The Times Magazine strikes back.

The Times Magazine strikes back.

The Times Magazine strikes back.

Media criticism.
Jan. 28 2004 8:00 PM

The Times Magazine Strikes Back

Editor Gerald Marzorati defends his sex-slave cover story, "The Girls Next Door."

Click  here for links to all of Slate's pieces about Landesman's sex-slave article, New York Times Magazine Editor Gerald Marzorati's defense of the article, and Daniel Radosh's blog entry.

On the long shot that you doubt that traffickers smuggle women into the United States for the purpose of prostitution, see today's press release from the Department of Justice. The release announces the 11-count indictment of three Mexican brothers who allegedly promised Mexican women jobs and marriage partners in the Atlanta area only to physically force them into prostitution when they arrived here, and then keep all the proceeds.

It sounds like sex slavery to me.

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From the beginning of my running critique (Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here) of Peter Landesman's New York TimesMagazine cover story, "The Girls Next Door" (Jan. 25), I've consistently conceded that yes, foreign women are brought into this country under false pretenses and forced into lives of prostitution. My problem with Landesman's feature is its hysterical inflation of a small number of proven sex-slave cases into a nationwide criminal subindustry, in which "tens of thousands" of women and children have been abducted, purchased, or conned by human traffickers and forced into prostitution on Main Street U.S.A. Despite those alarmist claims, Landesman's 8,500-word piece cites just two criminal cases of human trafficking for the purpose of sex slavery.

Such wild extrapolation is not in keeping with the news standards of the New York Times. Instead of documenting the number of proven sex-slave cases by, for instance, trolling Nexis for a couple of days, Landesman and the Times Magazine allow a government official and an advocacy group to bid up the number with their speculations. Watch the math: The U.S. government estimates that between 18,000 and 20,000 humans are trafficked into the United States each year. Landesman notes that the government has made no estimate of how many of those individuals "are victims of sex traffickers" but allows an advocacy group leader to pluck the number of 10,000 annually out of thin air and then posit a total of 30,000 to 50,000 sex slaves in the whole country. With no apparent effort to verify this "tens of thousand" hype, Landesman and the Times Magazine go on to construct a sensationalistic story that alleges sex slaves here, there, and everywhere you look.

The Times Magazine piece could have been even more sensationalistic had Landesman been given full rein. In his Fresh Airinterview this week, Landesman claims State Department officials have told him "off the record and on background" that "the number of girls and women being trafficked into the United States for sex slavery and forced sex is probably in the six figures, somewhere between ahundred and two hundred thousand people … per year." [Emphasis added.] At that clip, we're talking about 500,000 to 1 million women and girls in the last five years, and yet police are unaware of the scope and scale of the crime? Landesman offers a pat explanation: It's a definitional problem. Police, you see, regard the "hookers," "call girls," and "escorts" they encounter as volunteers and not as sex slaves. Without citing source or authority, Landesman states, "Many, many of these girls fit the category that we're talking about actually as sort of sex slavery."

Now, if every prostitute who fears her pimp is a sex slave, then under Landesman's definition, most American prostitutes are sex slaves! But prostitutes who fear their pimps aren't the advertised subject of Landesman's tale—he's supposedly writing about abducted, purchased, or conned women, who've been forced into prostitution. Bait and switch writing like this infests every page of Landesman's feature. For example, in hyping the menace, he alludes to sex-trafficking hubs in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago. But are all of these operations purveyors of sex slaves? In Newsday's series, "Smuggled for Sex," published in early 2001, Anthony M. DeStefano writes of the distinction between "choice" and slavery:

Although some women's advocates and police characterize immigrant women working in brothels as "sex slaves," the situation in the city appears more complex, ranging from those who knowingly agree to work as prostitutes to those who expected to find jobs in restaurants or garment factories but found themselves instead working in sexual servitude.

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This complexity seems to escape Landesman. Some captive prostitutes in the United States are "debt slaves," working off the $35,000-plus fee they owe to the "snakehead" who smuggled them into the country, usually from Asia, according to press accounts. That they're sold to agents and flown from city to city is sordid and illegal, but it's not the body-abduction abomination that Landesman describes. According to press reports, it can take a woman between 500 and 1,000 sex acts to pay off her snakehead. This thriving pay-for-smuggling market earns no direct mention in Landesman's article, although I suspect that in his heart of hearts, these women and girls are included in his sex-slave calculus. Erroneously, I might add.

New York TimesMagazine Editor Gerald Marzorati defends his magazine and his writer in a letter posted elsewhere on Slate. Marzorati does not disclose whether he knew that Landesman's primary witness, "Andrea," suffers from multiple personality disorder and post-traumatic syndrome, an important fact that does not appear in the article but which Landesman claims in his Fresh Air interview. So let me ask Landesman and the Times Magazine once again: How trustworthy a source is this allegedly mentally ill and damaged person? Marzorati claims that Andrea's account was verified by her therapist, who spoke at length with Landesman and Times Magazine fact-checkers. That's wonderful, but why is Andrea's therapist in a position to verify her claims? Did he witness her 12-year confinement? Does he have access to records he could share? Just imagine the news pages of the Times relying on such shaky sourcing for a major article!

Marzorati plays dumb, I think, in his discussion of the photographs that illustrate the Times Magazine cover and inner pages. The captions state that the photos are of rescued women now back in Mexico. But if the story is about sex slaves and sex-slave quarters in the United States, why has the Times Magazine illustrated it with photos of the rescued in their new safe quarters? It's obvious to me that the illustrations were designed to dupe the average reader by representing a sex-slave domicile to the scanning eye.

Now that Marzorati cites a U.S. attorney who says sex slaves were transported by boat from Baja California to San Diego, I defer to him and Landesman on the one case. But such sourcing belongs in the story, not in a letter defending an undersourced article. Even so, I still doubt the implication that sex slaves successfully traverse the heavily guarded border via boat. The FBI memo that Marzorati mentions refers to aliens, not sex slaves, making the trip, and this subtle substitution is in keeping with the bait and switch of Landesman's article.

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Marzorati battles straw men when he cites the detention of 10 sex slaves in a December 2001 San Diego County raid as evidence of rampant sex slavery. Yes, police made a prostitution bust, but it appears that all charges were dropped, according to an article in the Dec. 21, 2001, San Diego Union-Tribune, because nobody would testify. Maybe the prostitutes were intimidated, as police claim in the Union-Tribune. But were the women and girls sex slaves? Who knows? The Immigration and Naturalization Service told the newspaper that none of the females qualified for a special T-visa, which goes to victims of human trafficking who assist the trafficking investigations.

More than one reader pointed out to me the parallels between Landesman's prurient scandal-mongering and the panics over ritual child abuse and Satan worshipping in the '80s and '90s. On Fresh Air, Landesman repeats Andrea's anecdote that customers willing to pay the price can murder children held captive. Several readers saw the similarity between this allegation and the urban legend of snuff films. Other readers compared Landesman's treatment of the sex slaves to the hysteria over "white slavery"—i.e., female prostitution—that swept the United States and England in the late 1800s. Some contemporary observers could not accept that economic straits, social mores, and opportunity had led some women into the sex business. For them, the only explanation was abduction.

Reduced to its essence, Landesman's story documents a vibrant sex trade and human market—in Mexico—something that is deplorable but not breaking news. As I've written before, I'm prepared to believe that tens of thousands of women and children in America endure sex slavery. It's an outrage if just one spends a night enslaved. But "The Girls Next Door" fails miserably to establish that widespread and abundant sex slavery exists here. In a nutshell, Landesman and the Times Magazine are guilty of inflating a compelling story to the bursting point.

I urge readers who believe they've witnessed any human trafficking to phone this federal hotline: (888) 428-7581.

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On the assumption that this debate will continue, send your thoughts to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)