By DAVID CARR
Published: October 30, 2011
What if the price of having a vital, well-financed string of newspapers included rare, but inevitable, sexual predation of minors?
Not a tough call, right? But maybe more complicated than you think for the businesses involved.
Before you head out for the lanterns and pitchforks, it’s worth remembering that a free press is not free. One of the offshoots of free speech is that it will be used to pernicious ends. In this instance, Village Voice Media has a classified network calledBackpage.com that includes a section labeled “adult” with categories like “escort” and “strippers & strip clubs.” The vast majority of ads involves one consenting adult seeking another, but there have been instances in which the section was used to offer minors for sexual ends.
Village Voice Media is controlled by Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, whose weeklies include The Village Voice, Westword and Phoenix New Times. It has an anything-goes approach to advertising, but in a digital age, that policy has new implications.
In September 2010, Craigslist, which hosted a great deal of sexually related advertising, bowed to pressure and banned that advertising in the United States. A number of crimes, including several murders, had been linked to ads on the site, and many critics, including a number of state attorneys general, suggested that Craigslist was enabling the trafficking of minors.
A significant portion of the estimated $44 million in sex-related advertising on Craigslist found a home on Backpage.com. Like a lot of newspapers, Village Voice Media’s chain of 13 weeklies has struggled through the terrible economic cycle and big changes in advertising spending, so the revenue from Backpage.com, much of it unrelated to sex, has played a critical role in its survival.
But in August the country’s 51 attorneys general sent a letter demanding that the site close its “adult” section, and now a coalition of religious leaders has joined that effort. Last Tuesday, Groundswell, an interfaith social justice group sponsored by Auburn Seminary in New York, published a full-page ad in The New York Times that was signed by clergy members of all stripes and cited the arrests of adults who had sold minors for sex using Backpage.com. The ad stated, “It is a basic fact of the moral universe that girls and boys should not be sold for sex.”
“While we empathize with your business challenges and the increasingly difficult marketplace in which Village Voice Media competes,” the letter went on, “we trust that you are committed to running your business without compromising the lives of our nation’s boys and girls.”
The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary, said that while the issue was complicated, the bottom line was not.
“On Backpage.com, you can buy a toaster, a car or a girl for sex,” she said. “We agree with the attorney generals on the legal issues, but we are raising this as a moral issue. Even if one minor is sold for sex, it is one too many.”
Mr. Larkin and Mr. Lacey are accustomed to having people come after them. They were harassed and arrested in the middle of the night in response to the coverage by one of their newspapers of Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz. Mr. Lacey, who has made a career out of tweaking the powers that be, sees this battle as no different.
“I am beginning to like our odds,” he said. “We have all these practicing politicians and concerned clergy after us. We must be doing something right.”
In a phone call, he and Mr. Larkin pointed out that Web sites likeBackpage.com are not legally responsible for posted content and added that the company had spent millions on both human and technological efforts to screen ads that feature minors. They said they had worked with law enforcement officials and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in an effort to make sureBackpage.com’s “adult” section included only adults.
Both men see the debate as a free speech issue.
“We have always had a very libertarian approach to advertising,” said Mr. Larkin, adding that classifieds represented 30 to 35 percent of their business. “We don’t ban cigarettes, we take adult advertising. We take ads that sell guns.”
From their perspective, the claims of their opponents are wildly exaggerated and all the money being spent trying to wipe out advertising would be better spent on the root causes of the problem, including drug addiction, poverty and family abuse.
“There is a lot of mythmaking around the issue and I think it’s a way of avoiding the real problem,” Mr. Lacey said.
Rob McKenna, the attorney general of Washington State and the head of the association of attorneys general that went after both Craigslist and now Backpage.com, says the issue goes beyond minors.
“I think we have to be careful to protect the First Amendment rights of publishers, but free speech does not extend to the knowing facilitation of criminal activity,” he said. “This is not just about children being prostituted, this is about human beings being trafficked into the sex trades, as adults and as children.”
It’s no news to anyone that sex is an integral component of the Internet and much of the mainstream media. Early on, AOL included lots of raunchy backrooms. The brand-name cable channels make a great deal of money on sexually explicit content, and if someone is looking to buy sex, there are any number of Web sites that cater to all manner of interests.
It’s worth remembering that while pressure from the attorneys general and Congress led to a change at Craigslist, the whack-a-mole on the Web continues. If Backpage.com retreats — not likely given the predispositions of its owners — some other alternative will immediately take its place.
It reminds me a great deal of the early 1990s, when I was the editor of The Twin Cities Reader, an alternative weekly in Minneapolis. At the time, we were under fire for publishing ads for strip clubs, escort services and massage parlors. The staff and the publisher at the time, R. T. Rybak, were keenly attuned to the community and always looking for points of difference from City Pages, our weekly competitor. With support from the staff, Mr. Rybak announced that we would no longer take ads that “objectified” women, a bold move. It was thought that beyond the good will we earned in the community, other, nonracy advertisers might find our paper to be a more suitable platform.
Our critics, including many women’s groups, were thrilled at their victory and congratulated us on our sensitivity. The policy went into effect, wiping out, as I recall, about 15 percent of the bottom line. City Pages left its ad policy unchanged. Some of what we lost went to them and little in the way of new ads materialized to fill the hole.
City Pages eventually became the dominant paper — in part because it was very good and run by smart people — and when, yes, Village Voice Media decided to enter the market, it bought both papers and closed The Twin Cities Reader. I was gone by then, but I thought the decision to be selective about ads contributed to its demise.
I called Mr. Rybak, who is now the mayor of Minneapolis, to ask if he regretted the decision.
“It was absolutely the right move,” he said. “When you engage in a certain kind of journalism that is designed to be an alternative to the mainstream, you have a special obligation to have your editorial, your values and your advertising align.”
“If we had more time, I think it may have worked out,” he said. “But I often think about what would have happened if we had those two pages of ads in the back. Would the paper still be around? It wasn’t the only reason it went out of business, but it played a role.”
Although Mr. Larkin and Mr. Lacey hardly agree, they are taking their own version of a principled stand. And just because it aligns with their business interests doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.