'Victims Can Lie as Much as Other People'

What the Somaly Mam scandal says about the media's treatment of humanitarian heroes
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.

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Pat Joseph is the editor of California magazine.

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