Sarah Jenny Bleviss brought this Editors’ Note in the New York Times to our attention, in which the paper admits to serious reporting errors in its coverage of sex workers. An entire two-thirds of the original article has been deleted from the article, which supposedly profiled three “high class call girls” in New York. It turns out, though, that two of the women were sex workers but not prostitutes:
An article on March 16 profiling three sex workers in the wake of Gov. Eliot Spitzerâ€™s resignation after revelations that he patronized prostitutes misconstrued how two of the women, identified by the pseudonyms Faith Oâ€™Donnell and Sally Anderson, said they earned a living. The resulting misrepresentation of the two womenâ€™s work included a headline that referred to them as â€œhigh-priced call girlsâ€ and a paragraph that said they practiced â€œthe 21st-century version of the oldest profession.â€
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 â€œsex workers,â€ a term they used themselves that describes strippers and lap dancers as well as prostitutes. Though Ms. Anderson advertises herself as a â€œdominatrix with a holistic approach,â€ he did not ask her whether that meant she also performed sex acts for money, nor did he ask Ms. Oâ€™Donnell what her work actually was before characterizing it. He and the editors should have explored whether he had determined these things precisely.
Further, the article didn’t even report accurately on the work of the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project, or the outcome of one of its events:
[T]he 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. Andersonâ€™s observation that â€œno oneâ€ had come to an event she had helped plan to highlight difficulties faced by prostitutes; Ms. Anderson meant that no journalists had attended.
The article as it stands now looks rather sad and lonely and meaningless. All that’s left is the profile of a single call girl from Long Island, one Ava Xiâ€™an, who sells real estate and “turned to selling herself when her father, who lacks health insurance, needed heart surgery.” It tells a little about how prostitution has moved onto the Internet, but it seems like beyond that, the story’s only remaining virtue is that it might get some extra work for Ava Xi’an. Ironically, the original article did get props both here at SitPS and at Bound, Not Gagged, for being more fair and accurate about the lives of middle-class sex workers. Faith O’Donnell had several complaints about it from the first publication, including that she felt there were too many identifying details published about her, while getting other very basic details (such as the nature of her sex work) utterly wrong.
The reporting on the Spitzergate scandal has been more surreal than the original scandal itself, and says far more about America’s relationship with sexuality and sex workers. When MSNBC was vetting Audacia Ray for an interview, they asked her right out: “Have you been a whore?” Apparently the NYT can’t even get that much straight.