Casual readers might think the alt-weekly champion of New York’s little guys and The Times’ in-house humanitarian would be bound by ideology. But as a result of two articles Mr. Kristof wrote this year about Voice sister company Backpage.com, he has become the subject of what he calls a “disingenuous” attack published on the The Village Voice website.
In a pair of columns, Mr. Kristof criticized the online classifieds site for maintaining an adult services section, which—like Craigslist’s before it—serves as a virtual agora for prostitutes and their handlers. The more recent piece, published March 17, included a first-person account from “Alissa,” who was sold into sex on Backpage.com starting at age 16.
“Nicholas D. Kristof was wrong about the most devastating ‘fact’ in his Sunday, March 18th, column in The New York Times,” the Village Voice wrote four days later. “According to Alissa’s court testimony, she was 16 in 2003. Backpage.com did not exist anywhere in America in 2003.”
“Had Kristof followed any of The New York Times‘ standards of journalism,” it went on, “he would have known this.”
Mr. Kristof told Off the Record that he had followed the Gray Lady’s standards: “Alissa” turned 16 in the final days of 2003 and remained 16 throughout most of 2004, when, Mr. Kristof was able to verify, Backpage.com was operating in 11 cities, including two—Miami and Ft. Lauderdale—where Alissa said she was sold on Backpage.com specfically.
Mr. Kristof said he was dismayed by how misleading the Voice piece was but, having seen the paper go after other Backpage.com critics like CNN’s Amber Lyon and celebrity activist Ashton Kutcher, he was not surprised by the response.
“That’s why Alissa did not want her real name used,” Mr. Kristof explained. “She was afraid of The Village Voice.”
For a little over a year, The Village Voice has been using editorial space to launch somewhat biased fact-checks on groups and individuals who attempt to report on sex trafficking in the U.S. One article called research produced by the Women’s Funding Network “junk science;” another belittled Mr. Kutcher’s nonprofit organization, Real Men Don’t Buy Girls, with the headline “Real Men Get Their Facts Straight.” The stories are usually printed onto the covers of all 13 papers in the Village Voice Media conglomerate.
The article about Mr. Kristof is unbylined but was reported, at least in part, by Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega. Mr. Ortega did not return Off the Record’s request for comment.
At the same time, state attorneys general, clergy members and parents have voiced opposition to Backpage.com with letters to the company, full page ads in The New York Times and online petitions—including one led by John Buffalo Mailer, son of Voice co-founder Norman. After Mr. Kristof’s first column appeared in the Times, Film Forum pulled its advertising. On Friday, 19 U.S. Senators, including Marco Rubio and Richard Blumenthal, wrote to Village Voice Media demanding they close the adult services section of Backpage.com.
Although he has been reporting on sex trafficking for years, even Mr. Kristof was reluctant to take a swing at the Voice, and not just because he admires the paper’s police tapes reporting. (He called the stories “a public service.”)
“It’s a really hard time for newspapers of all kinds,” he said. “This is the Voice‘s business model and I hate to undermine it. But for anybody who loves journalism: How can you fund that journalism with sex trafficking?”
The question is, can they afford to? Backpage.com rakes in $22 M. annually from prostitution advertising, according to media analysts at AIM. Backpage.com reportedly accounts for one-seventh of VVM’s revenue overall.
“It’s crazy that an alternative newspaper that was supposed to represent truth and honesty should be engaging in a an egregious kind of capitalism that no Fortune 500 company would engage in,” Mr. Kristof said. “No Fortune 500 company would run these kinds of ads. So, now you get a counterculture newspaper that is suspicious of capitalism doing just that.”
VVM contends that because Backpage.com screens posts and cooperates with authorities, online trafficking is actually safer than if the sites were shut down and trafficking returned to the street. Prostitution will always occur, the thinking goes, and therefore it should happen in a space where it can be monitored.
“I think it’s a good debate to have and I think that’s fine,” Mr. Kristof said. “I’m uncomfortable with the idea of the company defending its commercial interests by dispatching its reporters to dig up dirt on a company’s critics, which is what to me seems like, over time, the Voice has done.”
“I’m a grown up. I dish it out. People can criticize me,” he added, “but Alissa is in a difficult situation.”