Village Voice Media, the alt-weekly publisher, has been rocked by layoffs in recent weeks. And now a clergy group has attacked the company for what it calls "child sex trafficking ads" on the Village Voice-owned classified listings site Backpage.com.
The interfaith clergy coalition, called Groundswell, claims that more than 50,000 people have expressed their support for its petition to shut down the "adult" section of the site. "Sex trafficking of minors violates a common morality held by members of all faiths," the group said in a release.
The Phoenix-based group bought a full-page ad in the New York Times on Tuesday, printing an open letter to Village Voice Media signed by 36 clergymen.
"Asking Village Voice Media to shut down the adult section of Backpage.com is just the first step in solving the problem of the domestic sex trafficking of girls and boys," Sharon Brous, a rabbi associated with the Jewish social and spiritual activist group Ikar, said in a separate statement. "We know that we also need to enforce laws that protect girls and boys from sex trafficking, educate people about the extent of this problem, and address the poverty and child abuse that are at the root of domestic child sex trafficking. [But] Village Voice Media can help these girls and boys today by shutting down the adult section of Backpage.com."
"Neither government officials nor God's advocates can dictate such arbitrary control of business or speech," Village Voice Media said in response. The Village Voice published a lengthy letter dismissing the clergy's claims, saying the company has spent "millions of dollars and dedicated countless resources to protecting children from those who would misuse an adult site" while continuing to conduct a legal business. The statement also stresses the company's willingness to work with the Groundswell group privately on the matter:
In August this same religious coalition asked for a confidential meeting regarding Backpage.com. We readily agreed. As we prepared to share our information, we were informed that only four members of the coalition would attend.
Village Voice Media then offered to fly, at our expense, all members of the clerical delegation to New York for the conference.
Backpage.com has extensive, working relationships with law enforcement, from the FBI to local police. This is part of a concerted effort to protect underage kids from predators. We looked forward to sharing this data.
In response to our willingness to confer, the clergy used a public relations firm in Washington to reprint in the New York Times a modified copy of the letter the clergy sent to the Village Voice in August. The version that was printed today had been altered, and left out both the coalition's request for a private dialogue aimed at solutions, as well as Backpage.com's acceptance of the request, and offer to fund air travel for all interested clergy.
The Voice published both the original letter from the clergy and its response, pointing to this quote from Ernie Allen, head of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as proof that it is taking the problem seriously.
"To its credit, Backpage this year took major steps to police its ads to help curb sex trafficking. Backpage has been aggressively reviewing their ads and trying to remove those ads that are unlawful and suggest they involve the sale of kids for sex."
Allen said that Backpage had reported 1,600 suspicious ads to the center.
More from the Voice response to the petition:
It is true that, in carrying out their crimes, criminals continue to utilize services such as cell phones by Verizon and AT&T, and overnight delivery services such as FedEx and numerous Internet sites. But that does not shift the blame from criminal predators to legal business operators.
If someone is caught shipping contraband through the Post Office, we do not shut down the U.S. mail. Complicated issues require sophisticated solutions, not PR flurries.
Adult advertising, as found on Craigslist, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Yellowpage.com and numerous other web sites is complicated by those who seek to exploit this technology. And the issues surrounding the exploitation of children are equally complex, often involving homelessness, drugs, and abuse at home.
Groundswell is hoping public pressure will convince the publisher to shut down the adult section. Craigslist, which had been a major competitor of Backpage in the adult classified market, shut down its adult services section last year after a similar public campaign. In 2007, New York magazine, which pulled the adult ads from its back-of-book section after the National Organization of Women complained--a move that prompted criticism from the Village Voice.
Village Voice Media faced similar criticism from the actor Ashton Kutcher earlier this year, after the Voice published an article critical of Kutcher's own campaign against underage sex trafficking.
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