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June 10, 2005
Shafer's Takedown At Slate

If you want to know why I think Jack Shafer is one of the best media critics working within the Exempt Media, take a look at his column yesterday answering Peter Landesman's rebuttal to an earlier critique.

Landesman had written an article on sex slaves in the US for the New York Times Magazine that alleged that 30-50,000 women were being held against their will for sexual exploitation in America. Shafer had critiqued it in Slate, questioning the numbers and the methodology used to produce them. Landesman responded with a snarky and hyperbolic open letter that Slate reproduced as the first part of Shafer's sur-rebuttal:

Mr. Shafer formulates his latest set of complaints not as an argument with me but with the victims. "Because sexual slavery is the most depraved form of involuntary servitude," Mr. Shafer writes, "one would expect that if sex slaves existed in the numbers Landesman, Bales, and Miller would have us believe, more of them would have applied for the heavily publicized 'T-1 visa.' " If only. In the real world, this is akin to suggesting to a 15-year-old inmate of Bergen-Belsen, after being raped by her captors 20 times a day for a year, that she hurtle past the guards, electric fences and dogs into a foreign land, and beg for help in a language she does not speak. How many of these young women know what a T-visa is, do you think? Did Mr. Shafer know what a T-visa was before he began surfing Google? Methinks Mr. Shafer needs to get out more.

This story was not about numbers. This was an exhaustive investigation into the process of recruiting and transporting sex slaves into this country. The issue of numbers was exactly two sentences in an 8,500-word piece. That said, it is, admittedly, difficult to quantify any sort of underground commerce or black market. "The Girls Next Door" made no attempt to be definitive about this; I simply reported how big the problem could be, according to those who study it and are mandated to combat it.

Anyone who reads human-interest stories understands that advocacy pieces like "The Girls Next Door" are not meant to highlight the miserable fate of a couple of people, but are intended to expose wide-ranging misery. Of course the numbers are important; if the issue was a handful of women being held, then the New York Times Magazine would hardly take an interest in the subject, and its readers would rightly wonder why the journalist didn't just notify law enforcement of the anecdotal examples uncovered.

Shafer, rather than engage in a milquetoast collegial notation of the dispute, actually critiques Landesman in no uncertain terms. Shafer skewers Landesman in a manner that we see too infrequently in the Exempt Media, in the spirit of real competition and defense of journalistic standards:

What sort of journalist is Peter Landesman? He's the sort who inflates a piece I wrote on Monday and five pieces I wrote inside of a week 16 months ago, when his story first appeared, into a "16-month campaign." He's the sort so uncurious about his own subject that he can't bother to askor be askedwhy, in a nation supposedly flooded with tens of thousand of new sex and labor slaves each year, only a few hundred T-visa applications were filed in the last two years. He's the sort of sensationalist who when doubted invokes the Holocaust, in which millions and millions were killed, to make his critic appear to be some sort of latter-day Holocaust denier.

If Landesman's story was not about numbers, why is the coverline for the article, "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"? If his story was not about numbers, why was the inside subhead for the article, "The sex-trafficking trade may begin in Eastern Europe and wend its way through Mexico, but it lands in the suburbs and cities of America, where perhaps tens of thousands are held captive and pimped out for forced sex"? I know writers aren't responsible for headlines, coverlines, and subheads. Editors write them. But if the article wasn't about the numbers, what made the editors think so when they prepared the piece for publication?

What sort of journalist is Landesman? He's such a lazy smear artist that of the many crimes against journalism he could successfully tar me with, he accuses me of blindly and silently accepting the government's illegal drug numbers in the press. Shafer to Landesman: I've made a cottage industry out of exposing the skeezy government drug numbers that journalists publish. Why else do you think I was so skeptical about yours?

Read the entire piece. In fact, read all of the articles and decide for yourself who has their ducks in a row. In my opinion, Landesman's numbers rely so heavily on unsubstantiated conjecture that they amount to little more than guesswork -- and Shafer was correct to call Landesman out for it. Landesman's histrionic reply also tells me that Shafer's critique hit pretty close to the mark.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 10, 2005 12:00 PM

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