did Andrea ever learn to read? (She was kidnapped at 4, according to the story.) I'm assuming that these captors would not be investing in the children's education. Her ability to read would surely have a lot to do with her ability to know where she was at any given time. Would her captors really be inclined to tell her she was going to the Radisson Hotel when she was about 7 years old? Why did they tell her where she was at all?"

Back to the note. After the article was published, the writer made an impromptu comment in a radio interview, noting that Andrea has multiple-personality disorder. The magazine editors did not learn of her illness before publication.

They must have been plenty pissed at Landesman about that.

Her therapist says that her illness has no effect on the accuracy of her memory... An independent expert... affirms that a diagnosis of multiple-personality disorder is not inconsistent with accurate memories of childhood abuse. Because multiple-personality disorder has been associated with false memory, however, the diagnosis should have been cited in the article.

Not inconsistent with...? Considering that they've just had to admit that the one fact they checked about Andrea's story turned out to be wrong, that's hardly the sort of decisive judgment you'd hope for. I'd propose fact-checking Andrea's entire story, but the whole point is that it can't be.

The magazine's cover showed a 19-year-old nicknamed Montserrat, who escaped from a trafficker four years ago. An insignia on her school uniform had been retouched out of the picture to shield her whereabouts. The change violated The Times's policy against altering photographs.

Uh oh. Landesman's wife took that photo, and as Shafer hinted (based on Landesman's rabid emails to me) nothing sets Landesman off like someone "malign[ing the] honor and credibility" of his (pregnant) wife. I'm just glad I'm not the one who discovered that little detail.

Hmm, do people still wear school uniforms at 19-years-old? Well, I'm sure no one asked Montserrat to don her old outfit to make herself look younger for the picture. That would also be a violation of Times policy. Not to mention gross.

Update: Times Magazine photo editor Kathy Ryan writes: "Your posting seems to suggest that Kimberlee Acquaro may have been responsible for altering the photograph that ran on the cover with Peter Landesman's sex slaves piece. This is incorrect. The decision to remove Montserrat's school insignia to shield her whereabouts was made by the editors of the magazine, and the alteration was made at the magazine. Montserrat is indeed in school, making up for the years she lost, and was dressed for school that day."

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