Trade, the film based on The Girls Next Door, Peter Landesman's 2004 New York Times magazine article about sex slaves, opens tomorrow. The L.A. Times has a story today about the controversy over Landesman's article, which, you may recall, I was somewhat involved in stirring up.
There are a few interesting new developments in the LAT piece, but first here's some background for new readers:
In his first article on The Girls Next Door, Slate's Jack Shafer wrote, "Landesman's supporting evidence is vague. Where it is not vague, it is anecdotal. Where it is anecdotal, it is often anonymous, too. And where it is not anecdotal or vague it is suspicious and slippery." Complaints about the piece, mostly, but not exclusively, from Shafer and myself, eventually led the New York Times to publish an editor's note (scroll down) about the article, and prompted the paper's ombudsman, Dan Okrent, to investigate as well.
My response to Okrent's column outlines most of the complaints and questions that still linger over Landesman's work, and is probably a good place to dive in. My initial post about the article is less coherent, but does explain why the article raised red flags for me in the first place. My specific concerns about the Internet auctions section of Landesman's article can be found here, along with the explanation of why, when the New York Times editors say the story was thoroughly checked, they don't necessarily mean that it's true. Finally, the LAT mentions the outdoor brothel at San Luis Rey. What it does not mention is that investigative reporter Debbie Nathan re-reported this section of Landesman's article for The Nation and found it wildly and irresponsibly exaggerated.
Now, here's what today's LAT article adds to this story. The most important piece of new information is about those notorious "cyberauctions." Specifically that "a spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Washington, D.C., which plays a key role in child pornography investigations, said he was not aware of any Internet auctions to purchase such victims."
The cyberauction section of Landesman's article takes place entirely at I.C.E. headquarters. It is I.C.E. agents who "verify" the auction site that Landesman found. When I posted my skepticism about this section, Landesman responded, "The website was examined by the Federal government's Cybercrimes unit, as I reported in the story, deemed authentic and criminal, and was subsequently investigated. Furthermore, this story was thoroughly factchecked by the Magazine's factchecking department; that includes this website. In other words, authorities much higher than Daniel Radosh have confirmed not only the information but the activity itself. If you really do doubt the existence of this website, or ones like it, you, like Shafer, need to get out more."
In other words, either the spokesman for the I.C.E. is unaware of the site that his own agency "deemed authentic," or Peter Landesman is a liar. (Note again that the Times never confirmed "the activity itself," only that PL passed muster because in his original article he "carefully hedged his statements with qualifiers.")
In the LAT, Landesman explains that while the film "strays for dramatic purposes," such auction sites do really exist, though the girls are overseas, not in the U.S. In other words, whatever web sites he allegedly found that form the basis for this section of the movie, they are not the same one he wrote about in his article and have never been verified by anyone. Unfortunately, that's a distinction that few people are likely to understand or appreciate. In the Boston Herald on Tuesday, Stephen Shaefer wrote that Trade "is based on a New York Times story three years ago that described a ring of sex traffickers who lured young women to Mexico, then transported them to New Jersey and sold them in online auctions."
The LAT story also relates Jack Shafer's skepticism about the numbers of sex slaves in the US. Shafer's findings are here, and they demolish the argument from the film's producer that the numbers are accurate because "they are very official." As for Landesman's reply that "This story is not about numbers... The issue of numbers was exactly two sentences in an 8,500-word piece," that's the same response he had to Shafer two years ago. Here's what Shafer said at the time:
If Landesman's story was not about numbers, why is the coverline for the article, "For tens of thousands of women and girls forced into prostitution around the world, the hell they're living is in the cities and towns of America"? If his story was not about numbers, why was the inside subhead for the article, "The sex-trafficking trade may begin in Eastern Europe and wend its way through Mexico, but it lands in the suburbs and cities of America, where perhaps tens of thousands are held captive and pimped out for forced sex"? I know writers aren't responsible for headlines, coverlines, and subheads. Editors write them. But if the article wasn't about the numbers, what made the editors think so when they prepared the piece for publication?
Related: The review of Trade in Sillicon Valley newspaper Metroactive begins, "There are more than 300 million sex slaves in the United States, and this number is all the more alarming because I just made it up."