Hanging by the Telephone

A NYTimes account is mum on Strauss-Kahn accuser's phone call

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.

Strauss-Kahn was released without bail and, despite the acknowledged “unambiguous evidence of a sexual encounter,” public and media attention quickly swung against the anonymous accuser. She quickly lost her quiet life of Nigerian comedies, and became characterized as conniving, an immigrant working the system who pals around with crooks and drug dealers. The stories proliferated and the New York Post went one step more and suggested she had worked as a prostitute, drawing a libel suit from Diallo’s legal team.

Last week, on the heels of Diallo’s exclusive interviews with Newsweek and ABC—which were rated by observers as anything from somewhat redeeming to desperate—her lawyer spent hours with the DA listening to the recorded phone calls. He claims his client’s conversation was mistranslated and misrepresented by prosecutors in their leaks to the media. He says she was merely telling her fiancĂ© what had happened to her—that Strauss-Kahn was a big and powerful man, or even a man with a lot of money, is not a detail that many people in her situation would have left out. His claims were reported by the media—and, indeed, in The New York Times. The DA’s office refused to comment, and the lawyer’s claims received less attention.

And so that’s where the story was on August 1, when The New York Times e-mailed subscribers the “Story Behind The Story.” If you’d think the Times might take this opportunity to provide some explanation or clarification about the recording, you’d be wrong. The story behind the story is kept to the events—and the “relentless reporting” of “wonderful reporter” William K. Rashbaum and “ever-relentless” John Eligon—of June 30. To be fair, this odd little piece of Times back-patting is not a formally published piece, but it gives insights into how the paper came to initially report Diallo’s call to Arizona.

Ryan reveals Metro Desk reporters had become aware the DA’s case against Strauss-Kahn was unraveling:

After spending much of the week pressing sources, a few facts seemed clear: the prosecutors’ body language had shifted dramatically from the opening days of the case, when they declared emphatically that Mr. Strauss-Kahn had sexually assaulted the housekeeper. They now seemed less confident about the victim making the accusation. Additionally, both sides were planning to be in court the next day. And there seemed to be a possibility that the case might never come to trial.

Her narrative picks up later in the day:

It was getting close to 6 p.m., and we were still drafting the piece, debating how strongly we could signal to readers that the case was in trouble.

That’s when Jim Dwyer, our Pulitzer Prize-winning Metro columnist, a remarkably plugged-in New York newspaperman, came forward with crucial—and potentially explosive—details.

A trusted law enforcement source of Jim’s, who had once believed the victim was a devout and truthful woman, now said there were major problems with her credibility. The housekeeper had lied on her taxes and on her immigration asylum application, where she falsely claimed she had been raped. And she had ties to people involved in criminal activities, including an incarcerated man she had a conversation with the day after the encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn.

Jim’s breakthrough seemed to loosen John and Willy’s sources, so they confirmed the account and gathered other details. And Jim kept turning up more.

This was evidently not a time to exercise restraint. They were on deadline and breaking a big story that, Ryan notes, they went to extraordinary measures to keep secret from their “ferocious tabloid rivals.” The sources were trusted and they ran with it.

Ryan’s account ends oddly several hours later, with her team eating guacamole and one reporter being whisked off to talk about the scoop on a morning talk show. And that’s it.

While the account (available in PDF form here) mentions the phone call (“a conversation” with an “incarcerated man”) that figured prominently in that night’s big story, and was at the center of the next day’s follow-up, it says nothing about its now-disputed content, which, the Times’s reporting clearly suggested, indicated Diallo might be pursuing the case for financial benefit. The e-mailed account merely notes it as an example of Diallo’s ties to unsavory characters. It does not defend the reporting against the lawyer’s recent challenge or even acknowledge that a challenge has been made. This omission is striking, mostly because of the importance of the call’s content, but also because the e-mail, which promised to chronicle “the twisting case,” leaves out any discussion of this most recent and dramatic twist.

It’s expected, and for the best, that a story changes with deeper reporting. But when reporting is contested, as in the case with Diallo’s phone call, it warrants a fuller reckoning, particularly by the organization that has brought it to light. It is noteworthy that prosecutors were not willing to provide comment when the story was disputed.

Given the impact the Times’s scoop on the phone recording has had on the dynamics and public perception of the case—by suggesting that Diallo was profiteering—and the wild trajectory the Strauss-Kahn reporting has taken thus far, it’d be a lot easier to trust the original reporting on the phone call, if they gave readers—and not just subscribers—reason to.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , ,