On his blog, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has responded twice now to the news that the self-alleged victim of sex trafficking Somaly Mam is a fraud.
Both his responses are insincere, disingenuous, and dishonest. And yet, as far as the Times is concerned, the matter appears to be closed.
Let’s review: Kristof is a former NYT reporter, now columnist, who has garnered international fame by publicizing the evils of sex trafficking. A cornerstone of his work has been the story of Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who has for years told a horrific story of being kidnapped and raped and tortured. Kristof has written about her in half a dozen columns, written about women her organization brought to his attention, and featured her in his documentary, Half the Sky. He also wrote the foreword to her autobiography, which is, ironically, called The Road Of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine. (Still available on Amazon.com.)
But we now know, thanks to excellent reporting by Simon Mark in Newsweek, that Mam’s story—and those of at least two women she brought to Kristof whom he also wrote about—is a package of lies.
Kristof’s responses to the discrediting of Mam are so self-serving and dishonest, they turn the stomach.
Let’s start with his first blog post:
While I was traveling in Vietnam and Burma, a story at Newsweek hit home….
Translation: I continue my heroic work.
I don’t know quite what to think. …I’m reluctant to be an arbiter of her back story when I just don’t know what is true and false among the conflicting statements. I am continuing to poke around.
Translation: Even though more than anyone else in the world I am responsible for this woman’s rise to fame and influence, who am I to judge? Nonetheless, I will “poke around.” Readers, don’t hold your breath waiting for Kristof to investigate; the Atlantic reports that he said much the same after another “hero” of his, Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, turned out to be a fraud. “My inclination is to reserve judgment until we know more,” he wrote at the time. He never returned to the subject.
Whatever the situation with Somaly, there’s no uncertainty about the larger issue of human trafficking in Cambodia….
Translation: Even if Somaly Mam’s story is completely untrue, I still have heroic work to do.
But the fact is that Somaly Mam’s fabrications, and Kristof’s elevation of them, have had an enormous impact on the perception of the problem of sex trafficking in Cambodia. Much of what we think we know about the issue comes from Kristof. So you can’t just say, hey, this woman who told me about this terrible phenomenon may be a liar, but trust me, the phenomenon is real. We now have reason to wonder if the issue is as bad as Mam and Kristof have made it out to be—and Kristof has a responsibility to address that doubt seriously, not just blow it off with a “take my word for it” glibness. No, Nick—we can’t just take your word for it, not when your sources are lying to you and you don’t really seem to care. That’s the point.
Kristof’s second blog post offers up more of the same. It’s titled “When Sources May Have Lied,” but there’s no doubt that Mam lied; she did, after all, resign from her organization. This is Kristof’s way of muddying the waters.
Here’s what he says:
I wrote one column about her life story in 2008 after her autobiography was published in the U.S., and made several references to her after that, most recently in 2011.
Translation: Hey! I barely knew the woman.
Kristof doesn’t mention her prominent role in his documentary. He manages to mention her autobiography while somehow omitting the fact that he wrote the introduction to it.
I thought she was a hero and, in fairness, so did lots of others. Glamour was among the first to notice and honor her….
Translation: Hey! Don’t blame me, lots of people believed her. People like…Glamour magazine!
I wrote a brief blog post and said I would do some digging. [Blogger: Actually, Kristof said he would continue to "poke around," though there was no evidence that he had ever poked around.] Part of the reason I took some time is that I wanted to do some research. I didn’t find anything definitive, but I think Newsweek makes a strong case. There are many theories, one of which is that Somaly was in the sex trade for a time, but was not trafficked as a child; I can’t be sure of the truth.
Translation: Though I was sure of the truth back when I promoted and profited from her story, based solely on her word, now, even though another reporter has found other sources to disprove that story, I can not be sure (or can not make the effort). I was sure of the truth then; but now, with even more information out there…well, who’s to say? What is truth, anyway?
And that “there are many theories” line is particularly gross. There are many theories about almost everything that appears in a newspaper. A reporter’s job is to sort them out—not use them as an excuse.
Finally, Kristof fails to mention that, at an earlier time, when Mam’s organization was pushing back against Simon Mark for his reporting on Mam, Kristof intervened and suggested he “broker” a meeting with Mark’s editor—which is, as any journalist will tell you, basically a threat. We’re going to go over your head and make your life difficult with the boss—maybe get you reassigned, or fired.
Getting involved in a dispute between an NGO and another news organization is not an appropriate role for a reporter. It suggests that Kristof has become so invested in the story that he is now trying to block legitimate inquiries regarding its accuracy.
So if we were all hoodwinked, how did that happen?
Ah—there’s Glamour again. Apparently all journalistic outlets are equal.
This post is longer than the column I wrote on Somaly, and I’ve now written more about her for The Times post-scandal than pre-scandal.
Translation: Hey! I barely knew the woman. Do I really have to write all this stuff now?
Truth is paramount. On the other hand, let’s not lose sight of the larger issue: Surely it’s also significant that 21 million people worldwide are subjected to forced labor, including forced prostitution…
Consider that construction: “Truth is paramount. On the other hand…”
In other words: Truth is not paramount.
I now wish I had never written about her, given my doubts, and I assume the same is true of The Washington Post, CNN, Time and other news organizations.
Translation: The buck doesn’t actually stop here.
But I also hope that people will be as diligent in covering the scandal that is human trafficking as the (likely) scandal of false or embellished backstories.
Translation: This is the same redirection technique we’ve seen above. But the real shame here is that parenthetical “(likely)”, whose intention is still to cast doubt on the charges against Mam, still to say, in the very last line of Kristof’s post, that she may not be a liar.
It’s a neat trick: In the same breath in which Kristof says we can never really know truth, he deflects responsibility by saying that we must focus on the larger truth.
Kristof appalls me. He has now twice prominently championed people who have turned out be frauds (although he will admit to neither half of that sentence). And yet he retains the arrogance to say, never mind those people over there, there’s a lot more people over here! He also says something that good reporters just do not believe: That whether or not these people are liars doesn’t really matter.
It does matter. It affects our perception of them, of the issues they were championing, and of the journalists who championed them—our perception of journalism as a whole, frankly.
Nicholas Kristof doesn’t appear to take any of that seriously, which suggests that, while he believes in himself, he cares little about the tenets of his profession. So why is he still employed by the New York Times?