New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan today called on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to audit his own stories about Somaly Mam, a Cambodian activist whose story was debunked by a recent Newsweek investigation. Titled “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking,” the piece documents inconsistencies in Mam’s life story as well as deep problems with the stories of alleged beneficiaries of the Somaly Mam Foundation, which is “dedicated to eradicating the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls in Southeast Asia, and empowering survivors as part of the solution.”
Mam last week resigned from her foundation as a result of an internal investigation tied to the Newsweek investigation. In a statement on her departure, the foundation also distanced itself from another target of the Newsweek investigation, a move that lends credence to its reporting.
Under the byline of Simon Marks, Newsweek took aim at the journalism of Kristof. Specifically, this 2009 column, in which the columnist wrote from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, about the story of teenager Long Pross. Here’s how Kristof cast things: “Glance at Pross from her left, and she looks like a normal, fun-loving girl, with a pretty face and a joyous smile. Then move around, and you see where her brothel owner gouged out her right eye.”
At the age of 13, writes Kristof, Pross was kidnapped and forced to work in a brothel. “The brothel owner, a woman as is typical, beat Pross and tortured her with electric current until finally the girl acquiesced,” writes the columnist. “Twice she became pregnant and was subjected to crude abortions.”
The disfigured right eye, Kristof reported, resulted from a beating with a piece of metal that Pross sustained after asking for a break. Pross received assistance from a woman, Sina Vann, who had been rescued by Mam. Kristof summed up the connections this way: “So Somaly saved Sina, and now Sina is saving Pross. Someday, perhaps Pross will help another survivor, if the rest of us can help sustain them.”
Newsweek finds a different explanation for Pross’s plight: “Dr. Pok Thorn says he performed surgery on Pross when she was 13, after her parents brought her to a hospital with a nonmalignant tumor covering her right eye. Photographs in her medical records clearly show the young girl’s eye before and after the surgery.” She allegedly checked in with the Somaly Mam Foundation for vocational training.
The discrepancies between Kristof’s reporting and Newsweek’s are red-alert stark — so red-alert stark that they should prompt a number of people at the New York Times to interrupt all pending projects and sort this thing out. Based on a three-paragraph blog post from Kristof today, the issue isn’t receiving such priority.
Titled “A Woman I Regarded as a Hero, and New Doubts,” the post features the columnist’s conflicted reflections in the controversy: On the one hand, Mam has resigned over the story, which lends credibility to Newsweek’s allegations. On the other hand: “Fundamentally, serious doubts have clearly been raised about her (and about one of her colleagues whom I wrote about in 2009) but 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.” Whatever the case with Mam, finishes Kristof, the bane of human trafficking in Cambodia is an established fact.
This is no time to discuss larger questions. It’s a time to determine whether a strongly worded column by one of the New York Times’s brand names bears any relation to reality.
The text of Kristof’s column on Pross is one thing; another is the video that accompanies the piece. Narrated by Kristof, it amplifies the points in the column. Not only does the video take for granted the Pross story, it plugs the Somaly Mam Foundation: “It was deeply painful for Pross to go before a camera and recount her humiliations,” says Kristof in the video. “She did so in the hope that her story will help awaken well-meaning people to the horrors of sex trafficking. I find that kind of courage and resiliency truly inspiring. And she is rebuilding her life. The Somaly Mam Foundation is helping her get a glass eye, and she is taking literacy classes and preparing for a new career.” Kristof has written about Mam in other columns too.
The Erik Wemple Blog has reached out to Kristof in search of an interview about the matter at hand. No response just yet. Somaly Mam Foundation Executive Director Gina Reiss-Wilchins, a friend and neighbor of the Erik Wemple Blog, declined to comment.
Kristof did exchange some thoughts with Sullivan, conceding that there’s cause to be suspicious of Pross’s story. About a year ago, Sullivan reports, Kristof fielded questions about the story and tried to check with her Cambodian doctor but didn’t receive a response. The Somaly Mam Foundation announced that it had removed Pross “from any affiliation with the organization or our grant partner.” That alone should prompt a full-on New York Times re-evaluation.
Sullivan concludes, “I’m glad [Kristof] addressed it briefly in his blog today, and I hope there’s more to come. He owes it to his readers to explain, to the best of his ability and at length, what happened and why.”
Stronger, Sullivan, stronger! He had no choice but to address it in his blog, and he must explain as soon as possible what happened and why.
More: What stands before Kristof is a great journalistic opportunity. One thing missing from the Newsweek story, after all, is Mam herself. She declined numerous interview requests from Newsweek, so the allegations about fabrications and biography-goosing roll out without reply from the central character in this story. Considering that Kristof calls Mam one of his “heroes,” perhaps he can get her point-by-point answers to the Newsweek piece. That would be a scoop and, perhaps, a trust-building correction/retraction in one simple transaction.