On Monday, The New York Times had an exclusive for its subscribers: an e-mail promising, as its title read, “The Story Behind the Story: The Twisting Case Against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.” Written by Carolyn Ryan, the metropolitan editor, it was only the second such behind the scenes e-mail offered by the Times as a perk to subscribers after instituting their paywall.
With that title, it sounds like a tantalizing and timely read, particularly given the latest twist in the case, when the lawyer of Strauss-Kahn’s accuser, Nafissatou Diallo, claimed last week that news The New York Times originally broke—allegations of an “alarming” recorded phone call Diallo placed to an Arizona jail that made it seem “as if she hoped to profit” from her charges—was wrong.
Indeed, the story of the International Monetary Fund president and his hotel-housekeeper accuser has been full of twists, and the Times—being the juggernaut that it is—has been the petri dish in which much of this twisting narrative been cultured. Let’s review:
On May 14, Dominique Strauss-Kahn first made headlines like this one in The New York Times: “I.M.F. Chief, Apprehended at Airport, Is Accused of Sexual Attack.”
Details were sketchy, but things did not look good for Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who was reported in American media to be a philandering womanizer and a Porsche-driving Socialist.
In the weeks that followed, the Times threw their weight into all sorts of related stories and op-eds—no less than fifty by June 30, Ryan tells us—about sex and power, the tolerances of French women, sexual-cravenness at the IMF, outrage in France, the appropriateness of the perp walk, the hazards for hotel housekeepers and so on.
By June 14, a month after the alleged attack, the media seemed to be fully in the anonymous accuser’s corner, as evidenced by the Times’s profile of the woman, which drew upon the collective efforts of three reporters (seven counting foot-noted contributors) and a trip to an isolated hamlet in Africa, to give the first detailed picture of who the accuser is. The takeaway was that, as the title put it, “Strauss-Kahn’s Accuser Portrayed as Quiet, Hard-working.” The reporting seemed exhaustive:
In dozens of interviews with people who know her or are familiar with her life, the woman, now 32, is portrayed as an unassuming and hard-working single mother. The interviews were conducted in New York and in her homeland, Guinea, with relatives, neighbors, co-workers and former employers. The woman herself has stayed out of public view in recent weeks and has not spoken to reporters.
For color we get that her father was an imam. She grew up in a thatched-roofed hut alongside holy books. Her life in New York is reported to be staid—she is “not fiery” and enjoys watching Nigerian comedies.
But then, just half a month later, came a drastically different picture. It was the result of revelations, broken by the Times on June 30. “Strauss-Kahn Prosecution Said to Be Near Collapse,” read the headline.
The story charts the accuser’s newly-discovered credibility issues. The Times produced a letter from the district attorney’s office which speaks to all of these—lying on her asylum application, lying on her taxes, inconsistencies in her story about movements after the assault. Actually, one key detail is absent from the letter, and, significantly, it’s the detail the Timeshat has become the most damning, one that was placed high in the article. The Times reports it like this:
According to the two officials, the woman had a phone conversation with an incarcerated man within a day of her encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn in which she discussed the possible benefits of pursuing the charges against him.
The Times ran another story on July 1, “Strauss-Kahn Accuser’s Call Alarmed Prosecutors,” which provides more detail and suggests that it was the phone call that had tipped the scales. It describes the “ground-shifting revelation”:
Twenty-eight hours after a housekeeper at the Sofitel New York said she was sexually assaulted by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, she spoke by phone to a boyfriend in an immigration jail in Arizona.
Investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office learned the call had been recorded and had it translated from a “unique dialect of Fulani,” a language from the woman’s native country, Guinea, according to a well-placed law enforcement official.
When the conversation was translated—a job completed only this Wednesday—investigators were alarmed: “She says words to the effect of, ‘Don’t worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I’m doing,’” the official said.
The Times allows for a fair amount of imprecision—“words to the effect” in “a unique dialect of Fulani”—for such a consequential detail, the only one that suggested she was might be exploiting Strauss-Kahn.