Doubting Landesman.

Media criticism.
Jan. 27 2004 7:19 PM

Doubting Landesman

I'm not the only one questioning the TimesMagazine's sex-slave story.

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.

Upon rereading Peter Landesman's New York TimesMagazine cover story, "The Girls Next Door," viewing the transcripts of his appearances on NPR's Fresh Airand CNN's American Morning, and corresponding with readers, I've got several new observations and questions to add to yesterday's "Press Box" column ("Sex Slaves of West 43rd Street"). For those who've joined the parade late, yesterday's column rained a shower of doubt on Landesman's descriptions of the American sex-slave trade and his view that it is pervasive, with perhaps tens of thousands enslaved.

Although the larger focus of Landesman's story is the importation of sex slaves into the United States from Eastern Europe and Mexico, he hangs a good chunk—1,200 words—of his 8,500-word story on the testimony of a woman who does not fit that profile. The woman answers to "Andrea," the name she says traffickers and clients gave her. In his Fresh Air interview, Landesman says Andrea is light-skinned. In the article, Andrea claims not to know her real name and doesn't know how old she is, but she believes she was born in America and was sold or abandoned at about 4 years old by her mother or another woman. Other than that, she seems to have total recall of almost everything that's happened to her since.

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While Andrea might be telling the truth about her confinement, some of her anecdotes carry the whiff of urban legend. For instance, she says the traffickers would sometimes transfer her into the custody of clients at Disneyland, as if an amusement park with all its swarming children would offer protective coloration for the sex traffickers. In the article, Andrea tells Landesman she would be dressed in a specific color so that clients would recognize her. This is but a variation on the urban legend cataloged on Snopes.com, in which children are kidnapped from amusement centers. 

Furthermore, Andrea claims she spent 12 years in captivity, during which she was trafficked back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border many times by a sex trafficking ring that worked in both countries. Many of my readers asked why traffickers would take such risks and not just leave Andrea in Mexico or the United States.

On Fresh Air, Landesman damages Andrea's status as a source when he mentions that she "suffers from multiple personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder," facts not contained in his Magazine piece. If this is the case, how much of Andrea's story should we believe? Were his editors aware of the mental condition of one of his primary sources? Has Landesman corroborated any of her testimony or is he taking it all at face value?

In his piece, Landesman vaguely alludes to the locations of operating "stash houses" that hold sex slaves, and on American Morning he broadcast the location of yet another, saying:

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.

Why on Earth he's giving vague directions to a slave den to CNN viewers instead of phoning them to police, he doesn't explain. And if it's such a hot tip, why didn't the Times publish it?

Paul Zieke of the Los Angeles Times notes another screwy aspect to the cover story about American sex slaves. He writes:

The cover's main headline says: "Sex Slaves on Main Street," with a subhed that reads, "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." The cover photo is of a young girl pictured from the neck down sitting on a bed. She is wearing a school uniform complete with plaid skirt.

But the photo was not taken in America. It was taken in Mexico City, as explained several pages later on the table of contents page. Indeed, all the photos in the article save one were taken in Mexico. There are no photos of anyone connected with the sex trade in America, not even a law enforcement official.

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