Emails released in the Sony hack reveal that Concussion director and screenwriter Peter Landesman altered his upcoming film, which seeks to shed light on the deathly consequences faced by NFL players after getting hit in the head repeatedly, to prevent possible legal action by the NFL. Landesman, a former journalist for The New York Times Magazine, admitted as much to the Times on Tuesday, explaining that he wanted to be careful with the facts and evidence presented in his movie to protect its credibility.
“We don’t want to give the NFL a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie,” he said. “There were things that might have been creatively fun to have actors say that might not have been accurate in the heads of the NFL or doctors. We might have gotten away with it legally, but it might have damaged our integrity as filmmakers. We didn’t have a need to make up anything because it was powerful and revelatory on its own.”
So careful was Landesman to verify the story presented in Concussion, the Times reports, that he attempted to broker a meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last September. (Sony execs put the kibosh on that, per the Times.)
With the possible threat of legal action bearing down on him, it’s clear that Landesman avoided taking creative license to make the story more shocking or entertaining. But has he always been so cautious?
In January 2004, Landesman published a blockbuster report on U.S. sex trafficking in the Times magazine, titled “The Girls Next Door.” In it, he claimed that thousands of young female sex slaves were being held “captive and pimped out for forced sex” in hundreds of “stash houses” in the U.S., like one in Plainfield, New Jersey, that cops raided in 2002. After other journalists questioned the veracity of this and other claims made in the story, the Times appended several corrections to the story as well as an editor’s note defending it.
Landesman suffered no serious professional consequences for the errors in the piece, nor for what critics saw as prurient exaggeration throughout.
Landesman’s reporting was strongly criticized in 2004 by then-Slate reporter Jack Shafer (now at Politico) and blogger Dan Radosh (now a Daily Show writer). While Shafer and Radosh praised Landesman and the Times’ editors for shedding light on U.S. sex trafficking at the time—which surely existed, based on Landesman’s description of a successful prosecution of sex traffickers and the aforementioned N.J. raid—the two pointed out that Landesman offered little evidence to support the huge numbers cited in the piece.
In “The Girls Next Door,” Landesman described the scope of the sex trafficking problem in the U.S. thusly:
[T]he United States has become a major importer of sex slaves. Last year, the C.I.A. estimated that between 18,000 and 20,000 people are trafficked annually into the United States. The government has not studied how many of these are victims of sex traffickers, but Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, America’s largest anti-slavery organization, says that the number is at least 10,000 a year. John Miller, the State Department’s director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, conceded: ‘’That figure could be low. What we know is that the number is huge.’’ Bales estimates that there are 30,000 to 50,000 sex slaves in captivity in the United States at any given time.
He asserted that these 10,000 trafficked individuals were being held captive in “dozens of active stash houses and apartments in the New York metropolitan area—mirroring hundreds more in other major cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago,” though he only cited the one confirmed “stash house” in N.J.
When Landesman cites the 18,000 to 20,000 number in his article, he acknowledges that the government has yet to determine how many are sold into sex slavery, but then he lets Kevin Bales of the nonprofit group Free the Slaves hype his premise with the speculation that the number is “at least 10,000 a year.” How credible is Bales? How credible are his numbers? Bales claims 27 million slaves around the world, which is only 10 times larger than the estimate of the Anti-Slavery Society, which puts the number at 2.7 million.
State Department go-to guy on slavery John Miller tells Landesman that the 10,000 new sex slaves a year estimate by Bales “could be low.” But the fact is nobody in the field seems to have a good handle on slave traffic numbers or the sex slave population in the United States. So, when Bales surmises that there are between 30,000 to 50,000 sex slaves in the United States at any time, don’t feel the need to believe him. Nobody really knows the true answer, but we do know whose interests are served by any inflation of the numbers.
Landesman’s defense: In the story, Landesman quoted Laura Lederer, then a senior State Department adviser on trafficking, to account for the huge number of sex slaves apparently hidden in the U.S. She said, “We’re not finding victims in the United States because we’re not looking for them.’’
The Times’ defense: In the editor’s note added to Landesman’s story, the Times’ simply defended using Bales as a definitive source:
Some readers have questioned the figure of 10,000 enforced prostitutes brought into this country each year. The source of that number is Kevin Bales, recommended to the magazine by Human Rights Watch as the best authority on the extent of enforced prostitution in the United States, who based his estimates on State Department documents, arrest and prosecution records and information from nearly 50 social service agencies.
There is still, obviously, no way to know how many sex slaves are trafficked into the U.S. each year. In 2007, The Washington Post reported that the Bush administration had “identified 1,362 victims of human trafficking brought into the United States since 2000.”
More recent statistics from the Department of Justice indicate that the Department prosecutes tens of trafficking cases annually. From its website: “From 2009 to 2011, the Department brought an average of 24 forced labor cases annually, more than doubling the average of 11 cases brought annually over the prior 3-year period from 2006 to 2008.”
Problems with Sources
Landesman’s cited statistics would certainly have been more believable had he backed them up with credible reports from witnesses. Landesman did provide harrowing anecdotes about the way the sex trade allegedly works in the U.S., but the majority of them came from anonymous, single sources. Wrote Radosh at the time:
Notice that the most salacious charges (and make no mistake, from the cover photo on, this is a disturbingly prurient article) come entirely single-sourced by anonymous young women. At one point Landesman writes, “All the girls I spoke to said that their captors were both psychologically and physically abusive,” implying that there are many. But throughout the article he identifies only two (“Andrea” and “Montserrat”) and never mentions speaking to any others on background. Considering that much of their stories are so literally fantastic (girls being dressed in color-coded outfits for open trade at Disneyland; Johns who read the Bible to girls before raping them) you’d think he, or the editors, would want some confirmation.
One of Landesman’s primary sources, “Andrea,” had multiple personality disorder, which Landesman did not disclose in the story. Landesman did note that Andrea could not remember her real name or age, but she did remember many details about her life as a sex slave being trafficked back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico for 12 years. As Shafer pointed out at the time, “much of the sensational material in ‘The Girls Next Door’ comes from ‘Andrea.’” She told Landesman that “one American businessman read to her from the Bible before and after sex, that she witnessed a 4-year-old boy being purchased for $500, that she was regularly passed off to customers at Disneyland, and that one regular john was a child psychologist.”
Landesman’s defense: In a comment on Radosh’s blog, Landesman insisted that Andrea was a reliable source. “‘Andrea’ has been fully vetted and confirmed as reliable and credible by a higher body of journalism than you or I,” he wrote.
The Times’ defense: In the editor’s note, the Times admitted that Landesman did not make editors aware of Andrea’s diagnosis before publication:
After the article was published, [Landesman] made an impromptu comment in a radio interview, noting that Andrea has multiple-personality disorder. The magazine editors did not learn of her illness before publication. Andrea’s account of her years in slavery remained consistent over two and a half years of psychotherapy. Her therapist says that her illness has no effect on the accuracy of her memory. Her hours-long interview with the author, recorded on tape, is lucid and consistent.
An independent expert consulted by the magazine, Dr. Leonard Shengold, who has written books and papers about child abuse and the reliability and unreliability of memory, affirms that a diagnosis of multiple-personality disorder is not inconsistent with accurate memories of childhood abuse. Because multiple-personality disorder has been associated with false memory, however, the diagnosis should have been cited in the article.
There were many other smaller errors the story (two chronological problems; one hotel was referred to incorrectly; one instance of hearsay was presented as a firsthand account; etc), which were corrected in the editor’s note.
In 2007, Shafer reflected on “The Girls Next Door” in a Slate piece titled, “The Sex-Slavery Epidemic That Wasn’t.” He cited the Post’s reported statistics from the Bush administration (1,362 confirmed victims from 2000-2007) and argued that none of the estimates given by activists in Landesman’s piece seemed “remotely accurate.”
In 2007, Trade, a movie “inspired” by Landesman’s ostensible exposé starring Kevin Kline, was released in theaters. Since then, Landesman’s built a healthy career as a screenwriter and director—a career that will almost certainly reach new heights once the Oscar-bait that is Concussion hits theaters this Christmas.
Landesman’s admission that he altered parts of Concussion because “we don’t want to give the NFL a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie” could be evidence that he’s learned be more careful with the facts when going after a huge, national story. Or he could have just realized that the NFL is more likely to sue than a coalition of non-existent pimps.