The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, February 29, 2004

Landesman sex slaves article: NY Times ombud's verdict is in

Daniel Okrent has devoted his piece today to a report on his examination of Peter Landesman's The Girls Next Door piece in the January 25 edition of the New York Times Magazine [1].

The tone of Okrent's piece, it seems to me, is one of weary condescension towards all those concerned, both inside the Times and out.

He starts with a little story. One of the points made against the Landesman piece had been to suggest that his description of a scene in Plainfield, NJ was impossible (February 11).

Okrent quotes the passage; then says
I visited Plainfield last week, and I can assure readers that every detail in Landesman's description is accurate. I can also assure you that every detail in my own description is accurate:

And then gives it - at rather greater length than Landesman's!

And appends the moral:
Not every journalist sees every fact from the same angle.

To which the idiomatic reply is, I believe, Duh!

That Okrent should seek to make this point (and so ponderously!) with such an example is doubly surprising given one of the key elements of the case against former Times fabulist Jayson Blair (AP May 11 2003):
On March 27, Blair wrote under a dateline from Palestine, W.Va., about the family of Pvt. Jessica Lynch, a POW rescued in Iraq. He described how Lynch's father "choked up as he stood on his porch here overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures." The porch overlooks no such thing, the Times said, and no member of Lynch's family remembers talking to Blair.

Perhaps this was an attempt by Okrent at satirising the anal nerds and nitpickers who would worry about such trivia.

Of course, the reason why those of us interested in the quality of reporting have to nitpick is because the media are so damned unforthcoming about the evidence they have for stories. Only when they produce a piece with internal inconsistencies, or trip up over something which we peasants can verify independently can they be effectively challenged.

Then we get an insight from Okrent into the internecine hostility between the news people and the Magazine people. Some Times reporters were apparently in the van of those complaining about the sex-slaves piece: he gives us a flavour of their gripes one lot against the other, then says:
Both sides are better at offense than defense.

(He also refers to the new Times edict on the use of anonymous sources. He makes his unhappiness with current practice clear; but says that
imagining a modern newspaper without unattributed quotes is like imagining the Arctic without ice.
Perilously close to a shrug of the shoulders there, perhaps.)

On fact-checking, he is realistic:
...sometimes, a source will make an assertion - for instance, that he saw women walking through Cottonwood Canyon, Calif., in high heels...Virtually all the fact-checker can do is call the source and ask, "Did you see women walking through Cottonwood Canyon in high heels?" The firmest "yes" doesn't even approach proof. It's often not the fact that gets checked, but the fact that someone said it was a fact.

This is not something that is made clear on the back of the box!

And, on the news/magazine dichotomy:
Newspaper reporters engage in a daily dialectic, and try to follow a controversial declaration with a balancing statement from someone on the other side. Magazine writers, believing in the primacy of narrative, will withhold contrary views until the end of the piece - or, often, withhold them altogether. Magazine writing, says Gerald Marzorati, editor of the Sunday magazine, "encourages point of view and authorial opinion." Newspaper writing does not. (Except, of course, when it does.)

Okrent's big journalistic gig was over at Time Magazine I think: sounds as if he feels the NYT's culture wars have all the interest of the Schleswig-Holstein Question, with none of the side-splitting gags.

On the piece itself, he says that
...Landesman and [his] editors carried the advocacy to a fault. In possession of a horrifying story, they didn't allow it to speak for itself.

They didn't make the story up, he's saying, they merely made it out to be bigger than it was. He goes on
I won't use the word "hype," which connotes a mendacity that was in no way present here. The verb I prefer is "shout"...

I'm not sure that hype is limited to cases of deliberate lying.

The state of mind I suspect we're dealing with is rather like Tony Blair's seems to have been in the run-up to the Iraq War: he was monomanically intent on having a war, and therefore was disposed (and how!) to believe evidence that Saddam had WMD and disbelieve evidence to the contrary.

Okrent challenges inter alia the cover line Sex Slaves on Main Street, the numerical estimates, the unqualified use of the words of alleged victim 'Andrea'.

But, on that last point concludes:
The question is not whether Landesman believes Andrea - what matters is whether he can persuade the rest of the world to believe her.

Er...Surely what matters is the quality of the evidence she has to offer, and the fairness with which he presents that evidence. Landesman's task was not to persuade the readers, but to give them the material to come to a judgement on the reliability of what he quoted her as saying.

(Among the matters not mentioned by Okrent is the failure to disclose in the article that 'Andrea' suffers from multiple personality disorder!)

Okrent says
When I first read Landesman's piece, I found him credulous. Having examined the article more closely, and having done some reporting of my own, I'm convinced that the proper adjective would be "inflamed."

And, as a result,
He brought into the story figures, facts and circumstances that he felt added to his argument. Instead they turned some readers into skeptics, some skeptics into critics.

Okrent seems obsessed with Landesman's failure to impress his readers, and rather less concerned that with the quality of the product: the problem was that a good proportion of those figures, facts and circumstances appeared to be unreliable or misleading.

Okrent then muddies the waters with reference to three subsequent police operations directed at alleged sex slavery operations in the US. (No one, I think, is saying that sex-slavery in the US does not exist - but the reference to those three operations sounds like a rebuttal of just such an argument. Straw man alert!)

Then we go back one last time into the news/mag culture war - which has a definite Big Ender/Little Ender quality to it - and, finally, the conclusion:
Based on my examination of Landesman's materials, on conversations with law-enforcement authorities and on the internal evidence itself, his choices were fairly arrived at. But they weren't justified terribly well.

So do you tear Landesman apart because you don't believe his sources, or because you can't locate an audit trail to some of his assertions? Or do you accept the hideous realities he describes and emerge convinced that sex slavery is a genuine problem? I do the latter - I just wish he and his editors had been more circumspect in making the case.

That's pretty wretched stuff, I regret to say - a hodge-podge apparently designed to spread around of bit of blame, about presentation rather than substance, and cloak the whole in the mantle of concern about the substantive issue.

Now, I'd say, first of all, that the internal evidence of Okrent's own piece contradicts his conclusion: the estimates Landesman gives of the numbers of victims -
perhaps tens of thousands
were, I think Okrent is saying, completely unsupported by any evidence. In the vernacular, he's suggesting that Landesman pulled them out of his ass.

Was that a choice that was fairly arrived at?

The analogy with the promoter of a company is, I think, a valid one. The promoter, like the journalist, has a peculiar knowledge of the true state of what he is selling; the investor, or reader, has no such knowledge. This disproportion of knowledge justifies the promoter/journalist being held to a particular high standard in the information he provides.

The promoter who inserts estimates of the company's value based on wishful thinking is rightly held criminally liable; the responsibility of the journo is to a different 'court', but his use of wishful-thinking data is reprehensible for the same reason.

It is simply not good enough for Okrent to suggest that, because there are, say, 1,000 sex-slaves, the fact that Landesman suggested there were 30,000 is a mere matter of presentation.

And there is an element of moral blackmail in the assertion that one may either tear Landesman apart or accept the hideous realities he describes.

No one is trying to tear Landesman apart: use of such emotive language can only enhance the reader's sense that the wool is being pulled over his eyes.

(Readers will recall that, if anyone was threatening to pull anyone apart, it was Landesman threatening blogger Daniel Radosh (January 31)! Something of an own goal for Okrent there (in soccer parlance)!)

But even adjusting his statement for reality, Okrent's is a false dichotomy: I suspect that all of Landesman's critics would be happy to stipulate to there being a sex-slavery problem in the US that requires dealing with. But that position in no way contradicts the questioning of Landesman's article.

Okrent is saying, If you persist in criticising Landesman, you can't care about the poor sex slaves. You're a mean-spirited pettifogger, more interested in point-scoring than the plight of girls genuinely in peril of their lives. (Though, strictly speaking, they may be many fewer than Landesman told you...)

The second point is that the criticism that I've seen - mainly from Radosh and Jack Shafer - has been specific. And Okrent's piece in general makes no effect to deal with those criticisms point by point.

(Some points have already been addressed by the Times itself (my February 17 piece [1]). But Okrent's USP is that he is independent. The fact that the Times has spoken to a point is no reason why Okrent should treat it as dealt with.)

I detect a sneer [2] in Okrent's reference to an inability to
locate an audit trail to some of his assertions

A variation of
the best is the enemy of the good:
Okrent supposes Landesman's critics are looking for pie in the sky, whereas all they're interested in - I think - is straight answers to some reasonable questions.

This being the real world, a lot of those answers may be unsatisfactory; Okrent seems to be doubting whether the questions need be taken at all seriously.

Which, from someone in his position, is rather disappointing. (Understatement.)

  1. The substance last looked at here on February 17. The Landesman article is reprinted here.

  2. Something here of Mr Bounderby's view that the hands wanted to be
    fed on turtle soup and venison with a golden spoon

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