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.”