LOS ANGELES—It's bad enough that the mainstream media routinely covers adult entertainment—and the entire subject of porn, sex and intimacy—through the lens of either Portnoy or Jehovah. Now it's getting downright sloppy or, worse, willfully negligent in its willingness to look the other way when it comes to some rather big numbers.
The latest example of "swallow it whole" journalism comes in the form of an article written by MSN Money editor James Andrews. Titled "Are You Profiting from Porn?" it was recently posted to the company's U.K. website.
While the lede seems to set the agenda—"Regardless of how you feel about pornography, it is hard to deny that it's big business. The question is: how big and who's involved?"—it is the very next sentence that warns us we are shaky journalistic ground.
"Francis Koenig, founder of the AdultVest hedge fund which focuses on the adult industry for profits, estimates the industry is worth more than $12 billion, while the Playboy business alone was put up for sale this year with a $300 million price tag."
Forget for a moment about the relative meaninglessness of the juxtaposition of these two hypotheticals; what is more problematic is the statement that follows, cluing the reader into the fact that Andrews has no intention of even trying to confirm any of the financial claims made in the piece, but intends to use them to make a vague point about the morality of making money from porn.
"But while Playboy and a hedge fund focusing exclusively on the adult industry are obviously linked to 'dirty' movies and magazines, the number of other firms making money from people taking off their clothes might surprise you."
Oh, really? In fact, it's almost painful how many people know that some large corporations make oodles of money from porn. My cat knows. It's really hoary news. I think this fellow knows, too, and is simply too bored to pretend he is interested in the subject enough to make any sense.
In the very next section—"Is the Sin Economy Profitable?—the answer utterly presaged, Andrews again breaks new territory with the claim that adult content can be found on cable and satellite networks, in hotel rooms and, increasingly, across mobile networks. Again, alert the media. You can't make this stuff up. Or can you?
All of this obviousness pales in comparison to the most astounding assertion in the piece, repeated in a matter-of-fact tone that truly sets the article apart in its refusal to exercize editorial integrity in a story about porn.
"Of course the internet is a massive driver of pornography. AdultVest's Koenig estimates the iPorn.com website alone is worth up to a billion dollars." Wha...wha...what? A billion dollars?
Here's the problem. The "of course" in that sentence tells us the writer is making the assertion about the internet being an obvious driver of pornography based on Koenig's astounding claim regarding the worth of his own domain. In light of that, one tries to imagine the editor that would allow such a thing to pass muster, and cannot.
It should go without saying that even attributing a sweeping claim built on a fabulous declaration regarding an adult property, made by someone who also owns a company soliciting mainstream investment in adult projects, including, one presumes, the aforementioned property, should not be implied as fact without some sort of further vetting.
And yet, there it is in black and white.
There are other problems with the article, including an unfortunate Sharia law reference as well as its lazy attempt to deduce profits made from porn by corporations like Google, Amazon, Vodafone, Visa and Intercontinental Hotel by looking at gross revenues in general categories such as voice services, messaging, data and media. This is also very old stuff. Because these companies do not provide incremental breakdowns within those categories, any inferences about actual revenue from porn is pure speculation, something Andrews has to acknowledge.
"But what's undeniable is that these companies do make money from adult services and media and that leaves an awkward question for investors," Andrews says. Does it, really?
Investors certainly should be asking themselves serious questions if they are thinking about investing in adult entertainment, but the most important ones from an investor's perspective have far more to do with reliable numbers than morality, which, let's face it, is a valid if individual decision people usually simply make for themselves.
What is a shame and also something approaching an offense is the proclivity by outlets like MSN Money to shed their normal standards when it comes to reporting on the business of pleasure.
Taking such numbers at face value is not only irresponsible but potentially dangerous. MSN Money's readers, many of whom are investors, require financial information that is properly evaluated.
(Disclaimer: I've fielded many queries from the mainstream press regarding the monetary size of the industry—it's the first thing they always ask about—including the inevitable question about the elusive $12 billion figure. I've always said the same thing: Any actual figure is an estimate based mostly on speculation and should be taken with multiple grains of salt and anyone who presumes to make a concrete claim is probably an interested party.)