Since their renaissance in the 1960s counterculture, alternative papers have thrived on free-spirited journalism and a libertarian advertising philosophy. Strip clubs, escorts and, lately, medical marijuana emporiums, filled countless pages with their ads.
The ads might have provoked occasional scorn but probably never the kind of sustained backlash currently aimed at the nation's largest alternative news publisher by some religious leaders and law enforcement officials.
The subject of their wrath has been Village Voice Media's backpage.com, an online classified advertising service that critics say is a too-easy platform for predators intent on offering underage victims for prostitution. Since August, protests have included a letter by 51 attorneys general, a full-page ad in the New York Times by religious leaders, and picketing of the Village Voice offices in New York — all demanding the shuttering of the company's "adult" online listings.
Village Voice, the Phoenix-based publisher of the L.A. Weekly and a dozen other publications, has launched an exuberant counterattack. The owners — who say they assiduously monitor online ads to prevent abuses that go unchecked on other sites — have hired a lawyer and a public relations firm. But their most striking rebuttal has been issued by their own journalists, who have produced two cover stories and multiple blog posts that attempt to knock down what the papers call a "sex-trafficking panic" trumped up by "sex prohibitionists."
The chain's coverage has been so aggressive that two experts cited in its articles — who agree that the scope of child prostitution has been mischaracterized and, in some cases, overblown — said in interviews that Village Voice appears to be making the opposite mistake: understating the problem, as it appears to be bolstering its commercial interests.
The controversy pits legal rights against moral suasion. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 encourages communications between third-parties, by assuring publishers won't be held legally liable for the missives. But religious leaders and other activists say they have an obligation, beyond the law, to fight against any forum that potentially exposes children to danger.
"A lot of people in this country think that children are trafficked in other places in the world and they aren't aware that children are in danger in this country, right in their backyard," said the Rev. Katharine R. Henderson, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary.
A similar furor enveloped Craigslist last year. The leading online classified outlet took steps to limit the chance underage prostitution would be offered on its site. But it eventually succumbed to activists. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark decided in 2010 the listings were "not good for business in the end, so he shut it down," Henderson said. But Craigslist did not pull the adult ads — posting a "CENSORED" headline where the ads had been posted.
Village Voice argues that attempts to shut down adult-oriented ads on the Internet can't succeed. People will always try to make connections for sex and personal contact and it's better to have a site run by a reputable media outlet that strives to keep out "scammers" and "criminals" who would, for instance, advertise the services of prostitutes who are younger than 18, said Village Voice chief counsel Steve Suskin.
"Eliminating adult categories on backpage.com, as Craig's List announced it was doing, will not solve the problem," said Jim Larkin, chief executive of Village Voice Media. "What needs to be done is what we are doing: Hosts need to monitor and remove offending posts on a real-time basis, and cooperate rapidly when illegal posts are brought to their attention."
Carl Ferrer, the executive who oversees backpage.com, said that technological and human screeners (125 of them, operating in the U.S. and India) knock out more than half of the 800,000 items submitted to the site each week. The vast majority of the posts are killed because they are spam or inappropriate, not because they are selling sex, Ferrer said. The site said it reports about 200 "suspicious" cases a month to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Groundswell, the interfaith group protesting the backpage.com listings, seeks to publicize accounts when screening did not work. The group sent reporters across the country an article from a Tennessee newspaper that described how two adults were arrested for prostituting two girls, ages 15 and 16, for customers found on backpage. Last week, the district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., indicted a 21-year-old man for forcing a 13-year-old runaway girl into prostitution, advertising her services on backpage, and an Ohio man received a 4½ -year prison sentence for a similar offense.