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.

My old pal Neal Matthews, a journalist who has lived in the San Diego area for 30 years, doubts Landesman's reporting that boats transport sex slaves from Baja California to San Diego or points north. Matthews, a former Navy diver who knows his way around the Mexico/California coast, writes:

The more I think about it, the more unlikely it is that these girls are landed by boat. Getting into a boat on the beach on the Mexican side would be tricky, unless you were pretty far south of the border, at a little cove called Popotla, near Fox Studios, about 10 miles south of the line. And unless you landed at Imperial Beach, just north of the border, which is crawling with La Migra [immigration police], you'd have to drive the boat north past Coronado, which is mostly Navy-controlled beaches, and patrolled (it's where the SEALS train). The closest beaches then are in raucous Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, or Pacific Beach, where coming in even at 3 a.m. would be difficult unwitnessed. Beyond that is La Jolla, mostly rocky, and then you'd be getting low on fuel. It's just so unlikely.

In an addendum, Matthews writes:

One other obstacle to getting ashore is the kelp beds and drifting kelp that would require the small craft to travel well offshore, where it's rougher. Of course, you couldn't have any lights on the boats, and the skipper couldn't see unless he had night vision gear. Very dangerous. Somebody would have capsized and bodies would be washing up on the beaches by now. Hasn't happened.

Landesman writes that many sex slaves are regularly murdered by their pimps, prompting this sensible question from Nation columnist Katha Pollitt:

If there are that many sex slaves and if after 2-4 years many are routinely murdered in the brothel, where are all those bodies? It's not that easy to hide a body (or is it? it's not as if I've tried). You would just think that given that sexual slavery has been going on, according to Landesman, for some time, by now there'd be hundreds of unclaimed and unidentified bodies of women and children stacked up in the morgue.

None of this is to dispute the existence of sex slaves in the United States. Women, girls, and boys are transported into the country and pressed into sexual service. In the Plainfield, N.J., case, which Landesman features in his lede, two people got 17-year sentences for enslaving four Mexican girls. (Oddly, Landesman doesn't mention their confession and August 2003 sentencing in his piece. As I noted yesterday, this is a Landesman tick: He repeatedly introduces some dramatic scene like a bust or an open-air brothel and then abandons it, making the reader go whaaa?) But Landesman's story fails on every level to convince me—and 95 percent of Press Box readers who sent me e-mail, I might add—that "perhaps tens of thousands" of women and children are spending the night as sexual chattel. I await real evidence.

******

If you're joining the story late, see yesterday's column, "Sex Slaves of West 43rd Street." Send your observation about the Landesman piece to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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