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January 25, 2004

Less Inflamatory Headline Here

Daniel Radosh

[Update, May 4, 2004: Between January and April, I posted 17 items about the New York Times Magazine article The Girls Next Door. Some of my archive links got corrupted when I moved this site off Blogspot, but you can use this page of search results as an index to the entire saga. Start from the bottom.]

[Note: The original heading for this post was "More Glass Shattering?" because, as you'll see, that's the question that was originally posed to me. I thought it was clear that I very quickly answered that specific question negatively. Obviously it wasn't, however, because a number of people have chastised me for comparing Peter Landesman with Stephen Glass. To the extent that my headline did briefly raise such a comparison in people's minds, I regret that. For this reason, I've changed it. Whatever problems Landesman's article has, I don't think any of it was fabricated and I shouldn't have implied such a thing.]

Chris Tennant just e-mailed me about Peter Landesman's cover story in today's New York Times magazine: "I smell a rat. Suburban basements filled with rentable toddlers? Wouldn't at least one of these places have been busted by now? [Update: The article does open with an account of one place that was busted, but Chris's concerns are still valid; it would help if there was more information from court or police records about that bust in this article] The most glaring "too-good-to-be-true" Glass-ian touch was the following, about some web site that features 'live auctions' of sex slaves. I spend about 15-hours a day online and have never heard of such a thing. Am I being naive to the true depravity of my fellow man? Or is Landesman completely full of shit?"

Here's the passage Chris is referring to: "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."

A few things are setting off alarm bells for me here. First, there's the whole Internet=scary trope, which is so 1997. Hell, his improper use of the word "streams" tells you he's not comfortable with the technology. And then the conflation of ordinary kiddie porn (bad enough) with this slave trade thing just seems like slight-of-hand. Like if you've vaguely heard of Operation Hamlet, you're going to think, Well that was real, so the rest of it must be too.

I'm not ready to accuse a respected journalist of anything just yet. But Chris and I are going over this article with a fine-tooth comb. You should too, and post your findings on your own blog (let me know if you do) or send me your tips for this one.... Small update: Lots of people are sending me lots of interesting e-mails, both echoing my concerns and challenging them. I hope soon to post many of them, but for now I have to take a bit of a break.

Third update: After writing the first and second updates (below) I've decided that we were too quick to invoke Stephen Glass. This doesn't appear to be a fraud or a problem of such proportion. However, the article does raise a few serious (if you care about journalism) questions:

1) Did Landesman exaggerate the scope of a real but small problem? Are his most serious charges supported by his evidence?

2) Should he have been more skeptical of outlandish stories told to him by dubious sources? What attempts did he make to verify these stories?

3) Is the story tainted by misunderstanding and fear of the Internet? (The site mentioned above is the most horrifying and unlikely thing that Landesman witnesses first-hand. If it exists at all, is it genuine (not just a fairly common fetish fantasy site)? Did he make any attempts to track down its origin? Did his editors confirm its authenticity?)

First update: The article seems to be, at best, a mountain of circumstantial evidence. Try this when you read it:

1) Separate out all the stuff about something other than sex-slave rings in the United Staes -- international trafficking, prostitution, child pornography. There's a lot of sordid material that lends ambience to the story without actually backing up the main claim, that there are up to 50,000 sex slaves in captivity in the US. Frequently, gears are shifted without warning. Typical example that caught my eye because it's so familiar: "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." How many tech-unsavvy NYT readers don't know that that's a complete non-sequitor?

2) Pay attention to the instances in which a moderated quote from a government source is paired with an extreme one from someone at Free the Slaves or another advocacy group, as if the former is bolstering the latter.

3) Notice that the most salacious charges (and make no mistake, from the cover photo on, this is a disturbingly prurient article) come entirely single-sourced by anonymous young women. At one point Landesman writes, "All the girls I spoke to said that their captors were both psychologically and physically abusive," implying that there are many. But throughout the article he identifies only two ("Andrea" and "Montserrat") and never mentions speaking to any others on background. Considering that much of their stories are so literally fantastic (girls being dressed in color-coded outfits for open trade at Disneyland; Johns who read the Bible to girls before raping them) you'd think he, or the editors, would want some confirmation.

4) Notice finally that after following this story for months, and pointing out that sex slave rings have to operate somewhat in the open to attract customers, Landesman never witnesses any slavery first-hand. Sure he "visited a number of addresses where trafficked girls and young women have reportedly ended up," but always after the alleged rings were broken up. Then there's this graf, in which I've emphasized some suspicious wording:

A neat subdivision and cycling path ran along the opposite bank. The San Luis Rey was mostly dry, filled now with an impenetrable jungle of 15-foot-high bamboolike reeds. As [San Diego sheriff's deputy Rick] Castro and I started down a well-worn path into the thicket, he told me about the time he first heard about this place, in October 2001. A local health care worker had heard rumors about Mexican immigrants using the reeds for sex and came down to offer condoms and advice. She found more than 400 men and 50 young women between 12 and 15 dressed in tight clothing and high heels. There was a separate group of a dozen girls no more than 11 or 12 wearing white communion dresses. ''The girls huddled in a circle for protection,'' Castro told me, ''and had big eyes like terrified deer.''

I followed Castro into the riverbed, and only 50 yards from the road we found a confounding warren of more than 30 roomlike caves carved into the reeds. It was a sunny morning, but the light in there was refracted, dreary and basementlike. The ground in each was a squalid nest of mud, tamped leaves, condom wrappers, clumps of toilet paper and magazines. Soiled underwear was strewn here and there, plastic garbage bags jury-rigged through the reeds in lieu of walls. One of the caves' inhabitants had hung old CD's on the tips of branches, like Christmas ornaments. It looked vaguely like a recent massacre site. It was 8 in the morning, but the girls could begin arriving any minute. Castro told me how it works: the girls are dropped off at the ballfield, then herded through a drainage sluice under the road into the riverbed. Vans shuttle the men from a 7-Eleven a mile away. The girls are forced to turn 15 tricks in five hours in the mud. The johns pay $15 and get 10 minutes.

That's very dramatic, but note his sourcing: a cop who heard it from a social worker. Landesman says the deputy "told me how it works," but what he really means is the deputy told me how the social worker told him how it works. Couldn't Landesman even talk to the social worker to get it second-hand rather than third-hand? Even better, couldn't he wait a few minutes (or days, if necessary) to see if the girls actually did show up and get the story first-hand? That's what ultimately makes this so hinky for me: if a trained investigative reporter can't get closer than one, two, or three steps removed from these alleged sex slaves, how are the johns finding them?

Second update: Landesman on CNN. "And let me throw you one more address that I couldn't get into the story for legal reasons. But try the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the East 80s, a brownstone nine blocks from where my parents live, actually."

Click for Fourth update.

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