The strange case of the sex workers and the missing byline

You might have seen this doozy of an Editor’s note in Sunday’s New York Times:

An article on March 16 profiling three sex workers in the wake of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation after revelations that he patronized prostitutes misconstrued how two of the women, identified by the pseudonyms Faith O’Donnell and Sally Anderson, said they earned a living. The resulting misrepresentation of the two women’s work included a headline that referred to them as “high-priced call girls” and a paragraph that said they practiced “the 21st-century version of the oldest profession.”

The reporter who interviewed them, one of two who worked on the article, never explicitly asked the women whether they traded sex for money or were prostitutes, call girls or escorts; he used the term “sex workers,” a term they used themselves that describes strippers and lap dancers as well as prostitutes. Though Ms. Anderson advertises herself as a “dominatrix with a holistic approach,” he did not ask her whether that meant she also performed sex acts for money, nor did he ask Ms. O’Donnell what her work actually was before characterizing it. He and the editors should have explored whether he had determined these things precisely.

After the article was published, both women contacted The Times and said they do not perform sex for money; Ms. O’Donnell refused to be specific about what she does.

Because of an editing error, the article misstated the political work of the New York chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a group in which Ms. Anderson is active; it advocates the decriminalization of prostitution, not its legalization, arguing that sex work should be regulated through labor law like other jobs but not subject to additional restrictions. Another editing error changed the meaning of Ms. Anderson’s observation that “no one” had come to an event she had helped plan to highlight difficulties faced by prostitutes; Ms. Anderson meant that no journalists had attended.

This one is a classic, so of course I went to the article to find out who “the reporter” (a he) was, and I found this:

callgirl.jpg

No male name in the byline. And no “additional reporting by…” note at the bottom. So I looked up the original article (still on the Times website at a different URL) and found this:

oldcall.jpg

So Andrew Jacobs is “the reporter.” I’m sympathetic to his mistake, assuming that it was one (it seems possible, perhaps even likely, that the two women, although pseudonymous, regretted the publicity and wanted to backtrack on their decision to speak publicly about their work). If women are describing themselves as being “sex workers” to a reporter, and going into a fair amount of detail about the rates they charge, then I can imagine the reporter not pressing them to be more precise about exactly what goods they provide — he probably just thought they were using the formal-sounding term out of caution, or to make a show of self-respect in a culture that stigmatizes them, or who knows what. In most cases, you’re probably safe letting the imprecision stand, but if your article is mentioning two women in the 1st and 3rd paragraph of a story, and the fourth paragraph starts with “They are three young women practicing the 21st-century version of the oldest profession,” you had better be precise, at least in your own mind, about what exactly they do for a living.

The most interesting question, for me, is what unfolded between Jacobs and the editors, and whose decision it was to remove his byline from the (rewritten) article. The amount of drama and anxiety that arises from byline issues is hard to overstate, and asking for a byline to be removed from an article is — next to quitting — perhaps the biggest protest a newspaper reporter can make about the way they’ve been treated by editors, or about their disavowal of the article that is going to press. Similarly, removing a reporter’s byline from an article is quite a strong rebuke from an editor. I suppose it’s possible that the decision was mutual or amicable. Perhaps, given the revisions that had to occur, and the embarrassment of the error, Jacobs and the editors all felt that the new, eviscerated version of the article was different enough, and Jacobs’ contributions to it so minimal or compromised, that his byline no longer should be on the article. My guess, however, is that there were some contentious discussions over the past week or two.

I’ll be curious to see if any back story emerges in the next few days. Although this episode is relatively minor and apparently isolated, reporters have left jobs over less. Remember that in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, Rick Bragg was suspended — and then resigned — for actions that were not only condoned, but also encouraged, by his editors. If Jacobs feels like he’s been unduly and publicly shamed, or if his editors didn’t mind having an excuse to get rid of him, then it wouldn’t shock me if he and the Times part ways. Jacobs is youngish, but not totally green — he’s probably been at the Times for a decade or so, although possibly not on the career trajectory he would have hoped for. If he’s not thrilled about his career at the Times, or if the Times is not thrilled about his career at the Times, then this is the sort of occasion that might be used by one side or the other as a reason to sever ties. Or maybe it will just blow over. We’ll see.

UPDATE: After writing the above, I googled out of curiosity, and found a blog post written by “Faith O’Donnell” outlining her problems with the article. Most of her complaints, for better or worse, are pretty par for the course from people who have been profiled in the newspaper: certain facts are wrong, the reporter omitted important things, that the reporter seemed to be understanding but ended up focusing on the wrong things, that the reporter seemed to combine some details of her story with those of some unmentioned interviewees, and so on. She doesn’t describe specifics of her work, but notes that “I have never identified as a prostitute or call girl” and “I’m not doing anything illegal.” I believe her, and it sounds like the Times editors did too.

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