'Victims Can Lie as Much as Other People'

What the Somaly Mam scandal says about the media's treatment of humanitarian heroes
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Reuters/The Atlantic

“There are various other tricks of the trade. I’ve learned when to be more suspicious of people…. I think there’s a tendency to believe victims, for example. And I think that’s wrong, that in fact victims can lie as much as other people.”

That’s New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof speaking in the 2009 documentary Reporter to the lucky winners of the second annual “Win a Trip with Nick Kristof” contest. The famous scribe was holding forth about the need for every writer to develop what Ernest Hemingway famously called a “built-in, shock-proof shit detector.” It was a point the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner later re-emphasized in an online discussion of journalistic ethics with students who had watched the film. “The challenge is to feel passion and outrage without losing your skepticism,” Kristof said. “Over the years, for example, I’ve learned that victims of human rights abuses lie and exaggerate as much as perpetrators do. It’s very easy if you’re passionate and outraged to listen to victims and not double-check and triple-check and listen to the other side—or to get defensive when you’ve taken the victims’ side and not investigate charges that you’ve gone too far.”

Now Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, is calling on Kristof to “give readers a full explanation” of his reporting on Somaly Mam, the celebrated Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking activist who, according to a recent Newsweek expose, fabricated parts of her story and those of some of the alleged victims she advocated for. The revelations have disillusioned many of Mam’s loyal supporters and left the press looking gullible. Just as importantly, they’ve highlighted the public’s seemingly insatiable desire for heroic narratives—and the willingness of many in the media to provide them.

Kristof was hardly alone in promoting Mam and her initiatives. Several respected outlets, including Newsweek, have played handmaiden to her celebrity. Consider just a partial list of media-bestowed accolades: Mam was named a CNN Hero and Glamour’s Woman of the Year. She was included in the Time 100, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women—the list goes on. When stories like hers crumble, however, few in the media pause to examine how they could have been so thoroughly duped. Fewer still acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating stories that were too good to check out.

***

No reporter went quite as far as Kristof in elevating Mam’s profile. The crusading journalist has promoted her work in half a dozen columns and blog posts, as well as his documentary, Half the Sky. He even penned the foreword to her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, in which he called her “the Harriet Tubman of Southeast Asia’s brothels.”

Of riding shotgun with Mam on a raid of one of those brothels—a stunt he also “live-tweeted” to his million-plus followers and filmed for inclusion in Half the Sky—Kristof wrote in his column of November 12, 2011:

Against my better judgment, I found myself the other day charging into a well-armed brothel in a police raid. But I was comforted to be with one of my heroes, Somaly Mam.

Somaly dedicates her life to battling forced prostitution, for she herself was sold as a child to a Cambodian brothel. After enduring torture and rapes, Somaly escaped and reinvented herself as an anti-trafficking activist.

That last bit is an accurate capsule summary of the story Mam tells in her memoir and the one she has dutifully recounted (albeit with some discrepancies) in countless public appearances around the world, including at the White House and the UN. It’s also, as we know from Newsweek's story, largely untrue.

According to the article’s author, Simon Marks, during the years Somaly Mam was supposedly trapped in a Phnom Penh brothel she was actually attending school in her hometown of Thloc Chhroy. Her fellow villagers remember her as a happy, pig-tailed teenager. In her memoir, Mam claims she was orphaned at a young age and brought to Thloc Chhroy by a man she called “grandfather”—the man who sold her into slavery. The former commune chief remembered her arrival differently. “Somaly came here with her parents,” he said. “She is a daughter of Mam Khon and Pen Navy.” No one recalled the mysterious ‘grandfather’ figure.

On May 28, a week after Newsweek’s story appeared, the New York-based Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF), as a result of its own independent, third-party investigation into allegations about Mam’s personal history, accepted its namesake’s resignation, “effective immediately.” Since its founding in 2007, SMF—whose Global Advisory Board includes actress Susan Sarandon, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and, until recently, Melanne Verveer, former chief of staff to Hillary Clinton—has, according to tax filings, raised millions for Mam’s Cambodian organization, AFESIP (Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire), which operates rehabilitation centers for victims of sexual slavery. The foundation’s annual fundraising galas are star-studded, red-carpet events featuring supermodels, Hollywood actors, Silicon Valley financiers, and high-profile journalists, including Kristof and news anchor Katie Couric, who hosted last year’s Life is Love gala. 

SMF may never have launched its investigation if not for the relentless reporting of Simon Marks, a former editor at the Cambodia Daily. And while his Newsweek story will rightly be regarded as the bombshell that finally exploded Mam’s myth, the charges weren’t new. Marks, who is now based in Brussels, had already published the most damning material of his investigation in a series of articles for the Daily, as well as one in El Mundo, Spain’s third-largest newspaper.

One of the more remarkable of those stories involved Meas Ratha, a former charge of Mam’s who was sent to AFESIP because her parents were too poor to raise her and her sister. Ratha said she was auditioned by Mam and coached to lie on camera about having been trafficked. Referring to anguished testimony she gave on French television in 1998 when she was only 16, Ratha told the Daily, “The video that you see, everything that I put in is not my story.” She added, “You know, my reputation has been lost because of this video.… Everybody saw me and say ‘I a prostitute. Her mother sold her.’ They say like this. Everybody looks down on me.”

Ratha isn’t the only girl who reportedly lied for Somaly Mam. There is also the case of Long Pross. Kristof first told Pross’s horrifying story in a 2009 column headlined, “If This Isn’t Slavery, What Is?” He spared readers few details.

Twice she became pregnant and was subjected to crude abortions.

The second abortion left Pross in great pain, and she pleaded with her owner for time to recuperate. “I was begging, hanging on to her feet, and asking for rest,” Pross remembered. “She got mad.”

That’s when the woman gouged out Pross’s right eye with a piece of metal. At that point in telling her story, Pross broke down and we had to suspend the interview.

Pross’s eye grew infected and monstrous, spraying blood and pus on customers...

In fact, Pross appears to have never been kidnapped or enslaved in a brothel, and never had her eye gouged out. Rather, her disfigurement resulted from the removal, at age 13, of a non-malignant tumor. Until her operation, she had lived a sheltered life in her rural village. In October 2012, the Cambodia Daily published these details, which are corroborated by Pross’s parents, the doctor who performed the surgery, and the medical staff who placed her in the protective care of AFESIP. When SMF announced Mam’s resignation last week, it also announced that it would permanently remove Pross “from any affiliation with the organization or our grant partner, but will help her to transition into the next phase of her life.”

It appears Nicholas Kristof knew, long before most, that journalists were calling Pross’s story into question. On October 15, 2012, a week and a half before the Cambodia Daily story went to press, SMF board member Brandee Barker emailed Marks with a warning. “I also spoke with Nick Kristof yesterday about my concern for the way you choose to report,” Barker wrote. “I suggested that, curiously, you seem to have it out for Somaly, other survivors of sex trafficking and the Foundation. He suggested he broker a meeting with your Editor in Chief. We're considering this advice.” Barker, a former head of global communications at Facebook, subsequently confirmed to me that she had conversations with Kristof about Marks’s story prior to publication.

Only on Monday did Kristof acknowledge, in an email to the Times’ Margaret Sullivan, that there is “strong reason to be suspicious of” the story Pross told him. Sullivan writes that, “After first hearing about the challenges to her story a year or so ago,” Kristof “emailed her Cambodian doctor several times … and never got an answer.”

That may be true. But a year after the Cambodia Daily story appeared, I contacted Jim Gollogly of the Children’s Surgical Centre in Phnom Penh, the one medical professional Kristof quoted in his original reporting on Pross, to ask whether the columnist had contacted him since the details of her story had been disputed.

“No,” the surgeon replied in an email. “He didn’t call back.” Gollogly also said that he and his team “did not place much credence in Pros’ story, but it was irrelevant to the treatment we were trying to give her.”

My own involvement with Somaly Mam’s story dates to early 2012, when I was approached by former staff and volunteers who worked for her in Cambodia. Their complaints had nothing to do with the veracity of Mam’s biography. None seemed to suspect that the girls in her care were being compelled to make up stories. Rather, they complained about the shoddy services AFESIP and SMF provided. They pointed to a near-total lack of psychological care for traumatized girls, the absence of meaningful job-training programs, and what they saw as a blatant disregard for the young women’s privacy. One said it was “like there was a revolving door for tourists and camera crews. It was like a zoo.” After their letters of concern to SMF’s board of directors were ignored, they decided to take their concerns to a journalist.

What I quickly learned was that in Cambodia, and particularly within the anti-trafficking sector, Mam had long been viewed with extreme skepticism. Two of my sources, both of whom run their own NGOs in Phnom Penh, said they attempted to alert Kristof about their concerns, but were rebuffed.

When I spoke to Kristof on the phone on October 23, 2012—three days before the Cambodia Daily published its story about Pross’s eye (a story I was unaware of at the time)—he began the conversation by acknowledging that he had “heard criticisms” of Mam and that he had “at various times tried to look into them,” but that he had “not been impressed” by the evidence.

When asked to be more specific about those criticisms, he demurred. “I think since I didn’t, since they did not seem substantiated to me, I think it would be more in the category of rumor-mongering. So I think I’ll pass on that.” (Kristof has since declined to provide any further comments.)

He appeared to have been similarly unimpressed by the charges leveled against Greg Mortenson, another of his avowed heroes, and someone who, like Mam, greatly benefited from Kristof’s hagiographic reporting in the Times. After devastating exposes in April 2011 by both 60 Minutes and author Jon Krakauer blew holes in the self-glorifying story Mortenson told in his best-selling book, Three Cups of Tea, Kristof wrote wanly:

I don’t know what to make of these accusations. Part of me wishes that all this journalistic energy had been directed instead to ferret out abuses by politicians who allocate government resources to campaign donors rather than to the neediest among us, but that’s not a real answer. The critics have raised serious questions that deserve better answers: we need to hold school-builders accountable as well as fat cats.

My inclination is to reserve judgment until we know more, for disorganization may explain more faults than dishonesty.

He did not revisit the topic, however, even after Montana’s attorney general ordered Mortenson to relinquish financial oversight of the Central Asia Institute and repay the organization a million dollars. I asked Kristof why not when we spoke in the fall of 2012. “That was a year later,” he answered. “In other words, I’m not sure that there was much dramatically new or different.”

But as a leading columnist at the newspaper of record, didn’t he have a duty to set the record straight?

“That’s fair,” he answered.                 

***

Now that criticism of Mam is pouring in, it’s perhaps not surprising to see former Newsweek editor Tina Brown tweet, “Blockbuster expose of Somaly Mam as the con artists [sic] I long suspected. Due diligence so important in the NGO world.” Brown seems to have forgotten that the very first issue of Newsweek under her editorship (“150 Women Who Shake the World”) prominently featured Mam, or that Vital Voices, one of the NGOs she helps lead, still lists Mam as a “featured voice.” If Brown’s reaction was hypocritical, it was far preferable to that of Guy Raz, the NPR host, whose own tweet ran: “Even if 90% of Somaly Mam's story isn't true, the remaining 10% is so harrowing that it almost doesn't matter.”

The fact is, it matters deeply, precisely because NGOs depend on the public’s trust. When people abuse that trust, it not only hurts good causes, it also undermines our faith in the media. Brown is right: Due diligence is critically important in the largely unregulated world of NGOs. But it’s also true that for many people, a gushing profile of a selfless humanitarian or a glowing Kristof column about a survivor-turned-savior are due diligence.

On his blog on Monday, Kristof finally responded to the Newsweek story. “I’m reluctant to be the arbiter of [Somaly’s] back story when I just don’t know what is true and false among the conflicting statements,” he wrote. “I am continuing to poke around.” He also warned that the scandal could distract attention from trafficking issues, and that “girls fleeing Cambodian brothels will no longer get help.”

After Mortenson’s downfall, Kristof was similarly concerned about the fallout from the truth. “I worry that scandals like this … will leave Americans disillusioned and cynical,” he wrote then. Now he has to worry about how his own reporting contributes to that cynicism.

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Pat Joseph is the editor of California magazine.

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