Since their renaissance in the 1960s counterculture, alternative papers have thrived on free-spirited journalism and a libertarian advertising philosophy. Strip clubs, escorts and, lately, medical marijuana emporiums, filled countless pages with their ads.
The ads might have provoked occasional scorn but probably never the kind of sustained backlash currently aimed at the nation's largest alternative news publisher by some religious leaders and law enforcement officials.
The subject of their wrath has been Village Voice Media's backpage.com, an online classified advertising service that critics say is a too-easy platform for predators intent on offering underage victims for prostitution. Since August, protests have included a letter by 51 attorneys general, a full-page ad in the New York Times by religious leaders, and picketing of the Village Voice offices in New York — all demanding the shuttering of the company's "adult" online listings.
Village Voice, the Phoenix-based publisher of the L.A. Weekly and a dozen other publications, has launched an exuberant counterattack. The owners — who say they assiduously monitor online ads to prevent abuses that go unchecked on other sites — have hired a lawyer and a public relations firm. But their most striking rebuttal has been issued by their own journalists, who have produced two cover stories and multiple blog posts that attempt to knock down what the papers call a "sex-trafficking panic" trumped up by "sex prohibitionists."
The chain's coverage has been so aggressive that two experts cited in its articles — who agree that the scope of child prostitution has been mischaracterized and, in some cases, overblown — said in interviews that Village Voice appears to be making the opposite mistake: understating the problem, as it appears to be bolstering its commercial interests.
The controversy pits legal rights against moral suasion. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 encourages communications between third-parties, by assuring publishers won't be held legally liable for the missives. But religious leaders and other activists say they have an obligation, beyond the law, to fight against any forum that potentially exposes children to danger.
"A lot of people in this country think that children are trafficked in other places in the world and they aren't aware that children are in danger in this country, right in their backyard," said the Rev. Katharine R. Henderson, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary.
A similar furor enveloped Craigslist last year. The leading online classified outlet took steps to limit the chance underage prostitution would be offered on its site. But it eventually succumbed to activists. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark decided in 2010 the listings were "not good for business in the end, so he shut it down," Henderson said. But Craigslist did not pull the adult ads — posting a "CENSORED" headline where the ads had been posted.
Village Voice argues that attempts to shut down adult-oriented ads on the Internet can't succeed. People will always try to make connections for sex and personal contact and it's better to have a site run by a reputable media outlet that strives to keep out "scammers" and "criminals" who would, for instance, advertise the services of prostitutes who are younger than 18, said Village Voice chief counsel Steve Suskin.
"Eliminating adult categories on backpage.com, as Craig's List announced it was doing, will not solve the problem," said Jim Larkin, chief executive of Village Voice Media. "What needs to be done is what we are doing: Hosts need to monitor and remove offending posts on a real-time basis, and cooperate rapidly when illegal posts are brought to their attention."
Carl Ferrer, the executive who oversees backpage.com, said that technological and human screeners (125 of them, operating in the U.S. and India) knock out more than half of the 800,000 items submitted to the site each week. The vast majority of the posts are killed because they are spam or inappropriate, not because they are selling sex, Ferrer said. The site said it reports about 200 "suspicious" cases a month to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Groundswell, the interfaith group protesting the backpage.com listings, seeks to publicize accounts when screening did not work. The group sent reporters across the country an article from a Tennessee newspaper that described how two adults were arrested for prostituting two girls, ages 15 and 16, for customers found on backpage. Last week, the district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., indicted a 21-year-old man for forcing a 13-year-old runaway girl into prostitution, advertising her services on backpage, and an Ohio man received a 4½ -year prison sentence for a similar offense.
It's not hard to find news accounts of additional allegations of underage prostitutes whose services are sold on other websites. Craigslist is among those cited in the stories — the listings apparently appearing under headings other than the "adult services" category shuttered 14 months ago. Craigslist declined to comment.
A Village Voice executive, who asked not to be named for revealing confidential information, said that backpage.com, where online escort ads and the like go for about $10 each, produces at least one-seventh of the company's revenue.
It has spared little editorial muscle in trying to debunk the suggestion of a crisis in child sex trafficking. It has run two lengthy stories, publishing them in all 13 of its publications, which most often choose to cover topics locally.
The stories suggested that nonprofit operators gain financial support by inflating the magnitude of the child sex trade. One pointed out, correctly, that activist actor Ashton Kutcher had erred last spring when he said there were "between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today."
A study had found, instead, that 100,000 to 300,000 children are "at risk" of falling into prostitution because they are runaways or part of other vulnerable groups. The Village Voice article taunted Kutcher for getting the fact wrong and for inflating "the supposed appetite for underage prostitutes."
The second cover story cited social science researchers to debunk the idea that the principal threat comes from predators, who force teens into the sex trade. One of those quoted was Ric Curtis, chair of the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who found after hundreds of interviews that the majority of youths selling sex made the transactions themselves, without a pimp or other intermediary.
Curtis criticizes "moral entrepreneurs" who he believes mischaracterize underage prostitution, in some cases to prop up nonprofit organizations and praised Village Voice for publicizing the political machinations and charged rhetoric surrounding the issue.
But Curtis and another researcher quoted by Village Voice publications — Mary Ann Finn, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University — said they thought the stories had added their own confusion to the issue. The two academics said the problem was how the alternative papers harped on arrest statistics — just 827 for child prostitution nationally over the most recent decade. "It significantly undercounts the problem when you just talk about the arrests," Finn said, something she thought Village Voice did not make clear. Finn added that, as owner of backpage.com, Village Voice has "a vested interest in minimizing the problem."
Suskin, Village Voice's lawyer, said the company should not be punished because of a handful of bad actors. "Criminals send drugs through Federal Express," he said, "but we don't eliminate Fed-Ex just because a few criminals do that."