Crossing a Line

Was the Times magazine’s sex slaves story too good (or bad) to be true?


The long article on sex-trafficking in the United States that ran in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, January 22, didn’t just shock readers with its depiction of modern-day slavery; it also raised substantial questions about journalistic practice.

“The Girls Next Door” by Peter Landesman, a contributing writer for the magazine, offered a lengthy expose of the brutal reality foreign women and girls, sold into sexual slavery, face in the United States in Mexico. The piece leaves the reader numb with stories of Eastern European and Mexican girls lured by traffickers with the promise of a better life in the United States, only to land in brothels with no way of escape.

Last week Landesman made the media rounds, with interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air and CNN’s American Morning, among others, the discussion mostly centering around the substance of his article. Jack Shafer of Slate, though, wrote a
three part critique of “The Girls Next Door.” Shafer contends that while sex slavery is no doubt a horrific, and real, problem, Landesman’s reporting fails to back up his assertions. As Shafer puts it he can’t disprove Landesman’s assertion that there are tens of thousands of sex slaves in the U.S., but he definitely questions the evidence.

“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.”

Shafer concedes that making a precise count of sex slaves is nearly impossible but says Landesman’s “tens of thousands” isn’t warranted by the evidence he offers. He then questions Landesman’s assertion that dozens of houses in major U.S. cities where girls are held captive as prostitutes, and the existence of websites where women are auctioned. Shafer wonder why Landesman shares his knowledge with Times readers and not with law enforcement agencies. If such places exist, Shafer asks, why haven’t those responsible been prosecuted? Shafer also questions the credibility of the freed sex slaves interview in the story. He writes:

“One of Landesman’s pseudonymous ex-sex slaves, “Montserrat,” says she’s lived in Mexico City “since she escaped from her trafficker [Alejandro] four years ago.” But Montserrat also talks about how Alejandro took her to see Scary Movie 2 in Portland, Ore. This would be impossible. Scary Movie 2 was released in 2001.”

After Shafer published his first critique on Monday, Landesman’s Fresh Air interview later that day revealed that one of his key sources, a former sex slaves named Andrea, suffered from “multiple personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.” Shafer, who characterized Andrea’s stories as carrying the “whiff of urban legend” lays into the Times magazine for not mentioning the source’s possible limitations.

Shafer isn’t the only observer who has a problem with the article. who has a bone to pick with the story. Paul Zieke of the Los Angeles Times, Katha Pollitt of the Nation, and blogger Daniel Radosh, all question the credibility of Landesman’s sources. Zieke points out that although the story contends that sex slavery is surprisingly common in the United States, all the photographs used in the piece were taken in Mexico.

Wednesday, the editor of the piece, Gerald Marzorati, responded to Shafer’s pieces. Marzorati defends the paper’s rigorous fact-checking and Landesman’s use of vague terms and qualifiers.

“Months of Landesman’s reporting and weeks of intensive fact-checking resulted in an article that details a scourge that is real and sizable. Shafer read an 8,600-word article stuffed with quotation, description, and documentation, and dismisses it as unsubstantiated; yet he offers almost nothing in the way of substantiation for his doubts. Content with what amounts to ontological questioning (‘I can’t DISPROVE the claim…but I seriously doubt its veracity’), 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. I will not parse all the attacks on Landesman and the magazine bolstered by little more than blog-esque ad hominem rhetorical flourishes (‘whiff’, ‘slippery’ and on).

But Shafer remains skeptical:

“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.”