September 14, 2005

Talk your way out of this one, Peter

Peter Landesman has stepped in it this time. Not content to feud with loser nobodies like me and Jack Shafer (neither of whom, you'll recall, have ever left our parents' basements), PL has now lashed out at investigative journalist Debbie Nathan, who was reporting from the Mexican border when Landesman was still writing Full House novelizations. The new issue of The Nation features an exchange (sub req) between Landesman and Nathan in which Nathan takes it on herself to fact-check a notorious section of Landesman's 2004 New York Times Magazine article and finds that some of his most sensational facts, well, aren't.

But first a little background for Nation readers who found this blog thanks to Nathan's plug. (Unfortunately -- on several levels -- Nathan had a brain fart and ID'd me as Ronald Radosh. That would be my father.) I first raised concerns about Landesman's reporting on sex slavery back in January, 2004. After he flipped out on me with frightening (but in retrospect humorous) venom, I perversely decided my most best course of action would be to continue poking at the story until it cried.

Most recently I blogged about an article Nathan wrote in The Nation which I felt "demolishes many assumptions of Landesman-style journalism." Nathan only mentioned PL in passing, and it should have been pretty clear that my amplification of her work was only my opinion, not hers, but PL wasn't satisfied with just replying to my post (missing the point even of that). Instead, he reworded his comment a little bit and sent it to the Nation as well, apparently confusing Nathan no end until she found this site and figured out what was going on.

One thing she evidently found was the comment thread where PL seethes that if I have doubts about his piece I should re-report it and see if it isn't rock solid ("try putting down your mouse and do some digging"). I didn't, thinking that sounded like way too much work (blogger, remember), but apparently it wasn't. Nathan snapped off a leg of Landesman's rickety table with one simple phone call. Details after the jump.

The section of the article that Nathan zeroed in on is the Raid on the San Luis Rey. It was one of the first bits I questioned too, writing at the time, "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?" Here's Nathan:

One [apocryphal-sounding passage] concerns an outdoor brothel that used to operate in a reed-filled riverbed in San Diego County—and has been widely publicized by Southern California media since late 2001. Landesman visited it a couple of years ago with a sheriff’s deputy, but no one was there. In “The Girls Next Door” he describes the deputy giving him a secondhand account of the place from a tipster: “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 had 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.”

Mass farmworker pedophilia? Communion dresses? It sounds so urban mythic, I wondered why Landesman hadn’t just bypassed the sheriff and contacted the health worker. Poking around Google, I quickly located lots of old news coverage about the camp, including interviews with a very public and talkative Liz Pleitez-Christie. She used to work for the local Planned Parenthood doing AIDS-prevention education for migrants. The sheriff’s deputy told me that yes, she was the tipster. I had no trouble locating her. She said she’d never heard from Landesman.

“A volunteer health worker who also worked in the fields told me about the camp,” Pleitez-Christie recalled. “It went on every Sunday; we attended weekly for months. There were never more than twenty-five or thirty women, and the vast majority looked to be 17 to 50 years old. On one occasion I saw four or five 14- and 15-year-olds. And once, only once, I saw one girl, maybe two, who I thought might be as young as 12 or 13, though I couldn’t be sure.” Did Pleitez-Christie ever see girls in communion dresses? “No! Never.” Did they perhaps have on innocent, little-girl-looking clothes? “They dressed like the others: in Spandex and heavy makeup.”

The sheriff’s deputy never sees these camps up close, says Pleitez-Christie; when law enforcement officials approach, everyone scatters. But, she notes, health workers are trusted by the pimps and prostitutes, and they still regularly visit. Landesman could have gone with them for a firsthand look. He wouldn’t have seen white communion dresses or mobs of middle-school-aged children, but he might have witnessed some actual trafficking, even of a handful of minors. That reality is “upsetting enough,” says Pleitez-Christie.

So instead of 62 underage girls every weekend, there's 25 or 30 adults. Over several months, there may be up to 7 young teenagers. As Pleitz-Christie says, "upsetting enough," unless you're Peter Landesman. But it's not just that the facts are wrong, it's how this section colors the whole tone of the magazine. After the portion Nathan quotes, the sheriff's deputy describes the dozen (non-existent) 11 to 12-year-old girls with "big eyes like terrified deer." That's the kind of fine detail that magazine readers remember. It apparently sprung whole cloth from someone's imagination.

In his various comments on this blog, Landesman has said "There isn't a single point about this story that hasn't been addressed by me, the Times, and others," and that "this story was thoroughly factchecked by the Magazine's factchecking department... In other words, authorities much higher than Daniel Radosh have confirmed not only the information but the activity itself."

While PL has been known to exaggerate the Times' defense of his work, it's true that the editors did say that "In response to questions from readers and other publications about sources and accuracy, the magazine has carried out a thorough review of the article." Public editor Dan Okrent also said he vetted the piece (though he was less than enthusiastic in its defense). But how thorough were these after-the-fact reviews when they didn't even catch something so blatantly wrong that Nathan was able to squash it with one phone call? You'd certainly have to say this calls into question the magazine's entire defense of its writer. What else didn't they find? For all the paper's new openness, it's revealing that even when they are forced to check something, all they'll tell you is, "don't worry, we checked that." Why not make all the results of any vetting public and let readers decide if a more thorough scrubbing is needed.

At the very least, the paper ought to run another correction, right? Its only possible excuse not to would be that Landesman accurately quoted a third-hand source, so it doesn't matter if that source has now been discredited, but that ain't gonna fly with the Romeneskoids, and nor should it.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


it's never nice to have your suspicions about the state of journalism in this country confirmed, but this definitely appears to be indicative of a "the louder they yell, the weaker their case is" syndrome. 3rd hand sourcing is National Enquirer-level stuff. Perhaps PL could get back into covering the Olsen twins for that publication.

Nah. After this, I doubt he'll be allowed to write about any young girls for a while.

P.S. Daniel, I emailed you.


Does this get me off the hook for referring to your father by your name? After all, I don't get paid for my fuck ups. I fuck up because I love.

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