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.
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.
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.
It wouldn’t be a Lyon appearance without the required mantra: “Somewhere around, anywhere from, 100,000 to 300,000 American children are being trafficked,” she told her audience. “It’s an honor to be here tonight hosting this. I’m definitely proud to be supporting FAIR Fund.”
I emailed Lyon, asking her to explain how she could help a source raise money while continuing to use it as a source for stories. I was also curious how much money her event had raised, with tickets ranging from $125 to $250 a plate.
“We are declining your request for an interview” is how she responded.
That surprised me. Lyon clearly has ridden her fame for how bravely she stood up to mild-mannered Craig Newmark. I didn’t expect her to duck some straight questions about her involvement in a semireligious crusade.
Meanwhile, CNN has made trafficking its pet issue. The problem is, the network seems to draw almost no distinction from what Demi Moore finds in Nepal and what is actually happening here in the United States. That’s just bad journalism. But it’s what happens when an organization takes on a cause, regardless of the facts.