There's an important thing you should to know about (current? who can keep track, really) journalist turned filmmaker Peter Landesman, a thing that can just barely be gleaned from the oddly self-congratulatory Vanity Fair and Hollywood Reporter interviews that came out last month as his directorial debut Parkland—a Tom Hanks-produced JFK assassination biopic—was set to open at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Peter Landesman is a colossal dick.
Some history: Back in 2004, he published an article for New York Times Magazine entitled "The Girls Next Door," which gave a jarring look into sexual slavery in America. Upon its publication, journalist/blogger/now-Daily Show writer Daniel Radosh took umbrage with Landesman's boatloads of circumstantial evidence and made that clear in a blog post originally entitled "More Glass Shattering?"—a nod to disgraced former journalist Stephen Glass who fabricated over 30 of his articles for The New Republic.
What was called into question was never the prevalence of sexual slavery, but moreso how fast and loose Landesman played it with his vague facts. Some of the more unverifiable ones include:
Some of these young women are actually tricked into paying their own travel expenses — typically around $3,000 — as a down payment on what they expect to be bright, prosperous futures...
Last year, the C.I.A. estimated that between 18,000 and 20,000 people are trafficked annually into the United States. The government has not studied how many of these are victims of sex traffickers, but Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, America's largest anti-slavery organization, says that the number is at least 10,000 a year. John Miller, the State Department's director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, conceded: ''That figure could be low. What we know is that the number is huge.''
Every day, flights from Paris, London and Amsterdam arrive at Mexico City's international airport carrying groups of these girls, sometimes as many as seven at a time, according to two Mexico City immigration officers I spoke with (and who asked to remain anonymous).
As Slate's Jack Shafer pointed out, the majority of these purported facts and figures are conjecture at best—odd, given the months Landesman spent working on the story. Radosh, meanwhile, broke down big picture discrepancies in Landesman's reporting—the use of tangential statistics on prostitution and child pornography to make the sexual slavery claims more bombastic, the conflation of actual governmental statistics with extreme unverified figures from non-profits, and Landesman's use of second and third-hand information as evidence (one notable example involved purporting a claim made by a deputy who had heard a rumor from a Mexican health worker as fact).
Notice that the most salacious charges (and make no mistake, from the cover photo on, this is a disturbingly prurient article) come entirely single-sourced by anonymous young women. At one point Landesman writes, "All the girls I spoke to said that their captors were both psychologically and physically abusive," implying that there are many. But throughout the article he identifies only two ("Andrea" and "Montserrat") and never mentions speaking to any others on background. Considering that much of their stories are so literally fantastic (girls being dressed in color-coded outfits for open trade at Disneyland; Johns who read the Bible to girls before raping them) you'd think he, or the editors, would want some confirmation.
Notice finally that after following this story for months, and pointing out that sex slave rings have to operate somewhat in the open to attract customers, Landesman never witnesses any slavery first-hand. Sure he "visited a number of addresses where trafficked girls and young women have reportedly ended up," but always after the alleged rings were broken up.
Rather than take the criticism on the chin, or respond in kind, Landesman sent Radosh an angry email, followed up with a 20-minute phone rant, in which he threatened legal action both personally and from the Times, as well as negative coverage from the paper. It was, as Shafer put it, an object lesson in "how not to handle press critics." Like a colossal dick, in this instance.
In the end, Radosh didn't get a lawsuit or a hit piece from the Times—just a well-deserved apology from Landesman's editor. (Radosh also offered an olive leaf of his own, writing that comparing Landesman's misrepresentations and gullible reporting to Glass' fabrications was excessive.)
Critics are currently panning Parkland—let's hope he doesn't sue them.
[Image via Getty, Art via Sam Woolley]