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January 26, 2004

Sex Slave Update

Daniel Radosh

Immediately after posting my rambling remarks about this Sunday's Times Magazine sex slave story, I fired off an e-mail to Slate's Jack Shafer. Shafer is one of the best media-watchers in the business, and I figured he'd be the guy to tell me if I was onto something or not.

Turns out he was already working on his own takedown of Landesman's story, which he's just posted on Slate (For what it's worth, Shafer refrained from reading my post until he'd finished his own). He picks up on some of the things I did and more, such as the fact that "Because Landesman offers so few verifiable facts, he repeatedly pairs fudging adverbs of 'typically,' 'sometimes,' 'most,' 'often,' and 'some' with specific nouns to make his unsourced generalizations appear more real than they are." And Shafer makes note of "other minor annoyances," such as problems of chronology and geography.

So basically my guess right now is that after spending months on this story, Landesman and his editors refused to admit that at best they had something for page A21, so they spun the story they wished they'd gotten instead. Is it true? As Shafer says, you can't disprove it, but you'd do well to doubt it.

Since Shafer advertised my perhaps ill-advised promise to stay on top of this story, I'll do my best, sarting with a look at what Landesman said on NPR today. In the meantime, a Slate reader makes a point that Chris brought up yesterday but that I forgot to include about that Web site: "If human beings are traded by the thousands, even if only by the hundreds, you won't find them being auctioned for $300,000. What is plentiful and easily procured through violence and threats does not command a high price on the open market."

Final (?) Update: Shafer has a follow-up column, perhaps not his last. Since he's on the case, I'm off it. Keep your eye on Slate, and thanks again for all your thoughtful e-mails. Radosh.net now returns to its regularly scheduled program of self-promotion and lame jokes.

OK, one more update: New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati responds to Shafer: "He also seems to have no idea --- or to have forgotten from his old print days -- how difficult it is to report and write about a shadowy, dangerous world, a world that does not lend itself to seamless narratives, numerous on-the-record corroborators, and hard, precise numbers."

No doubt. The question is not whether Landesman did the best he could on a difficult story, but whether, given what he was able to do, were he and the Times wise to splash it on the cover of the magazine, in a presentation that suggested throughout that he had uncovered (and proven) much more than he actually had.

Shafer isn't buying Marzorati's defense. Although he continues to make good points about the nitty gritty of Landesman's article, Shafer also spends more time than I would on parsing the differences between sexual slavery and coerced prostitution, which to me isn't the issue. After all, as he says (and I wholly agree, it should go without saying), no one is denying the reality -- and the real horror -- of sexual trafficking. The only question is whether Landesman's article is the exposé it purports to be.

One way to look at that is to contrast it with a real exposé, this week's Dateline NBC investigation of child sex slaves in Cambodia. Like Landesman's article, it's disturbing stuff. Also like Landesman's article, it cites figures that it admits are necessarily only estimates. But unlike Landesman's article, it only uses those numbers to back up its first-hand reporting, which includes footage of numerous child slaves and people soliciting money for sex with them. Now go read Landesman's article again and imagine that he has a video camera with him the entire time. He'll have some harrowing footage of a brothel in Mexico, but once he gets to the US, virtually all he has is talking heads telling second and third hand stories that raise more questions than they answer. This is why I've said all along that even if every word of his story is true, once you strip away the atmospherics, you'd have little more than a half-page article for the National section.

Some people I actually respect have suggested that because the existence of even ten sex slaves is a far more egregious crime than one bad article (obvs), to criticize the article is in some way to dismiss the slavery. I'd call that a false choice. If anything, the more important the story, the more important it is to get it right. Yes, even to which tower came down first. Landesman's article only illustrates why. A less excitable, but also less sloppy article that raised fewer doubts in peoples' minds (and from my e-mail, there are a lot of us) would have been more effective as advocacy. (Cleis says this more eloquently.) But I can see why S/FJ misread some of what I wrote; it was, after all, pretty poorly written. Just for example, when I said, "the article does raise a few serious (if you care about journalism) questions," I meant the opposite of "Landesman is THREATENING JOURNALISM ITSELF." That parenthetical was supposed to indicate that the problems in the article are not earthshaking and are likely to be of interest only to journalism wonks.

Since 95 percent of my e-mail has been positive, I won't dwell on the other 3 (hey, close enough for blogging). But I have to point out this only because it was such a blast from the past. It's been so long since I was at Oberlin that I forgot people actually talk this way. I'm still not sure it isn't a parody. "To use GRAMMAR MISTAKES to poke holes in the story further perpetuates the rape myth." Just imagine what the spelling mistakes mean! (And wait, isn't "poke holes" a sexually aggressive metaphor? Be careful, they'll take away your membership card).

Oh, who am I kidding? Here's the latest.

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