How not to handle press critics.

Media criticism.
Jan. 29 2004 7:08 PM

How Not To Handle Press Critics

New York TimesMagazine contributor Peter Landesman shows the way.

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.

Daniel Radosh was among the first writers to criticize Peter Landesman's New York TimesMagazine cover story about sex slaves, "The Girls Next Door" (Jan. 25), posting a scornful attack on his blog the day it was published.

For his labors, Radosh earned an ugly set of threats from Landesman. And though apologies were eventually extended to Radosh by Landesman and the Times Magazine for Landesman's behavior, the writer still reserves the right to punish the blogger in court for what he wrote.

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I first heard about Radosh's piece from Radosh himself, who e-mailed me on Monday, Jan. 26, asking my opinion of the Landesman feature. (I barely know Radosh, having corresponded with him less than a dozen times over the past eight years.) I told Radosh I intended to write about Landesman's article, and in the conclusion of my column, "Sex Slaves of West 43rd Street," I quoted Radosh favorably, linked to his blog, and urged readers to follow it for further exploration of the Landesman piece. I also criticized Radosh for going over the line when he asked if Landesman was the new Stephen Glass, the notorious liar and journalistic fabricator. In his blog, Radosh answered his own rhetorical question by saying, no, Landesman isn't Glass.

(I wrote a second piece about the Landesman feature on Tuesday, "Doubting Landesman," and a third on Wednesday, "The Times Magazine Strikes Back."Times Magazine Editor Gerald Marzorati defended his writer and the feature in this Wednesday Slate "Fray" posting.)

On Monday evening, a shaken Radosh forwarded to me an e-mail in which Landesman promised Radosh legal and professional ruin at the hands of his lawyers, Times lawyers, and in the pages of the Times itself. The e-mail, which Radosh won't release in full, said the blogger would soon regret having written his column, as would Shafer of Slate. Landesman followed the e-mail with what Radosh describes as a 20-minute angry rant on the telephone, which repeated and amplified the threats. After concluding the phone call, Radosh revised his blog and expressed regrets there for having linked Landesman's name to that of Glass, writing, "Whatever problems Landesman's article has, I don't think any of it was fabricated and I shouldn't have implied such a thing."

The caller ID log on my home phone shows that a little before 10 p.m. on Monday, Landesman or someone using his telephone number called me. No message was left.

On Tuesday morning, New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent e-mailed Radosh expressing interest in his additional thoughts about the Landesman feature. On either Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, Radosh described the telephone call from Landesman to Okrent and forwarded to Okrent Landesman's threatening e-mail. Radosh authorized the public editor to send it to Marzorati, which he did.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Landesman sent me an e-mail titled "Private: Not for Attribution." Respecting his request, I will not quote from it or characterize it.

By Wednesday afternoon, the big healing had begun—sort of—when Marzorati and Landesman e-mailed Radosh. Marzorati apologized for Landesman's e-mail and telephone threats and stated unequivocally that neither the Times nor its editors would retaliate against Radosh. Landesman apologized for the tone of his e-mail and phone call but did not withdraw his original threat to send his lawyers after Radosh. (Again, Radosh declines to release those e-mails in full.)

Today, Thursday, I asked Marzorati and Landesman about the threats. Marzorati, very much the mensch, writes:

Jack—

I edit reporting and writing, alas, not the behavior of reporters and writers. Peter, in a fury—and before I ever knew of Daniel Radosh's blog posting—fired off an angry e-mail and placed an angry phone call. He was clearly upset about the Glass reference—it is a kind of blood libel in the business we do—and he was clearly out of line. When I found out about it yesterday, I e-mailed an apology to Radosh, and Landesman, I believe, has apologized to him, too. If you too felt or feel threatened, that apology extends to you, sincerely. I want you to understand that there will be absolutely no repercussions from me, the Times, or Landesman for expressing your opinions.

Best,

Gerry

Landesman writes:

Mr. Shafer,

I'd hoped to let Gerry Marzorati's letter be our last word on this issue. As to your new query my only response is sincere contrition for words spoken and written in anger. I spent four months researching a dangerous and complicated story, often accompanied by my pregnant wife (the article's photographer). I hope you'll understand what an ugly shock it was to see my work and intentions maligned. I also took the comparison to Stephen Glass—however soft and deft the allusion—as a profoundly disturbing and inappropriate smear. Nonetheless, I apologize to you and to Daniel Radosh for my unfortunate and ill-advised communication.

Peter Landesman

I e-mailed Landesman asking if he still planned to send his lawyers after Radosh. His response in full: "No comment."

Of course, Landesman has every legal right to sue Radosh, me, or any of the critics of his sex-slave feature. But where I come from, journalists don't sue other journalists. We're supposed to be like grizzly bears, with thick hides that not even bee stings or .22 rounds can penetrate. We don't sue people who say mean or disturbing things about our work. And when we're libeled or defamed, we use the disinfectant power of the press to correct the record instead of libel attorneys.

As someone who has been bitten by and shot at by numerous critics over the years, I understand Landesman's fury. But he'll be doing the world of journalism and free expression a great service if he climbs down from his threat to sue and takes aim at Radosh with the best arrow in his quiver: Words.

******

Don't shoot me, I'm only a journalist! Shoot my e-mail box instead: 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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