On Sunday, as part of his campaign against Backpage.com, the online classified-ad service owned by Village Voice Media, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof told the story of "Alissa," a former underage prostitute who "escaped that life and is now a 24-year-old college senior planning to become a lawyer." Kristof reported that "Alissa says pimps routinely peddled her on Backpage," beginning when she was 16. He quoted Alissa as saying, "You can't buy a child at Wal-Mart, can you? No, but you can go to Backpage and buy me on Backpage." The headline for a video accompanying the online version of Kristof's column says, "Age 16, She Was Sold on Backpage.com." Kristof claimed "court records and public officials back Alissa’s account."
But as Village Voice Media (VVM) points out, Alissa turned 16 in 2003, and "Backpage.com did not exist anywhere in America in 2003." The company adds that Alissa, who testified that she had been compelled to work as a prostitute in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City, said she left prostitution in August 2005, and "in the summer of 2005 Backpage.com did not exist in Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Atlantic City." VVM says Kristof could have found this out readily enough:
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.
Instead, says VVM, Kristof "concocted a story to suit his agenda." Kristof responds on his blog:
Alissa turned 16 at the end of 2003....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 [sic] 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, 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.
VVM says Alissa did not mention any of these details in her court testimony. According to the October 2010 Boston Globe story to which VVM refers, Alissa (dubbed "Jessica" by the Globe) left prostitution in 2005, not 2007, and the case against her pimps "covered incidents that happened between 2001 and 2005." By 2007, when Kristof now claims she "got out for good," she would have been 19 or 20.
Do any of these details matter? Only if you accept Kristof's premise that VVM is responsible for criminal misuse of Backpage.com. That logic would also make Craigslist responsible for the deaths of men lured to their deaths by online job ads, Louisville Slugger responsible for assaults aided by its bats, and GM responsible for bank robberies in which its products are used as getaway cars. Kristof concedes that "many prostitution ads on Backpage are placed by adult women acting on their own without coercion," and he says "they're not my concern." Yet he cites the National Association of Attorneys General, which routinely equates all prostitution with slavery, to back up his claim that Backpage.com is "the premier Web site for human trafficking in the United States," and he joins those bullying busybodies in demanding that VVM stop accepting "adult" ads, suggesting that advertisers should boycott The Village Voice until it does. All this while admitting that "Backpage's exit from prostitution advertising wouldn't solve the problem." It would, however, force Kristof to pick a new scapegoat.