NO HUMAN INVOLVED
Two weeks ago I was invited to speak at an event organized by the Black Sex Workers Collective about how Backpage came to be and the importance of the Village Voice as a form of alternative press. As I proceeded with my research, I found so many connections to my experiences in Phoenix while making the film NO HUMAN INVOLVED that I decided to share my notes here. These thoughts are a work in progress and may become a more developed and carefully thought out piece later on. What struck me as I wrote these notes that very often this story is about white guys of relative (and often great) privilege being in control of the means of publication. However, sex workers are in this story too, as are Phoenix jails and prisons.
The Village Voice was established in 1955 as an alternative press in NYC. Today we remember the Village Voice as a form of progressive journalism--including on LGBTQ issues--but at its foundation the newspaper was anti gay even though the paper's office was right next to Stone Wall.
The news room was a tough and uncompromising environment to work in. One person recalled the "tantrum file" stored on a shared office computer where staff was rated in terms of how extreme their meltdown had been. Points would be lost if a person backed down and apologized.
In 1996 Village Voice became a free publication, relying on classified advertising revenues to stay open. David Schneiderman the former CEO of Village Voice Media is quoted as saying that this decision allowed the paper to continue: "it wasn’t going free that hurt the paper. It saved the paper. Kept it going, making money." Often the contribution of sex workers to local economies is not acknowledged. Given the number of ads sex workers placed in the adult and escort sections, they effectively paid for this alternative press.
The Village Voices income stream was eventually undercut by online sites. “Craigslist is the biggest single crisis the Village Voice has faced in its whole 50 years,” Schneiderman is further quoted as saying in a feature article in New York Magazine.
In 2004, in response to the growth of sites such as Craigslist, New Times Media, a publisher of 11 alternative newsweeklies, launched a free classified website called backpage.com. In 2005, New Times Media acquired the Village Voice--and its five affiliated papers including the L.A. Weekly and adopted the name Village Voice Media.
I had read that people in Phoenix had been arrested in April 2018 as a result of the federal seizure of Backpage. I went on an online search to find out more about the people named as having been arrested--Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin--and their New Times papers. The penny soon dropped that they were also the owners of the Phoenix New Times, the news paper that had printed all of the influential pieces about Marcia Powell written by Stephen Lemons. I had always been impressed with the direct approach the newspaper had taken on Marcia and the clear indictment in its pages of the Arizona Department of Corrections in her death. Digging into the history of the Phoenix New Times, I learned that it had been founded by two working class men. Michael Lacey, the son of a construction worker and recent Arizona State University drop out, established the paper in 1970 as an alternative to the conservative Arizona Republic. Soon after Larkin, a Phoenix local, joined to run the business side of the paper. Michael Lacey later summarized his approach to journalism saying, “As a journalist, if you don’t get up in the morning and say ‘fuck you’ to someone, why even do it?”
Beginning in 2010, Backpage was confronted with numerous lawsuits pertaining to adult section advertising. Repeatedly Backpage won these suits, arguing that content was protected on First Amendment grounds (free speech) and under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allowed that, "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
In March 2012, anti-prostitution crusader Nicholas Kristoff wrote a piece about Backpage in regards to forced prostitution and trafficking. The Village Voice went through his claims and found numerous inaccuracies. Kristoff brushed off concern about the accuracy in his reporting, directing readers to focus on the issue of sex trafficking. Late in 2014 it was revealed that Kristoff had also hyped other questionable "facts" that turned out to be fictions in regard to a set of stories about sex trafficking and prostitution in Cambodia.
Later in 2012 Backpage separated out from Village Voice Media as a result of pressure from so many lawsuits. It was eventually sold to a European company. In early 2017 it ended adult section advertising.
On April 6, 2018, Backpage was seized by the United States Department of Justice, and it was reported that Michael Lacey's home had been raided by authorities. Lacey, James Larkin and five employees were arrested on federal charges. 120 people formerly worked at Backpage and lost their employment overnight. I am not sure about this issue and am still researching it, but I believe that people arrested in Phoenix would have been held in a Phoenix Jail or perhaps a prison.