Reason magazine's 2019 documentary, "The War on Backpage Is a War on Sex Workers," was honored this weekend by the L.A. Press Club with an award for investigative journalism.
On Saturday, August 29, the Los Angeles Press Club honored video journalist Paul Detrick of Reason magazine for his brilliant, 2019 documentary, The War on Backpage.com Is a War on Sex Workers, awarding it second place for best investigative journalism in the Television/Film Broadcast category.
Detrick’s 38-minute doc on the Backpage saga largely follows the story of former Backpage owners and lifelong newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, relating how they came to be scapegoated and vilified by grandstanding politicians and anti-sex work activists with axes to grind.
True to Reason’s libertarian ethos, Detrick’s doc flips the script on the common, misleading narrative about Backpage, and rightly depicts Lacey and Larkin as free-speech paladins, risking all on behalf of the First Amendment.
Communicating with Front Page Confidential via direct message, the L.A.-based Detrick, who has worked with Reason for nearly 12 years, wrote that the documentary was a “labor of love.” He also praised the original reporting done on Lacey and Larkin’s plight by his colleague, senior editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown, whose journalism has made him “proud to work at Reason.”
Congrats to my @reason colleagues @kmanguward @PaulDetrick @evajoanna @shikhadalmia @JustinANutshell @MightyHeaton Austin Bragg & @TheAbridgedZach on the 2020 @LAPressClub wins!!! pic.twitter.com/hkob95oQn6
— Elizabeth Nolan Brown (@ENBrown) September 1, 2020
Unlike most media outlets, which have done little but parrot the conventional view of Backpage and Lacey and Larkin, Reason has embraced their cause and done in-depth reporting, undercutting an ongoing moral panic that conflates consensual, adult prostitution with sex trafficking, which involves either minors, or adults through force, fraud or coercion.
“It was a real pleasure to see Reason recognized for their groundbreaking documentary work on our struggle with government prosecutors and their Backpage jihad,” Lacey told FPC on hearing the news. “Reason broke trail that mainstream media still has not managed to find. ”
“Jihad” is by no means a hyperbolic term for the government’s moral crusade against Lacey and Larkin, who created Backpage in 2004 as a competitor to the online listings giant Craigslist.org.
The two men owned a chain of alternative newsweeklies that would eventually include the Village Voice and the LA Weekly, and they shared a career of two-fisted journalism that stretched back to 1970, when their first paper, Phoenix New Times, was founded.
As Brown explains in the documentary, classified advertising was an important part of the chain’s revenue stream, as it once was for all newspapers.
“Classified ads, as you know, usually took up the back pages and pages of these free weekly newspapers,” Brown says. “Obviously, you’d have things like help wanted job ads and ads for rent; the personals were a huge part of back page ads. And then also there were adult ads, escort ads, phone, sex line ads, strip club reviews, and all that.”
But as first Craigslist, then Backpage, took classifieds online, the adult ads that had been commonplace in alt-weeklies drew the ire of a coalition of religious conservatives, anti-sex work feminists, and self-serving celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, who peddled much-debunked falsehoods, like the canard about there being 300,000 “child sex slaves” in the U.S.
In 2010, Craigslist buckled and closed down its adult services section, with much of that business going to Backpage. As a result, Backpage drew added heat from that same coalition, fending off civil and criminal action by invoking the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that generally held interactive websites harmless for third-party content.
“They’ve all really simplified what is a hugely complicated issue,” Brown says of Backpage’s enemies. “And they’ve made [their message]: `There is one website. It is permitting child sex trafficking, and Section 230 is a loophole that lets it.’ None of that is true, but that was sort of the narrative that got settled on around 2011 or so.”
The film relates how Lacey and Larkin sold their newspapers in 2012 and ended up selling Backpage in 2015, retiring from the publishing business.
By then, both men had garnered an impressive list of powerful foes — from John and Cindy McCain to now-Senator and Veep-wannabe Kamala Harris. The latter had Lacey and Larkin arrested on bogus “pimping” charges in 2016, while she was California’s Attorney General and running to replace Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate.
“She knew that Section 230 barred her from bringing these charges, but she brought them anyway,” says Brown. “And of course, a judge threw them right out.”
Harris refiled the charges before decamping to D.C., where she would participate in the pillorying of Lacey and Larkin in January 2017 before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The two men were subpoenaed to appear, but refused to testify, citing both the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
(And Harris’ refiled charges? Eventually, a second judge 86’d them just like the first.)
In the film, Larkin refers to the hearing as “a McCain production,” and indeed, Arizona Senator John McCain spoke from the committee’s dais as Lacey, Larkin, and Backpage’s then-owners and execs sat before him.
In the audience that day was McCain’s wife Cindy, the subject of Phoenix New Times exposés on her theft of opioids from a medical nonprofit she ran and her father’s lucrative liquor distributorship having its roots in bootlegging.
For decades, the paper had targeted the Senator’s corruption and abuses of power. Now it was payback time.
McCain’s vendetta helped drive the federal prosecution of Lacey and Larkin in 2018, when both men were arrested and indicted by the federal government on false charges of facilitating prostitution, as well as conspiracy and money laundering. The feds raided their homes, terrorized their families at gunpoint and seized all of their assets in an attempt to make them bend the knee.
But as both men make clear in the doc, genuflection is not in the cards.
“We didn’t kowtow,” Larkin says. “We don’t kowtow.”
Lacey is even more emphatic.
“It would give the lie to our entire lives, our entire career of being journalists, if the government could come in and put their stubby little fingers in our chest and make us ask for our mommy,” he says. “It ain’t going to happen.”
Suffer the Innocent
The beauty of Detrick’s documentary is that it covers an incredible amount of ground in a short span of time.
As its title declares, the film also discusses the concomitant war on sex work and how the FBI’s takedown of Backpage and the passage of draconian laws such as FOSTA/SESTA have endangered women and children.
“It’s a charade, it’s an absolute charade. You can vilify these two guys for all of the sins of the world, and that’s what’s happening. You know, it’s not right.” — Dr. Lois Lee, Children of the Night
The film tells how Backpage cooperated extensively with law enforcement, and helped locate missing children and exploited women. It responded to subpoenas within 24 hours, and its execs testified in court against pimps and traffickers. A multi-tiered system of moderation worked to keep illegal content off the site.
As a result, in 2011, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller honored Backpage with a certificate of recognition.
Lacey and Larkin also partnered with Dr. Lois Lee, founder of the non-profit group Children of the Night, which for more than 40 years has helped rescue child sex trafficking victims from the streets and other abusive circumstances.
— Elizabeth Nolan Brown (@ENBrown) April 12, 2018
Detrick tells how, “at Lee’s urging,” Backpage employees trained vice cops to use the site to go after traffickers.
Interviewed for the documentary, Lee says that police officers regarded the site “as a wonderful investigative tool,” but their upper echelon was less enthusiastic, as the money law enforcement receives from Congress depends on “politics.”
She laments that the same political situation has unfairly tarred Lacey and Larkin and placed them behind a legal eight ball.
“It’s a charade, it’s an absolute charade,” she says toward the film’s end. “You can vilify these two guys for all of the sins of the world, and that’s what’s happening. You know, it’s not right.”
Currently, Lacey and Larkin’s trial is set to begin in federal court in Phoenix on
January 12, 2021, April 12, 2021.
Thanks be to Reason and to Detrick for flashing a klieg light on this injustice, where other outlets prefer darkness.