Author’s note: this article begins a series exploring who writes El Paso’s narrative, where we explore how censorship controls what the community hears. Debbie Nathan is a journalist who has written for several outlets, including The El Paso Times, Newspaper Tree and most recently the El Paso Matters. She is one of the moderators of the Facebook Group Chucopedia and is also the author of several books. (corrected at 12:30, June 11, 2021 to replace Stanton Street with Newspaper Tree.)
Please note that some material in this article involves child abuse cases and thus may be difficult for some readers to read.
This article was simultaneously published on El Paso Politics and El Paso News on June 11, 2021
Debbie Nathan was born in Houston in 1950. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Temple University in 1972. After graduating, she moved to the borderland. In 1980, Nathan left El Paso and moved to Chicago where she began working at The Reader. In 1984, she and her husband moved back to El Paso. 
In 2012, Debbie Nathan was hired by Newspaper Tree publisher Louie Gilot, who previously worked under Bob Moore at the El Paso Times.  The Newspaper Tree was attempting to relaunch as a nonprofit at the time. The El Paso Community Foundation was assisting the online publication in seeking a non-profit status from the IRS. The El Paso Community Foundation is funded by some of El Paso’s wealthiest businessmen with Woody Hunt being one the largest contributors.
Nathan’s journalistic journey has been controversial for years. In her own words, “my freelance work was appreciated outside of El Paso, but it defined me as a crank within it.” 
Nathan Is Shown The Door
On June 11, 2013, Debbie Nathan posted on her Facebook page her experience at the Newspaper Tree.
“I vividly remember attending hours of the June 26, 2012 City Council meeting and returning to the Newspaper Tree office literally nauseous, after witnessing the baseball-stadium vote taken away from the citizenry in one fell swoop.”
Nathan continued her Facebook post with, “I spent the rest of the summer, while Newspaper Tree dragged its heels about publishing, trying to get other journalists at functioning papers, such as David Crowder at Inc.” to follow up on what Nathan had discovered about the ballpark.
Nathan added that the El Paso Community Foundation’s “unwillingness to let NPT (Newspaper Tree) publish, my reporting languished.” She then added that “notable now is that NPT’s current publisher, Anthony Martinez — who is also acting as editor — is very close to Steve Ortega: socializes with him and has been appointed twice by Ortega to city boards.” Emanuel Anthony Martinez was the 2003 editor of the first incarnation of the publication.
During the runup to the controversial ballpark, Steve Ortega, then a city representative, led the effort while refusing to release his emails under the Texas Public Information Act.
Nathan concluded with “NPT was funded by Woody Hunt primarily, per Hunt, to ‘fight corruption’… a narrow view of corruption confines it to illegal acts.”
Debbie Nathan went on to describe how city officials tried to curtail her reporting on the ballpark. Nathan wrote, “I found out later from Louie Gilot, Newspaper Tree’s publisher at the time, that a major contributor to the El Paso Community Foundation, then visited with Eric Pearson and complained about my asking for the report,” adding that Nathan was “threatening.” According to Nathan, it was “suggested” that the Newspaper Tree “show me the door.”
Nathan closed her post with, “I was shown the door.”
According to the El Paso Matters website, the largest contributor to its platform is the El Paso Community Foundation, as of June 10, 2021. Bob Moore worked for the El Paso Times before launching El Paso Matters. The Community Foundation and Woody Hunt have contributed about $160,000 to Moore’s operation. Debbie Nathan is now freelancing for El Paso Matters.
The 2019 book, Who Rules El Paso? by the Community First Coalition argued that Woody Hunt is among the city’s oligarchy that imposes its will on the community to the detriment of the city.
Brown University Professor Challenges Nathan’s Journalism
In 1995, Nathan co-wrote Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern Witch-Hunt, “an essential contribution to the debunking of the recovered memory/child abuse hysteria that gripped the nation,” according to Richard Barron who profiled her in El Bridge in 2002. 
Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern Witch-Hunt controversially argues that prosecuting pedophiles was often fueled by hysteria supported by unproven repressed childhood memories in the victims.
Brown University political science professor Ross E. Cheit responded to Nathan’s book with The Witch Hunt Narrative published by Oxford University in 2014. Cheit raises questions about Debbie Nathan’s reporting where she questions the validity of child sexual abuse claims.
In his book, Cheit wrote, “no writer has done more to perpetuate the view that scores of people were falsely imprisoned on charges involving satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s than Debbie Nathan.” He added, “focusing on a single case from El Paso, Texas, where she lived at the time, Nathan argued that there was a ‘nationwide rash’ of these cases.” Cheit analyzed 21 of Nathan’s satanic cases and found three that fit the definition of a witch hunt. 
In his book, Cheit argued that Nathan’s book mischaracterized the prosecutions of pedophiles as a “witch-hunt”. Cheit wrote that Debbie Nathan and her co-author, Michael Snedecker promoted the witch-hunt narrative.
Cheit goes on to argue that defense lawyers are key in promoting the idea that many convicted of child abuse are innocent, and are helped along by Nathan’s book.
Nathan and Snedeker included a list of what they characterize as unjustly accused in their book. Cheit’s research indicates that the list is filled with exaggeration regarding satanic elements. According to Cheit, most of the cases on the list have nothing to do with satanic ritual abuse claims.
Cheit criticized Nathan for her phrase “junior McMartins” in describing “a nationwide rash of similar cases.”
In 1983, the family running the McMartin Pre-school in California was prosecuted on child molestation charges. The case ended in late July 1990 when the prosecution dropped all charges against the remaining defendant, Ray Buckey who was jailed for five years but never convicted.
Nathan Threatens Lawsuit And Awards Child Pornographer
On his Brown website blog, Ross Cheit posted on April 28, 2016, that although Nathan holds herself out to be a “principled First Amendment advocate,” she, nonetheless threatened to sue his “scholarly work” for libel days before its publication date. Nathan, according to Cheit, sent “a libel threat to the publisher.” (Website last accessed on June 10, 2021)
El Paso Politics attempted to contact Ross Cheit for his comments but was unable to reach him.
Chiet also wrote on his blog that Debbie Nathan “famously gave Lawrence Stanley, a child pornographer, the Free Press Association’s H. L. Menken Award in 1989. ” In a March 6, 1993 news report, Stanley argued “that the business of child pornography is largely a fiction.” Stanley was also publishing Uncommon Desires, a newsletter focused on people “wanting to have sex with young females,” according to Bob Nalett from the San Jose Police Department.
When officials searched his apartment, police found a “large stash of child pornography.”
According to Cheit’s book on sexual abuse of children, Stanley’s interest in child pornography “was economic and personal.”  Stanley, wrote Cheit, “produced a variety of magazines with pedophile themes, sold picture of young girls at nudist camps, and produced a newsletter called Uncommon Desires”. 
El Paso Politics contacted Debbie Nathan on June 10, 2021 asking for comment on censorship on Chucopedia and about the controversy over her book and Ross Cheit.
On June 10, Nathan responded to our query in two email messages.
In her response to our questions about Cheit, Nathan provided a link to her book’s Amazon page’s reader comments section. Her book has 4.5 stars out of five from 64 raters. Nathan also included a critical rebuttal from UTEP psychology professor, Dr. James M. Wood. Wood’s rebuttal of Cheit’s work criticizes Cheit’s definition of a “witch-hunt”.
The Cheit-Nathan back-and-forth centers on the idea that the skepticism of outcries of repressed abuse memories is a disservice to the child victims. Cheit, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, argues that children are not only sexually abused but dismissing their outcries as a “hoax” or as a “witch-hunt” are victimizing them further.
Nathan and her co-author argue, on the other hand, that much of the childcare abuse cases in the 1980’s and 1990’s were a witch hunt akin to the Salem Witch trials.
The NCRJ Work To Free Pedophiles
The National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ) published a rebuttal to Cheit’s 2014 book which is still available on their website. 
The president of the NCRJ is Michael Snedecker, the lawyer who co-wrote Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of an American Witch Hunt with Nathan.  Nathan has published several pieces on the NCRJ website and at one time was a board member of the organization.
One of the cases that the NCRJ is “sponsoring” is the case of former Catholic priest Paul Shanley.
Shanley was convicted in 2005 of raping a minor.
But Shanley’s abusive behavior was worse than the incident he was convicted of. A 2002 Vanity Fair article describes “Shanley’s reputation as a predator in Boston” that was “so notorious that even gay seminarians were careful to avoid him.” Vanity Fair quoted a Jesuit as stating that Shanley “was known to be abusive, known to have rent boys.”
NCRJ argued that Shanley’s conviction was unjust because it relied on “junk science,” – the repressed memories of childhood rape victims.  On January 10, 2010, the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the conviction concluding that that the “lack of scientific testing did not make unreliable” the theory of repressed memories in childhood abuse victims. 
“The High Priestess Of Pedophilia”
In May 2006, (date corrected on June 13, 2021 at 07:25) Nathan “accidently viewed child porn,” she told Philip Jenkins, a researcher. That event led to New York Times reporter, Kurt Eichenwald to accuse Nathan of censorship. After Eichenwald wrote a piece about child exploitation, he received an email from Nathan on August 22, 2006. Although Nathan identified herself as a journalist, she did not tell the reporter that she was writing a piece on him for Salon. 
According to Eichenwald, he believed that the conversation with Nathan was to help her because she was worried about her viewing child pornography earlier in the year. In her Salon piece, Nathan had written:
“New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald looked at a lot of kiddie-porn Web sites recently while researching the front page article he published” on the abuse of children. Nathan went on to suggest in the article that “the kind of looking he did can get a journalist arrested.” 
It is illegal to view child pornography even for research purposes. (typographical corrections made on June 12, 2021 at 16:31.)
Nathan was writing about the illegality of viewing child pornography even for research purposes. With her article, Nathan wrote, that she wanted “a process that allows non-governmental investigators and journos to be vetted and qualified as child-porn researchers.”
Eichenwald told Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) that he was horrified by Nathan’s article because it gave his pedophile enemies the power “to have him arrested” and lose his children to Child Protective Services.  Eichenwald added that “none of his research put him in possession of illegal images of child porn,” adding, “if I did what Deborah Nathan attributed to me, I need to be arrested.” “She flat-out libeled me,” he told FAIR. 
After being threatened with a libel lawsuit, Salon removed Nathan’s article and posted that Nathan’s reporting on the legal ramifications of viewing child pornography “was inaccurate.” 
Salon’s attorney told Nathan that she had committed “libel per se” with her article. For her part, Nathan told FAIR that Eichenwald was “litigious” and his threat to sue violated “the principles of the 1st Amendment.” 
In her Salon piece, Nathan wrote that “the government, including the courts, has often been as irrational as the rest of society when it comes to children and sex.” 
Criticism of Eichenwald
However, Kurt Eichenwald has become controversial on how he handled his articles about online child pornography. He has acknowledged paying $2,000 to someone in the child pornography business he argues that he was trying to save them from exploitation. Justin Berry, the individual that Eichenwald says he set out to save from exploitation and that led to his article told New York Magazine in 2007 that Eichenwald is “a wonderful guy, and seeing him get criticized makes me sick to my stomach.” 
Kurt Eichenwald blames pedophiles and Debbie Nathan for the “emotional damage” he has suffered for his advocacy against child pornography and his article. He told New York Magazine that Nathan is “the high priestess of pedophilia.” 
El Paso Politics did not ask Nathan about Eichenwald because on her second email to us, Nathan wrote that she is “confining” herself to sending us information about her work on the satanic child abuse cases on the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Debbie Nathan figures into the issue of censorship in El Paso as not only a victim of Woody Hunt’s influence over the community’s dialog, but also supportive of controversial individuals like Ray Caballero, who was the first modern mayor to try to displace low-income Latinos out of their homes through eminent domain to make way for redevelopment. She also attempts to control the city’s narrative by deciding who is acceptable to report on the city’s political issues.
In our next issue we will explore how censorship is alive and well in El Paso.
- Ross E. Cheit, “The Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology, and Sexual Abuse of Children,” Oxford University Press, April 28, 2014.
- National Center For Reason and Justice website (ncrj.org) Board of Directors and Staff, accessed on June 9, 2021.
- Adriana Chavez, “Newspaper Tree announces its new staff,” El Paso Times, March 21, 2012.
- Jessica Wakeman, “Perilous Reporting, The Risks of Writing About Child Porn Laws,” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, (https://fair.org/extra/perilous-reporting/), March 1, 2007.
- David France, “Saving Justin Berry,” New York Magazine, October 29, 2007.
- Maureen Orth, “Unholy Union,” Vanity Fair, August 2002.
- Commonwealth v. Paul Shanley (752 US 455), Supreme Court of Massachusetts, 2010.
- Richard Baron, “Debbie Nathan, an alien in New York,” El Bridge, Bridge Center for Contemporary Art, December 2002, January 2003.
Categories: El Paso