Reason Podcast

Why the Press Conflates Prostitution with Sex Trafficking—and Why That's a Threat To Free Speech: Podcast

Elizabeth Nolan Brown exposes the flimsy case against the alt-weekly pioneers accused of facilitating sex trafficking through


In the early 1970s, Michael Lacey and James Larkin helped reshape the media landscape by making Phoenix New Times one of the scrappiest alt-weeklies of all time. Along the way, they built an underground media empire based on their "desert libertarianism"; over time they came to control a slugger's row of legendary outlets, ranging from SF Weekly to Cleveland Scene to the granddaddy of all alternative papers, The Village Voice.

Lacey and Larkin also made more than than few powerful enemies, including Arizona Sen. John McCain (they exposes his ties to Charles Keating, a central figure in the savings & loan debacle), his wife Cindy (they exposed her habit of using a children's philanthropy to supply herself with prescription drugs), Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (whose extraconstitutional activities they reported on endlessly), and current California senator and former state attorney general Kamala Harris (who accused the pair of abetting pedophiles and pimps). In 2004, they founded Backpage, an online advertising site that quickly became Craigslist's main competitor. Earlier this year, the site was seized by the federal government, which claims it was a hub for prostitution and sex trafficking. The two men wear ankle monitors while awaiting trial in 2020 on charges of money laundering, conspiracy, and violating the Travel Act.

In a blockbuster new story, Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown says "the story of their arrest…is better understood as one of near-religious fervor, government greed, and political retribution, in which an escalating panic over commercial sex coincided with a booming online publishing platform."

In the latest Reason Podcast, I talk with Brown about the flimsiness of the federal case against Lacey and Larkin, the problems with conflating prostitution among consenting adults with the trafficking of children, and why the media seem incapable of telling the difference.

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Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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