CNN's Amber Lyon Ambushed Craigslist -- But She Won't Talk to The Village Voice

CNN leads the media's mass paranoia over a nonexistent epidemic

We've spent millions of dollars putting in place strict policies and monitoring services to make sure that it is only adults finding each other through Backpage.com's adult pages. Not only do we have security specialists making constant searches for keywords that might indicate an underage user, but we're quick to cooperate with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when we find suspicious ads. In some cases, our reports about suspicious ads have resulted in underage runaways being traced and recovered—as opposed to the underground economy of bus stations and street corners where kids are truly invisible.

Backpage's 123 employees, who screen about 20,000 ads every day, alert NCMEC when they find something suspicious, who in turn contacts law enforcement. That process triggered 230 reports last month. For more on how quickly and often Backpage reports problems, see Caleb Hannan's story at our sister paper, Seattle Weekly.

Underage prostitution is a persistent problem in this country, but as we established in last week's cover story, it exists at a level that is nothing like what is being trumpeted by Amber Lyon on the behalf of activists who want to put us out of business. Lyon and other journalists—even the New York Times—may repeat uncritically the figure of "100,000 to 300,000" underage prostitutes, but as we showed last week, that number is based on a flimsy study by a couple of activist professors who included in that figure runaways (most of whom are back home in a week) and any teen who happens to live near an international border, supposedly putting them "at risk."

Using official law enforcement data, we showed that underage prostitution arrests are closer to 800 per year for the entire country—a number that has not increased over the past decade. Far from a widespread and rapidly growing problem, this is, instead, a small problem that stays about the same size because its underlying causes—drug addiction and teen homelessness—are not targeted with federal funds the way scaremongering is.

In December, we sent information to CNN about what we're doing to keep Backpage.com's adult pages for adults only as Amber Lyon prepared a sensationalistic piece about the mythic hundreds of thousands of underage American sex slaves, for whom she wanted us to appear responsible.

When her piece aired in February, however, this is what Lyon said: "What is [Backpage.com's] holistic plan? We don't know because [Backpage.com security adviser] Hemu Nigam wouldn't talk to us."

We subsequently pointed out to CNN that we had, in fact, provided Lyon with a two-page, single-spaced data sheet about what we're doing to keep underage users out of Backpage.com's adult pages. In a later rebroadcast of her piece about us, her legal department forced Lyon to tack on this correction: "Backpage.com sent us a statement in late December saying, 'Backpage.com is committed to preventing those who are intent on misusing the site for illegal purposes.' And they went on to say that they implemented new safety measures to that end, which are listed on the company blog. There is evidence these measures have had some results. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Backpage reported 30 suspicious ads in 2010. And in the first month of 2011, they reported 65."

Well, that was something. But Lyon's reporting has been manipulative, at best. When you watch her special, "Selling the Girl Next Door," it should be obvious that Lyon is less interested in learning how Backpage.com actually operates than she is in making viewers squirm about sex. In one segment, she talks to the women working at a legal brothel in Nevada. In another, she talks to men who are undergoing counseling for paying for sex—none of them with underage girls. Each of these segments is intended simply to make viewers see sex work in the worst possible light. And that's no accident.

At the end of her broadcast, Lyon's sources are singled out for "special thanks." The list includes several Atlanta-area foundations, deep in the Bible Belt, that have done as much as anyone to create the current panic about a nonexistent epidemic of sexual slavery.

We recently found out that Lyon is even closer to these groups than you could tell from a list at the end of her broadcast.

It's not unusual for reporters, after working with helpful sources, to feel that they've become friends. It's happened to me and just about every other journalist I know. But as professionals, we know that it's important to keep some distance from the sources we rely on for information.

Someone forgot to mention that to Lyon, apparently.

On May 4, FAIR Fund, one of the sources thanked in CNN's special, held a fundraiser in Washington's City Tavern Club.

The event's emcee was Amber Lyon, and she didn't seem at all uncomfortable helping a source raise money. We know because we sent a reporter to watch and videotape her performance.

"Hello, everyone, and thank you all for coming tonight to 'Pearls of Purpose.' And my name is Amber Lyon, and I'm an investigative and documentary reporter with CNN. This is just an amazing gala and an amazing way to really celebrate the empowerment of young girls all around the world," she said to the gathered crowd.

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