Fact Check

Who’s Telling The Truth About Somaly Mam? A Smashed Icon, A Media Brawl—and a Comeback

First, “Newsweek” called the charismatic anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam a fraud. Now “Marie Claire” says “Newsweek” is guilty of careless reporting.

09.19.14 9:45 AM ET

This means war!        

In the annals of pitched battles between rival media outlets, a brass-knuckled skirmish pitting Newsweek against Marie Claire seems especially unlikely.         

Yet that is exactly what is happening, as the venerable newsmagazine and the glossy women’s monthly duke it out over the biographical particulars of Somaly Mam, a glamorous, charismatic, and celebrated anti-sex-trafficking activist with a murky personal history.        

Newsweek, in a devastating cover story last May, essentially called Mam a fraud, claiming that she fabricated incidents of sexual slavery, abuse, and violence in her life, and those of others, in order to attract media attention and rise to global prominence.        

In a story published Wednesday—which featured Mam’s first interview in response to the allegations—Marie Claire accused Newsweek of careless, unfair reporting that basically assassinated the character of a human rights champion.        

In one instance, which Newsweek now concedes was an editing error, Marie Claire raps the newsmag for misidentifying a Cambodian man, a key source who helped debunk Mam’s personal narrative, as a woman. The headline: “Somaly’s Story: ‘I Didn’t Lie.’ ”        

Meanwhile, Mam, funded by a loyal coterie of financial backers and represented by a white-glove Manhattan PR agency working pro bono, landed in New York on Wednesday afternoon—a few hours after the Marie Claire story broke—and offered herself up for television and print interviews in an attempt to repair her damaged reputation.

Mam—who is waiting to be booked on a network morning show before granting non-televised interviews—also dropped by the Manhattan apartment of Susan Sarandon, one of her staunchest supporters.        

“It was crazy the way they threw her under the bus,” Sarandon told me, noting that she left the board of the Somaly Mam Foundation, which Mam helped launch in 2007, out of pique with their fundraising style. This was even before the nonprofit group hired a Boston law firm to investigate its namesake as Newsweek was preparing its story. “Somebody should investigate the investigation,” Sarandon added. “They spent quite a bit of money, and it’s clear it was not very complete if Marie Claire managed to find out what they did in one attempt.”      

“Somaly Mam wants her dignity and reputation restored,” wrote executive Scott Gorenstein of Jonathan Marder + Company in an email to journalists. “It is her hope that having set the record straight, she can return to the work of rescuing and rehabilitating victims of human trafficking and to helping to halt sexual slavery in all its forms. Please let us know if you are interested to speak to Somaly Mam.”

Newsweek, for one, has requested an interview.

As for Mam’s campaign to stage a comeback, “I think her reputation will be rehabilitated,” Sarandon said, “but her focus right now is just trying to get the girls fed.” There are an estimated 180 young women, rescued from sex slavery and living in Mam’s shelters in Phnom Penh, and she recently sold her car and put her house up for sale to support them, Sarandon said. “She’s trying to get money donated directly to her, which I had started to do even before this happened.”         

Marie Claire editor in chief Anne Fulenwider said she has no comment about Mam using her magazine as a springboard for redemption. Fulenwider is happy to discuss Newsweek, however.        

“I didn’t think first and foremost that this was a ‘calling-bullshit-on-Newsweek’ story,” Fulenwider said, repeating the phraseology of my question in a phone call from Milan Fashion Week. “I saw it as a ‘first-interview-with Somaly Mam’ story.”        

Fulenwider said she jumped at the idea when freelance writer Abigail Pesta told her she had secured the first interview with Mam since the Newsweek hatchet job, and asked to be sent to Cambodia. Pesta is a former Hong Kong-based Wall Street Journal editor and Daily Beast contributor who covers women’s issues and sex trafficking.

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She had sympathetically chronicled Mam’s work in the past for Glamour, New York Magazine and, ironically, Newsweek (when the newsmag was this web site’s corporate sibling), and Mam was a featured panelist at two of former Daily Beast editor in chief Tina Brown’s annual Women in the World summits.        

“It was a ‘get,’ ” Fulenwider said of Pesta’s story. “It’s an interview with someone who has been silent about charges that were made against her, which is always very interesting.” She added: “In as much as it was a media-on-media article, that part was secondary…I don’t think we said, ‘Let’s do a Columbia Journalism Review story here.’ But it became part of what the Somaly Mam story has become.”        

In his first detailed response to Marie Claire, Newsweek editor in chief Jim Impoco defended the May story by Simon Marks, a Brussels-based British journalist who lived and worked in Cambodia from 2009 to last December.        

“I have seldom been involved with such a meticulously lawyered and documented story. The fact that it met with zero push-back after publication until now suggests something,” Impoco said.        

Asked if he’s surprised by Marie Claire’s broadside, Impoco said, “No. We were familiar with the writer’s association with Somaly Mam so we expected something along these lines.” Pesta points out she has dealt with Mam only as a journalist in the years since the activist’s work has been part of her beat.     

Impoco added: “Am I surprised that they tried to make their bones on Newsweek? No. Somaly Mam is a big name and a big story in that world. She’s iconic. This is not the first time she has graced the pages of a women’s magazine.”        

Via email, Fulenwider fired back: “Marie Claire has no need to make its bones. We have been tackling serious issues for years, and our reputation speaks for itself…The fact that no one questioned Newsweek’s story until a few months after it ran means only that no one yet had gotten Somaly to agree to an interview.”          

Until Newsweek published its career-burning takedown, the fortysomething native of rural, war-ravaged Cambodia had parlayed an inspiring narrative of being sold into sexual slavery as a 12-year-old girl, escaping from her tormentors and becoming the savior of thousands of girls suffering a similar ordeal, into worldwide fame. She had authored a memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence: The Story of a Cambodian Heroine, starred in a documentary film, a French television series, and appeared on Oprah.         

She was hugged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, lionized by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and embraced by Hollywood stars. She rubbed elbows with super-rich donors who were deeply moved by her story, and in 2007 she co-founded a multimillion-dollar foundation named after her to support her work.

She was the recipient of prestigious international decorations, an honorary doctorate, and other laurels too numerous to mention—though the 2006 CNN Hero and Glamour magazine “Woman of the Year” honors, plus her induction into the 2009 Time 100, bestowed by Angelina Jolie, are representative of Mam’s accolades.        

Then Newsweek struck, demolishing Mam’s credibility in an account that even Kristof praised for “the richness of the reporting” about her alleged lies and fabrications. The Somaly Mam Foundation—the major funding-source for Mam’s shelter for trafficked girls in Cambodia—hired the Boston law firm Goodwin Procter to conduct a two-month investigation of its namesake, and then forced her resignation. Mam retreated to Phnom Penh without answering the charges.        

Pesta’s story really doesn’t adequately explain—at least to a denizen of non-Cambodian culture, steeped in the folkways of Western media—why Mam behaved in a manner that seemed to confirm her guilt. “I was not silent. I had so many lives to fix,” the activist insists in the Marie Claire story. “For me, it’s not about fighting with everyone. My priority was the girls.”        

When Pesta asks why she didn’t get a lawyer of her own to counter Goodwin Procter, Mam tells her, “I didn’t need a lawyer. Lawyers are all about money. You can kill people and have a lawyer, and if you’re rich, you can go free…I did nothing wrong. My heart is my lawyer.”         

In his Newsweek story, Simon Marks—who had written skeptically about Mam in several investigative pieces for the English-language Cambodia Daily—interviewed villagers in the remote Mondulkiri Province where Mam was born, talked to officials of her public school, and relied on a previously conducted interview with an eye surgeon and what he calls a “medical dossier,” including graphic before-and-after photos, to debunk the widely publicized claim of one of Mam’s rescued girls that she was stabbed in the eye by a pimp when she refused to have sex with customers.

He also credits the incriminating testimony of Mam’s French ex-husband, who helped orchestrate her rise before their divorce, for other suspicious inconsistencies in her statements.        

Pesta encountered a different reality. During a four-and-a-half day trek in August to Cambodia, where she visited Phnom Penh and the village where Mam was a child, Pesta interviewed Mam, her daughter Nieng, and several young women living with them.

In her first-ever media interview, Nieng—whose mother has claimed was kidnapped and trafficked as a teenager—rebuts Marks’ assertion that actually she ran away with a boyfriend. Pesta also, with the help of a Cambodian fixer and Khmer/English interpreter, retraced some of Marks’ reporting and reviewed available records. She discovered much that contradicted Marks’ findings.        

“Of course, people can change the stories they tell,” Pesta writes in Marie Claire. “Contradictory statements, by their very nature, don’t prove which version is the more accurate one. And some people may have a vested interest in Mam’s redemption. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, my findings raise questions about the picture Newsweek painted of Somaly Mam.”              

Former Newsweek International editor Tunku Varadarajan, who stressed that he has “great respect for Jim Impoco,” tweeted this week that Pesta’s story “casts doubt on Newsweek’s takedown”—prompting Impoco’s reply, “Are you joking? Shouldn’t she be making her case to her own foundation’s board, which dismissed her after a lengthy investigation?”       

Indeed, a spokeswoman for Goodwin Procter—whose investigation sealed Somaly Mam’s fate—told The Daily Beast that the law firm’s probe, led by senior partner Brenda Sharton, a veteran litigator, was conducted without relying on Newsweek’s reporting. “It was an independent investigation,” the spokeswoman said, declining to comment further. Ditto a spokeswoman for the Somaly Mam Foundation.        

Yet Varadarajan told me that given the stakes, Newsweek could be more transparent about its reporting and more detailed in its response. “Like many people, I was gobsmacked by the Newsweek story and thought Somaly Mam’s finished. And then I read Abby Pesta’s account,” he said. “The questions she raises are more than just trivial. Many of them go to the heart of Newsweek’s takedown. I suspect Newsweek will have to come up with answers to them—because that’s what good magazines do.”