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Media: gangs gang up on Village Voice's "Backpage.com" online advertising site

About a month ago, a New York Times columnist called Nicholas D Kristof penned an Op-Ed that said that Backpage.com, a website owned by New York's Village Voice Media. The article was one of several that accused Backpage.com of profiting from child prostitution and trafficking. Even though there is little evidence of that, and much of the supposed evidence turns out to be fiction, Village Voice Media is under pressure.

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The Nicholas Kristoff articles have the whiff of campaign about them. Some - including media website Brietbart.com - are reporting the opposite sign of Kristoff's coin. Others are throwing mud without saying where it comes from.

Kristoff argues that the classified ads site (think craigslist with payment) wilfully hosts advertisements from those who sell or rent underage girls.

It all started with an article in 18 March in which Kristoff reported (which is not the point of an op-ed but we'll let that go) about a girl called "Alissa."

She, he reported, had been a child prostitute, dragged around the country by pimps and treated appallingly eventually coming to the attention of the FBI when she was so badly injured she ended up in hospital. She reported how she had been advertised on backpage.com both in her original New York and then in a succession of other towns.

But, said Village Voice Media in what amounts to a statement in The Village Voice, her story - at least insofar as it is reported in relation to backstage.com is false.

"Nicholas D Kristof was wrong about the most devastating 'fact' in his Sunday, March 18th, column in The New York Times regarding Backpage.com. A video that accompanied his online op-ed was headlined: "Age 16, She Was Sold on Backpage.com"

"That is not true.

"According to Alissa's court testimony, she was 16 in 2003. Backpage.com did not exist anywhere in America in 2003."

The Voice goes on to list the places that "Alissa" said traffickers took her to and dates. " But "In the summer of 2005 Backpage.com did not exist in Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Atlantic City."

In the editorial credited to the parent company, The Voice says "Backpage dedicates hundreds of staff to screen adult classifieds in order to keep juveniles off the site and to work proactively with law enforcement in their efforts to locate victims. When the authorities have concerns, we share paperwork and records and help them make cases."

Kristof's response (and therefore as his publisher, the NYT's response) was to attack the owners of Village Voice Media. On 31 March, under the headline "Financiers of Sex Trafficking," he named Goldman Sachs and other private equity funds. The article starts "THE biggest forum for sex trafficking of under-age girls in the United States appears to be a Web site called Backpage.com. This emporium for girls and women — some under age or forced into prostitution — is in turn owned by an opaque private company called Village Voice Media."

Kristof gloats in his 31 March Op Ed "Goldman Sachs was mortified when I began inquiring last week about its stake in America’s leading Web site for prostitution ads. It began working frantically to unload its shares, and on Friday afternoon it called to say that it had just signed an agreement to sell its stake to management."

Kristof alleges that backstage.com has some 70% of the USA's advertising for adverts for prostitution - and that there are only five websites in the USA that permit them. He does not provide evidence to back up that claim but says it comes from research by AIM Group. However, following the naive approach that "it's in the paper so it must be true," that supposed fact has been repeated across many publications in some cases without even saying where it originated.

backpage.com started as an independent company and was taken over by Village Voice Media in 2010.

Within days of his first Op-Ed, Kristoff's campaign saw results It is reported at nyconvergence.com that attorneys-general from 48 US states wrote "joint letter to Village Voice Media urging them to abstain from the seedy advertisements." Business Insider puts the figure at 51. A petition at website change.org has more than 100,000 signatories (although the legitimacy of such petitions is open to serious question - multiple signatures are easy to do.

Notwithstanding the dubious reporting and apparent lack of even the most basic fact checking, Kristofff's basic hook - when he finally got around to making it in a third article published on 18 April - is valid. He said "If you think sex trafficking only happens in faraway places like Nepal or Thailand, then you should listen to an expert on American sex trafficking I interviewed the other day."

But his "expert" turns out to be, in effect, a rebuttal witness to counter The Village Voice's criticisms of his previous story. She, he says "turns 16 years old on Thursday." Her "testimony" is that, when she was 12 years old, she ran away from home, got picked up by a pimp who "advertised her on Backpage.com, the leading Web site for sex trafficking in America today, as well as on other Web sites." He has not offered any explanation for the earlier false reporting and the later story is, to all intents and purposes, a similar tale with the name and dates changed. To establish her credit, he says "I met Brianna at Gateways, a treatment center for girls who have been sexually trafficked. It’s in Pleasantville, 35 miles north of New York City, on a sprawling estate overseen by the Jewish Child Care Association. Gateways is meant for girls ages 12 to 16, although it has accepted one who was just 11 years old. Virtually all the girls have been sold on Backpage, according to Lashauna Cutts, the center’s director. "

On 31 March 2012 Kristof damns Goldmans with faint praise: he says "Let’s be clear: this is a tiny investment by a huge company, and I have no reason to think that Goldman’s top executives knew of its connection to sex trafficking.... Full disclosure: Goldman’s foundation was one of about 15 funders of a public television documentary version of a book that my wife and I wrote about the world’s women.... That said, for more than six years Goldman has held a significant stake in a company notorious for ties to sex trafficking, and it sat on the company’s board for four of those years."

So, by the time the first article came out, Goldmans was no longer an owner and by the time the second article came out, their exit was old news. It's the second article that Kristof seeks to most shock with. That's the one with the "evidence" by "Brianna" who wants, he says, to become a lawyer. And her "evidence" is that "“He felt that Backpage made him the most money,” Brianna said, estimating that half of her pimp’s business came through Backpage."

Writing in Breitbart.com (which today carries an advert saying Joel B Pollack says that Kristof's basic premise is flawed - and that if it's not, then his own salary is, in part, paid for by revenue from such adverts. He posts a screenshot from Metro Boston, a free-sheet, ad supported newspaper 49% owned by the NYT group. The screenshot shows an ad saying "modeling- adultagt - Detroit, MI. Girls all ages, races and body shapes wanted for adult entertainment jobs. Payment"

But, says Pollak, it's the hugely popular About.Com that really rakes in the mucky bucks. That site, 100% owned by the NYT group, advertises strip clubs, adult entertainment and escort services - exactly the kind of ads that Kristof criticises. More, says Pollak, the About Group, of which About.Com is part, contributed approx USD100 million to the overall revenues of the NYT group in 2011 - some 5% of the total group revenue.

But good sense never wins over a good story. A website called DesertNews.Com that admits to "compiling" content says "Advertisers are pulling ads from Village Voice Media in an attempt to pressure the chain to shut down a website that has been accused of facilitating child sex trafficking." It goes on "In response to a Change.Org campaign, 27 companies, including H&M, AT&T and Ikea, had pulled their advertisements by Thursday afternoon. Justin Wassel, a minister from Ohio, started the campaign following reports that young girls were being peddled alongside bikes and refrigerators on Backpage.com, Village Voice's online classified ad section." The "reports" referred to are Kristof's.

It's not the first time that there has been attacks on The Voice over this issue. Celebrities jumped on the bandwagon last year after it accused CNN of leading "the media's mass paranoia over a non-existent epidemic" accusing the channel's coverage in which it alleged that "American loses 100,000 to 300,000 kids each year to prostitution."

The Voice's editor accused them of using "guesses by activist professors, junk science by nonprofit groups trying to extract money from Congress, and manipulation by religious groups hiding their real agendas about sex work" and of their "young reporter Amber Lyon" as one of the most "visual enablers."

In its report dated 6 July 2011, bylined Tony Ortega, The Voice said "Lyon is best known for ambushing Craigslist founder Craig Newmark last year, questioning him about what are known as "adult ads." At the time, Craigslist was heavy with such ads. Having cornered the timid Newmark—who has told people he's a borderline Asperger's case—it didn't take much for the aggressive Lyon to reduce Newmark to catatonia with her questions about Craigslist's facilitating the enslavement of young girls across the country.

"Under pressure by the attorneys general of several states, Newmark initiated a lawsuit in South Carolina, which he won. (In fact, he won every time he went to court.) But facing the further pressure of congressional hearings about its sex ads, Craigslist dropped its adult sections last fall. (You can still find the ads on the site, if you know where to look.)

"Lyon has been known to tell people that her ambush of the meek Newmark resulted in the shuttering of "the Walmart of child sex trafficking." Now, she has set out to take down a new target: Village Voice Media"

Kristoff is therefore jumping on a bandwagon and beating it with a stick, creating a small surge of public opinion of which advertisers are increasingly frightened.

The only thing is - in a moral environment, he's probably right even if his methods are crass and irresponsible.

Perhaps media should ban all such ads. But only if they can work out which they are. Is it legitimate to advertise massage services? Is it legitimate to advertise a service providing dinner / function companions? Is it legitimate to advertise sex toys and tuition in their use? Where does one draw the line?

The conservatives would say, it should be drawn with a total ban on advertising any sexual services. The liberals would say that, so long as no abuse is concerned, then there is no reason why such ads should not be placed.

Where would a total ban leave dating services and sites, including those that pretend that they carry no ads for prostitution?

Kristof's basic point is correct. But he has no answers as to how to solve the problem.

Destroying a business rival, as The Voice is to The New York Times is not the answer.

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