Somaly Mam, Nick Kristof, and journalism’s hero problem

Reporters should not abandon the story of child trafficking in Cambodia, just because its 'hero' has fallen

Heroes are complicated and victims aren’t always who we think they are. As journalists, we are storytellers lured by the power of a great narrative. But we are also investigators, and that’s the part of our job we must honor first—especially when heroes fall and readers become victims, misled by the stories we write.

In recent weeks, the Somaly Mam Foundation cut funding to its Cambodian anti-trafficking NGO, Afesip, after the foundation’s namesake resigned amid reports she had made up significant portions of her background. Somaly Mam stands by her story—that she was abused and trafficked in her youth—despite further allegations that she coached young Cambodian girls into lying about their own experiences in order to raise money for the foundation.

The news fueled a global outcry. The world loved Somaly Mam, a victim who had fought back. This was an activist who had established a renowned organization to end the hell she said she had personally known. Somaly Mam had the support of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, from Susan Sarandon to Sheryl Sandberg. And she had the ear of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who exalted her in print.

But the story shattered, Somaly fell, and readers demanded Kristof find new work. Some even petitioned for a lawsuit accusing him of theft and fraud. “The Somaly case has certainly reminded me of the need for caution, but then again all of journalism is a daily lesson that things are more complicated than they seem,” Kristof told me last week in an email.

The complications begin with a single word.

“I thought she was a hero,” Kristof wrote on his Times blog after the scandal broke. Hero: it’s such a definitive characterization, and it’s imperative to good storytelling, we’re taught. Heroes feed the need for narrative, central to human nature. Studies show that audiences relate more easily to a single hero with a single story than to issues affecting millions. In fact, Kristof has said this is why he chooses to write about individuals rather than the plight of many.

“Storytelling is the human mind,” the biologist E.O. Wilson said on a recent TRBQ public radio show. But narrative has a downside. As TRBQ host Dean Olsher told Wilson, our culture is “drunk” on storytelling, which can “shut off our critical function and mesmerize us.”

This is why heroes are potentially dangerous turf for journalists. We, too, can be wooed by aura and charisma, turning from healthy skeptics to worshipers. Our belief in heroes can endanger our allegiance to truth.

Heroism is complicated further by the realities of troubled lands—places like Cambodia, simultaneously hamstrung and defined by government corruption and rampant poverty. Sometimes, in such environments, one way for the downtrodden to get ahead or get noticed is through the same dubious means that create corruption in the first place. “Pity is a most dangerous emotion,” Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told The New York Times last month, urging Cambodians to abandon the “beggar mentality” and foreigners to “stop reacting to pure emotion.”

It’s hard, often impossible, to verify personal narratives when documentation is scarce and back-up sources don’t exist. So what’s a journalist to do? “I now wish I had never written about her,” Kristof wrote of Somaly Mam last month on his blog.

Yet many personal stories of injustice are true, and to ignore them would defy our journalistic duties as well. This leaves Kristof admittedly “a bit conflicted.” He says he’s seen “so many other people, from Denis Mukwege to Tererai Trent to Edna Adan…who have only shone brighter over time.”

As journalists, we must look hard at our greater goals. In reference to genocide, Samantha Power writes eloquently about humanity’s responsibility to the victims of atrocity, whose stories “are, by definition, ‘incredible,’” and that “a bias toward belief would do less harm than a bias toward disbelief.” The Somaly Mam Foundation claims to have helped 100,000 Cambodian women and girls in need. Those are compelling enough numbers—100,000 beneficiaries, 1 embattled hero—to justify the coverage that originally brought Somaly Mam to light.

I asked Kristof if he would follow up. “I’d love to if Somaly would give an interview or maybe on some future trip to Cambodia,” he wrote.

Returning to the source could help mend the damage of this fallen-hero story. As journalists, our duty is to the issues at stake. Trafficking hasn’t vanished with Somaly Mam’s demise. Thousands of women and girls across Cambodia continue to suffer real abuses. This month, Afesip laid off 39 staffers after the Somaly Mam Foundation cut its funding, The Cambodia Daily reports. No one knows what’s in store for 170 children who live at the organization’s three shelters. Kristof could find out.

Coincidentally, my own work has overlapped with Kristof’s. I began covering the country in 1998, when I worked at The Cambodia Daily, (the paper that first unveiled the Somaly Mam fiasco). Through the years, I’ve lost count of how many Cambodians I’ve interviewed about trafficking, rape, and abuse. I believe the majority of their stories. But I have also been duped. It’s not unusual for determined people in desperate places to prey upon a reporter’s sympathies, sometimes through outright lies. The system encourages it: victimhood opens doors to shelter, food, schooling, and love. It attracts money and induces tales of heroics—and so the cycle continues.

I am glad Kristof originally wrote about Somaly Mam and trafficking. My discomfort lies in semantics and storytelling style. My own book on Cambodia, published in 2005, contains a chapter on grassroots workers whom I called “Heroes” at the time. I’d name that chapter differently today—perhaps “Activists” or “Revolutionaries.” I’ve learned that life can take crooked turns long after our stories are published, and not everyone lives up to our labels—good or bad (some of my “heroes” continue to lead their causes, one has suffered personal setbacks and another was accused of child abuse, though I was never able to substantiate those allegations). I prefer to provide facts within narratives but let readers decide who or what makes a champion.

After all, our job is not to create heroes. Our job is to seek truth and expose injustice. The only way we can do that is to keep on digging, keep on writing, even as our heroes fall.

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Karen Coates , author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War, is a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her latest book, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, co-authored with photojournalist Jerry Redfern, was published in December 2013. Tags: , , , ,