Wednesday, September 15, 2010

America’s Culture Wars Poison the News

On September 4, 2010 San Francisco-based Craigslist, an international computerized listing service, posted a ‘Censored’ banner over its Adult Services section in response to legal actions threatened by 18 state Attorneys General. This Craigslist section typically offered legal sexual services available for a fee. By Monday afternoon, September 6th approximately 1500 articles had been posted on Google News regarding Craigslist’s action. I examined two of these articles for bias. Established women reporters working for national news organizations working from wire copy authored both articles. A direct comparison of these two news stories illustrates the growing problem of the deliberate use of biased news to promote cultural values rather than objectively inform the public.

The MS-NBC story, filed by Athima Chansanchai, focused on legal and Constitutional issues raised by this action, as well as practical business and technical aspects of running Adult Services advertisements. Chansanchai appeared to avoid making personal value judgments about the moral and societal implications of offering legal sexual services for sale. She included the results of a survey of “more than 1,800” members of the Mashable social media site wherein more than 70% of those surveyed objected to the censoring of Craigslist’s Adult Services section and then qualified that by noting that the vast majority of those respondents favored changing the laws to legalize prostitution. Chansanchai also cited several reports appearing in other established reputable publications, including a national article in the New York Times that questioned “the possible free speech ramifications of the decision,” and a local article from the San Francisco Chronicle, quoting a UC Berkeley law professor who said this censorship “would likely result in the takedown of what might otherwise be perfectly legitimate free expression.” Other recognized authorities on issues of protected speech and the particular problems inherent in social media and internet technology were also quoted in Chansanchai’s piece.

In comparison the CNN article, with reporting by Deborah Doft and Nicky Robertson, focused almost exclusively on the salacious ‘immorality’ of sex for sale; and what the reporters implied were the ‘natural’ results of legalize prostitution, including child prostitution, female enslavement, and death. Further calling into question the integrity of their report, they used this news story as an implicit endorsement of the candidacy and ideology of Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is running for US Senate. Doft/Robertson’s article leaned almost exclusively on commentary from Blumenthal, featured him exclusively in the first half of the article and predominantly in eight out of the article’s 27 paragraphs. Blumenthal was quoted approvingly as announcing that this is a “significant apparent step in the right direction,” and as saying, “these prostitution ads enable human trafficking and assaults on women.” The reporters also quoted him stating that if he was elected to the U.S. Senate he would try to change federal laws to make it easier to prosecute sites like Craigslist.

As a further example of the deliberate bias of the Doft/Robertson article, the reporters distorted a comment from a Craigslist spokesperson to make it appear that the computerized listing service agreed with Mr. Blumenthal’s actions. Doft/Robertson wrote “A Craigslist spokeswoman said at the time that the site agreed with at least some of the letter,” and quoted from a Craigslist press release: “‘We strongly support the attorneys general desire to end trafficking in children and women, through the internet or by any other means,’ said Susan MacTavish.” A more logical interpretation is not that MacTavish is agreeing with Blumenthal’s complaint, she is simply stating that Craigslist is also concerned about the illegal marketing of women and child prostitutes, and supports the legal enforcement of existing laws against such trafficking. Doft/Robertson implied that this was a newsworthy change in Craigslist’s policy, but offered no evidence to substantiate that Craigslist previously held a different opinion. Further the Doft/Robertson article gave very little play to the fact that the company had committed considerable sums of money and energy to ensure that Craigslist isn’t used for illegal purposes (which we learned from the Chansanchai article).

The emotional tone of the Doft/Robertson article was self-congratulatory and judgmental and the reporters used quotes to support their smug perspective. Other than Blumenthal, the reporters only quoted other CNN reporters, including the ironically named Amber Lyon — a typical prostitute-styled nom de guerre — who advertised herself on Craigslist offering illegal sexual services for sale. Their article also quoted several people who were inadequately identified including a prostitute named “Jessica,” and two unnamed and otherwise unidentified “girls” who claimed they were sold for sex on Craigslist. By not adequately identifying their sources Doft/Robertson make it impossible to verify these allegations. By quoting fellow reporters, including one who offered illegal sexual services, the news service became the subject of the story rather than the reporter. To further emotionally load its sensationalistic and sordid tale, Doft/Robertson resurrected Philip Markoff, the now dead serial murderer who targeted at least one of his victims from her Craigslist advertisement. Then the reporters literally ended their tale with a report CNN did two years ago, stating Craigslist had “more than 7,000 ads in a single day. Many offered thinly veiled ‘services’ for anything from $50 for a half-hour to $400 an hour.”

In comparison the Chansanchai article focused on Constitutional, technical and business issues and she did not quote the Connecticut Attorney General running for US Senate. Additionally Chansanchai sought the opinion of several lawyers who specialized in such legal actions, and who disagreed with the legal interpretation offered by the candidate for Senate, and the various state Attorneys General who had joined in his threatened legal action. Ms Chansanchai also garnered the opinions of other media reporters, and she detailed the considerable expense and effort Craigslist has expended in combating illicit and illegal activity in its Adult Services section. While mentioning the Philip Markoff case, she questioned whether the censoring action would be effective at curbing what she referred to as “the world’s oldest profession,” especially in light of the growing market for such services, which she reported were expected to triple in revenues this year over last. Chansanchai noted that such services as Craigslist offered in its ‘Adult Services’ section are currently advertised in other media, including local newspapers, local telephone directories, flyers, post cards and by other internet providers, and she quoted a press release issued by CEO Jim Buckmaster stating that Craigslist’s restrictions on such advertisements “are stricter than those typically used by (The Yellow Pages), newspapers, or any other company that we are aware of.”

In the end, whatever action Craigslist takes, the sexual services on offer will not cease to exist, and will continue to be best legally enforced by local law enforcement and judiciary, reflecting the ideal of ‘local community standards’ incorporated into the American legal system. That said, this distortion of the news reflects an on-going cultural war in which one side desires to restrict legal human sexual behaviors. Driving the restrictive impulse are the moral and religious concerns of that portion of our society, which is at odds with the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and which is adverse to the personal beliefs and interests of another large element of our society. While both sides are reasonably utilizing the judicial and legislative processes to drive the narrative and their agendas, using the news media to distort the issues is a form of corrosive propaganda, which is profoundly destructive to the intended role of the media as objective protector of our democratic institutions and practices.

1) Chansanchai, Athima. (2010, Sept 6). CRAIGSLIST'S 'ADULT SERVICES' DECISION A BLOW TO FREE SPEECH? MSNBC/Tima Media. Web. Retrieved from

2) Doft, Deborah and Nicky Robertson, & CNN Wire Staff. (2010, Sept 5). CRITIC PRAISES CRAIGSLIST MOVE TO CENSOR ADS, CALLS FOR MORE INFO. CNN. Web. Retrieved from

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