Former sex-trafficking super-starlet Somaly Mam resigned early this month after Newsweek published a big story on her trouble with the truth.
Now the media sharks are circling for her chief propagandist and international cheerleader—NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
If Kristof gets what he deserves from this scandal, he'll lose his byline.
Mam, a former prostitute, built a virtual empire based on the premise that she is “eradicating” something called “sexual slavery.” Her star began to rise in 1998, when French camera crews captured the beautiful former sex worker cradling young women who had horrible stories to tell.
The money really started rolling in for Mam (and her namesake foundation) after Kristof began gushing to the American public about Mam—whom he repeatedly called his “hero.”
The trouble is, very little of what Mam said, about herself and her alleged success stories, was true.
But that's old news.
For those who have kept up with this matter, this month's Newsweek piece is nothing but the greatest hits album of a young reporter named Simon Marks who actually did what Kristof has only pantomimed doing: covering Somaly Mam.
Somaly Mam, co-founder and president of the Somaly Mam Foundation. Photo credit: somaly.org.
Over the past few years, Marks has painstakingly revealed the following:
-- One of Mam's “survivors of sexual slavery,” Meas Ratha, told Marks she'd been coached to recite false, lurid narratives for visiting Western journalists and donors starting 1998.
-- A one-eyed “survivor of sexual slavery” named Long Pross didn't have her eye gouged out by a pimp—as Kristof reported with gorey relish--instead doctors said they removed her eye while extracting an ocular tumor.
-- Mam didn't grow up as a “savage” in the hills of Northern Cambodia and she wasn't purchased by an abusive man she called “grandfather” (as alleged in her absurd international best-selling biography). Instead, Marks reported, she ran away from her humdrum life in a poor rural village after graduating from high school.
It seems hardly surprising that anyone would attempt to profit from Western donors and journalists eager for sob stories.
The larger and more depressing point about Mam's resignation is that Marks' reporting has been plastered on the front pages of the respectable Cambodia Daily for years. It has been echoed in this newspaper and blogged about throughout the region, but was virtually ignored until a zombie magazine republished it in the United States.
Six months ago, when pretty much anyone in Phnom Penh could have told you what the whole world now knows, I wrote a long email to the New York Times's Public Editor filled with links to Marks' stories.
I got no response.
When I emailed Kristof directly, his assistant passed on his hubris—“Nick isn't going to give a comment because it seems the reports are unrelated to the reporting and writing he has done on Somaly Mam,” she wrote.
This is unforgivable.
Kristof didn't just publish Long Pross's unlikely bodice-ripper of a biography and refuse to retract the story after it was debunked, he blindly championed Mam while participating in a series of dumb stunts (e.g. live-tweeting a brothel raid in 2011*).
Off camera, Kristof brought Mam under the velvet rope and into the world of celebrity galas, US State Department dinners and assorted talk shows.
Relying mostly on pathos and PR, the two have enlisted a phalanx of poorly-informed celebrity spokespeople to convince Western donors to pour money onto a problem they hardly understand—throwing Phnom Penh's ratio of child prostitutes to overpaid “rescue” workers into comically absurd proportions.
At home, Kristof joined the ranks of international mimbo Ashton Kutcher in a thoroughly hollow jihad against alternative weeklies for their willingness to publish advertisements for (gasp) prostitutes and massage parlors.
There, again, he was caught promulgating a false narrative that essentially accused my former employer of pimping a kidnapped 16 year old girl.
But the problem is much bigger than any one person's story. It goes to the heart of how Kristof talks about the world and its problems.
Dina Haynes, a Professor of Law at New England Law, last year summed up the extent to which the entire issue has been muddled and dumbed down by Kristof, Kutcher, Mam and her ilk. “Multiple and conflicting viewpoints exist on many aspects of human trafficking,” she wrote in a paper titled The Celebritization of Human Trafficking.
“There are disagreements as to the extent of the problem, the precise definition of the problem, who is victimized, how best to support victims, and how to combat it. In addition, much statistical data on human trafficking is wildly inconsistent and lacks rigorous empirical support. When celebrities lend their confident voices and elevator pitches to this morass of disagreement and inconsistent data, they cannot help but sway an interested public.”
Instead of blaming the exploitative, low-wage sneaker sweatshops that make sex work a desirable alternative for many poor Cambodians, Mam and company assured the world that pedophilic bogeymen and cruel Fagins were to blame.
Moreover, they claimed that human trafficking was something that could be “eradicated” with “empowerment necklaces” and corporate sponsorships and Facebook and mere enthusiasm.
Hardcore feminists and advocates for the rights of the region's many sex workers have been yelling and screaming about the deleterious effects of Mam and Kristof's narrative for years—particularly their desire to “rescue” sex workers by teaching them to sew or do nails.
You could read virtually all of Marks's Newsweek (and several cogent criticisms of Mam) online six months ago by merely googling S-O-M-A-L-Y M-A-M. Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham penned her mea culpa (Cambodian Sex Slave Story Revealed as a Lie) in October of last year.
None of that stopped rich actors in New York and Miami from donating over a million dollars to Mam's foundation at gala events held that same month.
The tap didn't really turn off until two weeks ago, right around the time that the New York Times's Public Editor Margaret Sullivan finally acted on a tidal wave of Newsweek-inspired tweets and emailed Kristof a list of questions.
It took a full week before she got his amazing response—which cited the unknowable and fluid nature of facts in the developing world as one of the reasons for his long silence.
“Can't imagine this excuse going over well with my editor,” tweeted James Welsh, an Al Jazeera stringer based in Phnom Penh.
In Kristof's blogged response, entitled A Woman I Regarded as a Hero and New Doubts, you can almost see him squirm.
And squirm he should.
American journalists (who apparently only get their information from Newsweek) are hitting him hard.
No less than the Washington Post has called for him to stop frantically covering the world so he can “audit” his Cambodia reporting.
Kristof, for his part, is pretending to be “confused” by information that he's surely been aware of for months if not years. Instead of admitting his role in Mam's mass-deception, he tells us he's “very sad” and assures readers he is “continuing to poke around.”
Where is Kristof poking? And more importantly, whom?
Before he predictably throws Mam under the bus, perhaps he should come poke Georges Blanchard, the head of Vietnam's Alliance Anti-Traffic (AAT).
AAT found that even though the trafficking of women from Vietnam to Cambodia for the purpose of sex has slowed to a near trickle, Mam's organization continues to present a distorted picture of trafficking to governments, donors and the general public for the purposes of raising funds.
When I first sat down with Blanchard, last year, he was living in the same small house down in District 3 that he's occupied for years—just a few feet down from his nicotine-stained office.
The Gallic bear of a man has worked in the anti-trafficking field for over two decades, is fluent in Vietnamese and has sought little attention from international press or international celebrities.
He usually dresses in jeans and a t-shirt with some sort of motorcycle on it and manages to live well on less than $900 a month. Unlike Mam, Blanchard fully acknowledged that lots of women make a rational choice to be sex workers because it benefits them more than other available work. Instead of kicking in doors, AAT offers legal protections and plane tickets to Vietnamese women who say they're stuck in sex work abroad and want to come home.
Though AAT continues to be listed on the Somaly Mam Foundation's website as its Vietnamese partner, Blanchard says he's received a pittance from its swollen coffers in recent years.
And he seemed ambivalent about accepting even that.
Blanchard said he believes Mam has engaged in the business of “selling the pity of the misery of the world.”
“And people are buying the pity,” he said with a laugh.
Blanchard also told me that Mam stays in 5-star hotels and usually travels with a retinue that includes a contingent of armed bodyguards and “rescued” girls tasked with removing her shoes before she enters a room.
“It’s not the reality,” he said pointing at his head.
And that's precisely the point. Given all the time Kristof has spent with Mam and her organization, he must know some or all of these things. If he doesn't, then I think it's time he start poking himself.
* Correction. Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article suggested that Nicholas Kristof purchased two girls during his live-tweeted brothel raid in 2011. In fact, he purchased the girls' freedom in 2004, before he began writing about Somaly Mam. His live-tweeted brothel raid occurred in 2011. Calvin Godfrey regrets the error and admits he was wrong.
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