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February 1, 2004

It's not going away, sorry.

Daniel Radosh

New York Times Public Editor Dan Okrent is apparently reviewing the evidence on Landesman. Today he refers readers to Jack Shafer's Slate columns and notes Gerry Marzorati's defense. I doubt he'll leave it at this, so watch for more from him soon.

I have a lot of respect for Okrent -- he initiated contact with me after my first post, which shows that if anything, he's going about his job a little too conscientiously. I don't for a minute think I have any insights that a dozen other readers hadn't already sent his way. So when he calls Marzorati's defense "comprehensive," I have to think he's being diplomatic. Marorati's a good guy -- he's edited my stuff in the past (on a very small scale) and responded in an exemplary fashion when he learned that Landesman had threatened to sue me (and "destroy" my career and a few other things). So let's be clear that I have no vendetta against the NYT Magazine whatsoever. Still, I found Gerry's defense to be inadequate -- not because it is unpersuasive, but because it is beside the point. His argument basically amounts to, Well, we never said it was all true.

To illustrate what I mean, I'm going to go back to the detail I started with, the slave auction web site. This is an important element in the story for two reasons: it's the single most dramatic thing Landesman witnesses firsthand in the United States, and it's the most newsworthy part of the story. The existence of sex slaves in the US has been well-documented. (Some of my visitors continue to send me articles about police raids, apparently thinking this backs up Landesman. I think it does the opposite. A responsible story on the subject would have been precisely such a roundup of known instances of domestic sex trafficking. Landesman, on the other hand, wrote an exposé that exposes no new cases). But people being sold on the Internet -- in any context -- has never been reported anywhere outside the Weekly World News. If the site is real, that alone is front page news. But Marzorati seems alarmingly incurious about it. Here's his entire comment on the matter:

The web site where the slave appeared to be auctioned: It exists, I know the name of the site, and we decided not to print the name on the grounds of taste and ethics. Was it real? The special Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent thought it looked real. Landesman wrote 'supposedly' Many times throughout the article Landesman carefully hedged his statements with qualifiers, but you seem to understand that the use of qualifiers is not to show care but rather to create vagueness.

What's more, in Marzorati's recasting, he reverses the order of the qualifiers in a way that makes Landesman appear more conservative: the agent thinks it looks real, but Landesman said supposedly. Here's how Landesman wrote it originally:

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at the Cyber Crimes Center in Fairfax, Va., are finding that when it comes to sex, what was once considered abnormal is now the norm. They are tracking a clear spike in the demand for harder-core pornography on the Internet. ''We've become desensitized by the soft stuff; now we need a harder and harder hit,'' says I.C.E. Special Agent Perry Woo. Cybernetworks like KaZaA and Morpheus / through which you can download and trade images and videos -- have become the Mexican border of virtual sexual exploitation. I had heard of one Web site that supposedly offered sex slaves for purchase to individuals. The I.C.E. agents hadn't heard of it. Special Agent Don Daufenbach, I.C.E.'s manager for undercover operations, brought it up on a screen. A hush came over the room as the agents leaned forward, clearly disturbed. ''That sure looks like the real thing,'' Daufenbach said. There were streams of Web pages of thumbnail images of young women of every ethnicity in obvious distress, bound, gagged, contorted. The agents in the room pointed out probable injuries from torture. Cyberauctions for some of the women were in progress; one had exceeded $300,000. ''With new Internet technology,'' Woo said, ''pornography is becoming more pervasive. With Web cams we're seeing more live molestation of children.'' One of I.C.E.'s recent successes, Operation Hamlet, broke up a ring of adults who traded images and videos of themselves forcing sex on their own young children.

Ignore this time the sleight-of-hand (yes, I know I didn't use spell-check last time; enough already) that gets us from "harder-core pornography" to sex slaves to Operation Hamlet. What I want to point out is that in Landesman's chronology, "supposedly" comes only before he's even seen the site; if he's withholding judgment it's because, he strongly implies, he hasn't even looked at it until he gets to ICE. Once he calls it up, doubt fades and we get instead, "this sure looks like the real thing" (He does not say, for instance, "Cyberauctions for some of the women appeared to be in progress.")

If Marzorati says the site exists, I believe him, though I wish he'd said that he'd seen it, not just that he knows its name. Earlier I pointed out the misuse of the word "streams" in this paragraph (Web pages load; audio and video stream). That's a minor point, perhaps, but it doesn't inspire confidence that this section was vetted by someone with the savvy it requires. It's clear (both from his article and his personal communications with me) that Landesman dislikes the Internet (why "cyberauctions" rather than "auctions"?) so it's possible his perception is skewed. Here are just a few questions that a responsible reporter would have raised and answered. I'm not saying there aren't perfectly reasonable answers, but it is unthinkable that the article left them out:

How did Landesman hear of the site? Not, apparently, from the ICE -- from a victim? A user? A web search? (Google "sex slave auction" and you won't find anything authentic.) A message board? Is his source reliable? Is this site connected, other than "in spirit," to the trafficking that he investigates overseas? If not, how did he come upon it? On what basis does Daufenbach say the site looks real? In the story, it appears to be his first impression; does he or anyone else investigate further? Is he saying the auctions look real or just the photos? If the auctions, why does he think that? Is there a mechanism set up for payment and delivery? Do they take credit cards? Pay Pal?? Where and to whom is the site registered? Is it available to anyone or is it password protected and if so, how does one get the password?

I focused on this web site because, as I said, it's important, and also because I know more about the Internet than anything else Landesman discusses, so I know what questions to raise. But there are many, many passages in the article that could be attacked the same way. A few correspondents seem to think that my problem with Landesman's piece is simply, "I've never heard of it and I don't want to believe it so it can't be true." Nonsense. My problem is that in breathlessly spinning an elaborate tale, he is too skimpy with evidence that any reasonable reader has a right to expect.

Oddball update.

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