Off The Record

“I see part of the magazine’s job, a big part of the magazine’s job, as starting conversations,” New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati said.

Mr. Marzorati was speaking late in the afternoon on Feb. 2, having sparked the loudest conversation of his term since taking over for current Times culture czar Adam Moss last summer-a Jan. 25 cover story on sex slavery in the United States dubbed “The Girls Next Door.”

The 8,244-word investigation, written by Times Magazine contributing writer Peter Landesman, posited that perhaps “30,000 to 50,000″ women-along with girls and boys-were being held as sex slaves in hundreds of “stash houses.” More than arming the Sunday-afternoon brunch crowd in New Canaan with something to actually talk about, it stoked the ire of Times watchers, most notably the Web site Slate ‘s media commentator Jack Shafer, who charged the magazine with using puffed-up statistics, shoddy reporting and worse logic in order to prop up a supposition into a national epidemic.

The Times , according to a Feb. 3 report in the Daily News , officially reviewed the piece and stands by it.

Likewise, Mr. Landesman told Off the Record, “The only thing that really matters in this entire debate is the story, its integrity, its sourcing and its revelations. The story must speak for itself. It is the result of months of exhaustive reporting and painstaking editing and checking. It doesn’t flinch under scrutiny; it’s of vital importance. I stand behind it, and so do the editors of The New York Times Magazine .”

And Mr. Marzorati, sitting with his feet on his desk in his darkened eighth-floor office on West 43rd Street, seemed undeterred, even defiant, at the tempest that blew up so early in his tenure at the magazine’s helm.

The new editor has not made dramatic or sudden changes to the magazine-he’s a veteran, after all, who had a run there as editorial director for five years before taking on the top of the masthead. But as Mr. Marzorati defended his magazine from the firestorm of attacks, a picture-however hazy-emerged of how the magazine sees itself in relation to the paper that mothers it.

Anytime, he said, you run a piece that asserts something in the subterranean tunnels of American life, you’re going to draw fire.

“You’re going to run that kind of risk,” Mr. Marzorati said. And that’s the job of the magazine.

This scandal has been different from the ones that ate up Jayson Blair or Michael Finkel. There’s no charge of duplicitousness here. This has become an intellectual’s debate, about journalistic ethics, and about deductive reasoning and logic.

As Mr. Shafer pointed out in the first of his five pieces on the subject, Mr. Landesman relied on governmental and non-governmental sources that were merely guesstimating the actual numbers of people trafficked into the United States each year. Mr. Landesman never witnessed actual trafficking, using a few anecdotal cases to stand for what he claims are thousands of women-and he admits as much. Plus, one of the women he spoke to told him she suffers from a multiple-personality disorder.

“From beginning to end, this is an incomprehensible piece of journalism,” Mr. Shafer said in an interview with Off the Record. “What he’s talking about is coercion and abduction and pure enslavement. I think the piece suffers from journalism of good intentions. Landesman found some real suffering and wasn’t content to describe the suffering he knew about. He’s intent on portraying a greater, mass form of suffering.”

“Any kind of sex crime automatically entails estimates,” said Mr. Marzorati, who wrote a lengthy response to Mr. Shafer’s critiques on Slate after Mr. Landesman lashed out about Mr. Shafer. “We don’t even know how many women are raped in America. We don’t know how many prostitutes there are in America. We don’t know how many cases of child abuse there are in America. Then you add this extra level of international organized crime as you would with cocaine or anything else.”

The story’s reporting, Mr. Marzorati said, was involved, but not out of the ordinary.

Mr. Landesman, Mr. Marzorati said, began working on the piece last summer, after sources at the Los Angeles Police Department and the United Nations told him of the scope of human trafficking into the United States. He was in contact with the editors, and-unlike in some recent cases at The Times -they knew where he was traveling because they’d get his expense-check requests. The piece arrived in early December as an “unwieldy” first draft, Mr. Marzorati said: roughly 13,000 words. Over the next several weeks, intensive fact-checking took place, including conversations between the editors and the girls who were the subjects of the story.

“It was a very, very difficult story for him to report in the way of getting inside any organized-crime unit or syndicate would be,” Mr. Marzorati said. “Also, in certain ways we were inhibited by the fact he was let in on a number of ongoing investigations, and the way he was allowed to get in on those investigations was to not mention they were taking place.

“He had many, many things off the record,” Mr. Marzorati said, “on deep background, which gives some readers cause for skepticism, coupled with the fact that the reality, the existence of this phenomenon is hard to comprehend. But for most of our readers, they understand it’s The Times . The Times doesn’t just throw things out at the readers without going through an enormously painstaking vetting process. The piece was carefully read by a number of readers, by me many, many times, and I stand by the story.”

“What happens when you do a piece like this,” Mr. Marzorati continued, “it doesn’t unfold in a natural, seamless narrative. You’re not going to get two or three or four corroborating sources on the record. You can’t just go wandering into a stash house and talk to girls. There are guards, drivers, people who usher in johns. There are all kinds of situations. Which is why these stories are hard.”

No one will concede that prostitution isn’t a problem in the United States. But this is sexual slavery-a term that carries with it specific connotations. Mr. Marzorati said he didn’t hesitate in using the term in the piece. Is a prostitute a sex slave? What about a prostitute who is working off an exorbitant price to get smuggled into the United States illegally?

“Well you know, here’s my feeling,” Marzorati said. “In this country the issue of sexual trafficking isn’t a liberal or mainstream feminist issue. Here, it’s mostly an issue associated with the right and to some degree the Christian right, and I think in the polarized culture we have, there’s suspicion with any issue associated with those groups, it seems to me. I’m quite convinced there’s something called sexual slavery or sexual trafficking, for want of a better word, that’s different than prostitution. Life is a matter of degree, and there is a vast degree of difference between their lives and the kind of economic system they’re operating in and the age they are than prostitutes. You know, it didn’t seem very complicated to me.

“We didn’t use the word slave without the word sex,” Mr. Marzorati said. “It does carry a meaning that’s different. Just in the way there’s trafficking to do manual labor or agricultural work. There’s trafficking of people to perform sexual acts. It’s something different. The system is something different.”

Over the years, of course, The Times Magazine has jump-started the national conversation. Remember when we were scared of killer mold? Remember tackling your 3-year-old before she poked her finger inside a jar of peanut butter? Remember how women-that is, well-off women with husbands-were leaving the workplace for the sanctity of home life?

But this feels different. Larger. Certainly, as Mr. Shafer pointed out, The Times newspaper-which boasts a team of investigative reporters-might have been a better venue.

“The magazine is constantly addressing things that aren’t in the paper,” Mr. Marzorati said. “That’s sort of our mandate. There’s this vast, multi-faceted news organization here, and God knows we provide our readers with enough duplication, as hard as we try not to. Magazine pieces are written in a different way. They have a point of view. They’re often written with more intensity. They’re often allowed a kind of normative ending. Most of the cover stories that we do, even if they weren’t the length that they were, are pieces the paper won’t do. That’s part of our mandate.

“There are times when I think this story belongs in another part of the paper,” Mr. Marzorati said. “But it’s never because the subject is too controversial or the topic is too incendiary or something like that. It’s more like maybe it’d be better in Arts and Leisure. The magazine is a general-interest magazine. It’s the sum of the interests of the editors here and the writers who write for us, and we respond to those curiosities.”

In similar fashion, Mr. Marzorati said the piece’s scope fits with the demands of a narrative structure not in place in the newsprint pages of The Times .

“The standards for a magazine piece, for a piece of long-form nonfiction, are different than they are for a news story,” Mr. Marzorati said. “When you’re putting together a magazine piece, organizing a magazine piece, you’re allowing things like point of view and creating long scenes. This is not the function of newspaper writing, where the writing is: An event happens, you get comments from people on those events, you get other comments from people who disagree with the comments of people you just spoke to. Your conventions are such that you create something fair and balanced. That’s not the magazine convention.

“When we’re writing a story on these kids who write [computer] viruses and worms, we don’t turn over half the story to people who say viruses and worms really aren’t a big problem,” Mr. Marzorati said. “That’s not a convention of any magazine.”