By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
I remember the last couple of mass panics. Do you?
There was the daycare scare of the 1980s, when we were told that child molesters had infiltrated childcare centers across the country. From the beginning of the panic, with the infamous McMartin Preschool trial (which ended in zero convictions), it should have been obvious that there was something hard to believe about the media reports of this nationwide crime epidemic.
Toddlers who had been hypnotized reported that they were being flown to Mexico to be sexually abused, killed, eaten, and then magically restored before Mom and Dad could pick them up (that is actual testimony from one particularly incredible trial that did, in fact, send a Texas couple to prison).
Gripped by mass fear, it took the public some time to wake up from that fever dream. About the same time, America was hyperventilating over another nonexistent threat: satanic cults that, experts swore, were sacrificing thousands of victims across America.
Remember that one? I'm sure Geraldo Rivera does.
We've panicked in other ways since those days, but if we tended to see terrorists everywhere after 9/11, at least there was vivid evidence that we had become a target.
But even that threat is fading. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are receding fast from public consciousness. Our economy is gradually crawling back. Crime remains at record lows. A new presidential campaign is only in its earliest stages.
What's there to panic about today?
A small group of political activists is quite ready to provide the answer. In the second decade of the 21st century, we are being told that there's a widespread, growing, and out-of-control problem to fear in our country. And it has a catchy name: "trafficking."
In cities across America, we are told over and over, like a mantra, that "100,000 to 300,000" underage sex slaves have been stashed away from public view, with more joining them every day. It's a problem growing so quickly that the United States soon will be no better than Moldova or Nepal in regard to child sex trafficking. Why go to the Third World looking for this nightmare when our cities and suburbs are bursting with children in bondage?
Feel that panic in your chest? Must have been what Geraldo experienced. Now, step back and take a deep breath.
As we showed in our cover story last week, the newest panic is like the ones that preceded it—an emotional reaction, based on good intentions, but grounded in bogus information.
The actual data behind this "epidemic" is wanting in the extreme. It involves 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 one of the most visible enablers in this national fantasy has been young CNN reporter Amber Lyon.
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.
Seven years ago, the people I work for were smart enough to start Backpage.com, a competitor to Craigslist. While other newspapers were doing little more than publicly condemning Newmark for the way Craigslist has, for years, eaten into their classified-ads revenue, we decided to fight back. That's just how we operate.
Backpage.com has since inherited some of the adult business that left Craigslist. The Village Voice itself has been taking such ads since the mid-1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the adult business was a large part of the paper. Today, it's a smaller presence in the print edition, and the Voice's website has no adult advertising—that business appears only at Backpage.com.
Backpage.com is not a newspaper. It's an Internet bulletin board where people can place ads for anything from rental apartments to bicycles to lawnmowers. And, yes, it's a place where adults can post notices so that other adults can contact them.
What happens when two adults find each other through Backpage.com? I couldn't tell you. The whole point of Backpage.com is that we aren't involved after two consenting adults find each other through the community bulletin board, which exists solely so that people can freely express themselves—sometimes in ways that make other people uncomfortable. We're First Amendment extremists that way. Always have been.