NEW YORK—Village Voice Media, which owns and operates Backpage.com, an online classifieds site that has received a lot of criticism for its refusal to shutter its adult section, which reportedly contains many advertisements placed by pimps trafficking minors. Wednesday, in response to a blistering indictment of Backpage.com by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in a March 17 column, the Village Voice replied with a strongly-worded column of its own titled, "What Nick Kristof Got Wrong: Village Voice Media Responds."
Basically, the Voice is accusing Kristof of mixing a lot of fiction in with his factual account of the story of a former teen prostitute named "Alissa," whose case eventually went to court, resulting in the conviction of the pimps who trafficked her, including 25 year sentences one of the six who were sent to prison.
"Yet these days, she reserves her greatest anger not at pimps but at companies that enable them," he wrote. "She is particularly scathing about Backpage.com, a classified advertising Web site that is used to sell auto parts, furniture, boats—and girls. Alissa says pimps routinely peddled her on Backpage.
The column is accompanied by a short video shot recently that shows Kristof interviewing "Alissa" as they walk the same New York streets where she says she was sold for sex when she was 16 and 17. The headline of the video read, "Age 16, She Was Sold On Backpage.com."
In addition, in the video the now 24-year-old college senior says, "I can guarantee you that if you came out late tonight in this area, or on 28th and Lexington, and watched, you're going to see a whole bunch of pimps recruiting girls, and if you listen to their pitch, their pitch is that you don't have to walk outside anymore; I can do it so that you just stay in a hotel and travel the world. And you know how this is possible? Because of websites like Backpage."
In its reply, the Village Voice took particular exception to the claim that Alissa was trafficked on Backpage.com when she was 16.
"According to Alissa's court testimony, she was 16 in 2003," the column states. "Backpage.com did not exist anywhere in America in 2003.
"According to Alissa's court testimony, she left the streets, where she'd been viciously savaged, and came to the FBI's attention in August, 2005. She was quickly relocated away from the corners and hotels she worked in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City, streets where thugs had pimped out the underage victim.
"In the summer of 2005 Backpage.com did not exist in Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Atlantic City."
Not content to simply challenge Kristof's version of the facts, the Voice aims its ire directly at the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist.
"Had Kristof followed any of The New York Times' standards of journalism, he would have known this," the column continues. "He could have read the court transcripts. He could have read the testimony of A.G. (the victim). He could have read the testimony of FBI agent Tamara Harty. He could have Googled the case and read the coverage in The Boston Globe which reported: "Soon after meeting (agent) Harty in 2005, (she) was moved out of state to a home for troubled youth.
"Neglecting to do any of the above, Kristof could still have asked us.
"Despite extensive correspondence with our attorney, he never mentioned Alissa or sought confirmation about her purported link to Backpage.com at the age of 16.
"Instead, he concocted a story to suit his agenda and then asked his readers to boycott Village Voice Media."
Late Wednesday morning, Kristof responded to the Village Voice column on his Times blog, where he defended the claims made in his original column and in the accompanying video.
"It’s interesting that Village Voice doesn’t dispute anything in my column or the accompanying video, but only the online blurb for the video," he writes. "In fact, Alissa turned 16 at the end of 2003. (note: earlier on this blog I had a typo saying end of 2004) All during 2004, she was 16 years old, traveling up and down the east coast being pimped. Backpage operated in at least 11 cities during 2004, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale, both of them cities Alissa where says she was pimped on Backpage. Then at 17, as Backpage expanded to 30 cities including Boston, she was pimped even more broadly on Backpage—and also in Village Voice print ads, she says.
"Moreover," he adds, "contrary to what the Voice says, Alissa continued in the sex trade until 2007, when she got out for good. Backpage was steadily expanding and becoming a major force in this period, and pimps routinely used it to sell her, she says."
Kristof then expresses his surprise that the Village Voice—in the face of "Attorneys General around the country [who] have linked Backpage to arrests for trafficking of underage girls in 22 different states"—does not simply admit its culpability as a "major player in sex trafficking" and calls on the company to either "get out of carrying prostitution advertising or at least require careful vetting — such as seeing adult I.D.’s — of those who place the ads."
For its part, Village Voice Media claims that it is in fact providing a tool to help improve the identification and prosecution of sex traffickers, claiming, "For the first time in the history of sex work, law enforcement has, because of the internet, the ability to shine a light upon those who would abuse children. With internet records the police can trace runaways and those who would take advantage of them.
"Backpage dedicates hundreds of staff to screen adult classifieds in order to keep juveniles off the site and to work proactively with law enforcement in their efforts to locate victims," it further claims. "When the authorities have concerns, we share paperwork and records and help them make cases."
The Voice further claims that ongoing research supports its contention. "In an evolving discussion, serious researchers argue that the data on the internet is the very best tool to combat trafficking. This emerging work includes the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy study entitled "Human Trafficking Online: The Role of Social Networking Sites and Online Classifieds" as well as analysis at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society."
But the Voice, in its reply column, saved the most damning retort to Kristof for last.
"Kristof's uninformed crusade," it wrote, "would drive victims back to the shadows, back to the streets that Alissa fled."
Kristof hit back in his reply to their response, accusing Village Voice Media of using "its journalists as attack dogs for those who threaten its corporate interests," claiming that when "Amber Lyon of CNN aired a piece about a 13-year-old girl trafficked on Backpage, Village Voice went after her and even published a piece in an affiliate in her hometown. It’s because of this record of Village Voice using journalistic tools to go after critics that Alissa chose not to use her real name."
However, he did not comment on the Voice's argument that online services such as Backpage.com actually provide a safer environment for sex workers while doing double-duty as an effective tool against illegal trafficking, instead reiterating his indictment of Backpage.com along with another call for it to cease and desist.
"C’mon, Village Voice," he concludes, "does an alternative newspaper really want to represent the greediest kind of exploitation?"
This is not the first, nor will it likely be the last, public feud over Backpage.com, which has been the subject of a public campaign by 46 state Attorneys General, as well as a defendent in a lawsuit brought by another minor pimped out on the site at the age of 14, who sued to hold the company liable for what happened to her. In August of last year, the suit was dismissed after the judge ruled that Backpage.com, "As an 'interactive computer service,' is immune under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for content posted to its site by third parties," which is probably why Kristof and others are continuing to engage in public campaigns intended to shame (or boycott) the company into action.