Enslaved by his sources.

Media criticism.
Feb. 3 2004 7:36 PM

Enslaved by His Sources

Reading Peter Landesman's sex-slave story one more time.

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.

Although I've already spilled 5,600 words on the subject in four pieces, I'm not quite finished cataloging the journalistic shortcomings of Peter Landesman's Jan. 25 New York TimesMagazine cover story about the sex-slave industry, "The Girls Next Door."

My endless pieces argue that Landesman fails to substantiate the claim made on the cover and inside that tens of thousands of women and girls are being held "captive and pimped out for forced sex" in American suburbs and cities. Landesman's 8,500-word breathless hodgepodge of anecdotes, bait-and-switches, non sequiturs, pseudonymous testimonials, and over-the-top hysteria comes nowhere near to proving its thesis: Although the crime of sex-slavery exists, Landesman cites just two criminal cases involving 10 females. I continue to harp on Landesman's unsubstantiated numbers precisely because without their sensationalistic wallop, his months-long Times Magazine investigation collapses upon itself.

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Landesman's notion that every third block in the country harbors a sex-slave brothel can be traced to his reliance on well-meaning sources in government, activist circles, the religious community, and academia whose moral fervor causes them to stretch the truth to make their points about the abomination of sex slavery. Landesman appears to have fallen captive to these sources, internalized their views, and channeled their agenda into the pages of the Times Magazine.

But some reporters see through the government/NGO/religious haze. In a Page One story in the Oct. 26, 2003, New York Times, reporter Elisabeth Bumiller detailed the growing influence of religious groups over human rights issues—"most notably sex trafficking and AIDS"—in the Bush administration. While Bumiller portrays the human rights partnership with religious groups as sincere on Bush's part, she also notes the political payoff it offers. She writes:

The human rights issues offer a politically safe way for the president to appeal to his base of white evangelicals, who leading scholars and pollsters define by their membership in historically white evangelical denominations, like the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God. Evangelical churches believe that the Bible is truth, that members have an imperative to proselytize and convert and that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.

The religious groups, Bumiller reports, displayed their political power by lobbying successfully for the appointment of former House member John Miller to the State Department post of director of the Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, overcoming Karl Rove's observation that Miller was a McCain guy in 2000. "Essentially a variety of people let out the word that this is not the hill you want to die on—this is the guy we want," Allen Hertzke, the director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the forthcoming, Freeing God's Children: The Faith-Based Movement for International Human Rights, tells Bumiller.

John Miller, the religious groups' made man, appears very high in Landesman's piece in the "nut graf" discussion about the number of sex slaves in the United States. Landesman cites recent government estimates that 18,000 to 20,000 people are trafficked each year into the country, but acknowledges that no government study estimates how many of these people are trafficked as sex slaves. Engaging in a bit of journalistic sleight-of-hand, Landesman introduces Kevin Bales of the antislavery nonprofit Free the Slaves, who, without citing any source or methodology, purports that "at least 10,000" of the annually trafficked people are sex slaves.

Miller gives sanction to Bales' 10,000 figure by saying it might underestimate the annual trafficking in sex slaves. "That figure could be low. What we know is that the number is huge," Miller tells Landesman, citing no methodology himself. Finally, Laura Lederer, identified only as a senior State Department adviser on trafficking, explains away the shortfall between the Bales/Miller estimates and the number of sex slaves discovered. "We're not finding victims in the United States because we're not looking for them," she says.

Two very chatty Landesman sources from the International Justice Mission—Gary Haugen and Sharon B. Cohn—don't suggest any numbers, but they do pop up frequently in the article to provide emotionally charged but vague comments about the workings of the sex-slave industry.

Who are these experts, and why are they saying the things that they're saying? One would think that Bales, whose book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy bills him as "the world's leading expert on contemporary slavery," would have commented previously on the 10,000 sex slaves entering the country each year. But searching Nexis and Google, I found no mention by Bales about this vigorous trade. Nor does he mention anywhere in Disposable People about swarms of sex slaves arriving in the United States. He tells Landesman that between 30,000 and 50,000 sex slaves are in captivity in the United States at any time, but I can't find an earlier instance of Bales making that allegation. Did he just discover the peril?

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