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(Disclosure: McNulty did some paid web design work for my book Help at Any Cost.)
The Electronic Frontier Foundation—a premier defender of free speech on the net—was quoted in Forbes as supportive of Reputation Defender. But its spokesperson, staff attorney Kevin Bankston, said that the group was described to him as using positive articles to defend against negative ones, not suppressing speech. “To the extent that Reputation Defender is using baseless legal threats to get speech critical of its clients taken taken down—that is something we’d have serious problems with,” he said.
Fornits is a mostly unmoderated forum, and, as a result, can sometimes include obscene, angry, and off-color rants and slurs. But it's also one of the best sources parents and journalists have for finding out about abuse in residential teen tough-love programs, often straight from the mouths of abused teens and their parents.
Before the Internet existed, thousands of teens who felt they had been harmed by tough love had few ways of complaining, or finding out if others had endured similar experiences. Without places like fornits, they can't be heard, in part because journalists have few other ways to find them.
“It’s unfortunate that nuts and angry people have chosen to attack Sue Scheff in obscene terms,” says attorney Phil Elberg, who represented fornits when it was sued along with Bock by Scheff (the fornits case was dropped). Elberg's one of the few lawyers to have won multimillion dollar judgments against tough love programs. He adds, “This has allowed the focus to shift away from the tactics that Scheff has used and the fact that she describes herself on the net as a child advocate and a critic of the industry, when in reality, she symbolizes so much of what is wrong with it.”
Also unfortunate is the reporting by ABC News investigative reporter Martin Bashir on the new show, I-Caught, as well as coverage in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. All told only half the story. Both McNulty and McGowan say they tried to contact these reporters to set the record straight, but were ignored.
The whole sordid story reveals the flaws in both unmoderated online media and in what passes these days for journalism. One way Reputation Defender has managed to move positive stories about Scheff up the ranks on Google is by posting “news stories” she has written on citizen journalism sites like NowPublic. But the mainstream media is not supposed to be as easy to game.
They could start correcting the record by reporting on Reputation Defender’s attempts at censorship and obfuscation, instead of cheering on efforts to silence websites that, for all their flaws, have a history of exposing real incidents of child abuse.
Maia Szalavitz is author of Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006) and a senior fellow at stats.org. Her latest book, co-written with Dr. Bruce D. Perry is The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook. (Basic Books, 2007).