< The Case For Backpage.com

Transcript

Friday, November 04, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

New York Times media and culture writer David Carr wrote in his column this week that, quote, “A free press is not free,” referencing the fact that the Village Voice needs revenue from Backpage.com in order to keep its publications afloat. Carr says that just because Village Voice Media is taking a stand that happens to align with its business interests doesn't mean that the stand isn't valid.

DAVID CARR:

In editorial matters and advertising matters, they're pretty much libertarian. It's an anything goes approach, and the assumption over and over is that it’s adults marketing to adults. Village Voice Media says, we do thousands and thousands and thousands of ads and every once well maybe something sneaks through, but we've spent a lot on computer and human interdiction of that kind of material and have forwarded on to the Center for Missing Children and law enforcement authorities. And you'd rather have us keeping watch than some skeevy Internet site you’d never heard of.

BOB GARFIELD:

Understood. And David, I'm not asking you to defend the position of Village Voice Media, but they did speak to you and they wouldn't speak to us. The critics say, yeah but one life at risk is too many, and if they were out of this business at least they wouldn't be putting that life at risk. How do they deal with the kind of moral arguments that – why are you even in this game?

DAVID CARR:

Well, I think there’s significant moral hazard in all aspects of the advertising business. If you market cigarettes, if you market alcohol, both of those things. Anytime that you advocate for a free and truly open press, it's gonna have costs, and perhaps one of the costs is every once in a while inappropriate advertising is gonna sneak through.

And part of what they probably think about is, you know, they have 13 weeklies that are doing great work in their respective communities. This is an important part of their funding base, they run the site responsibly, they do their best to make sure that no minors are being bought and sold. And what they do – I’m pretty sure both Mr. Lacey and Mr. Larkin sleep pretty good at night.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right, now David, I'm speaking to you not only because you wrote about this in your New York Times column, but because you actually had a real role in the debate back when, when you were in the alt weekly game yourself.

DAVID CARR:

I was the editor of a weekly in Minneapolis called the Twin Cities Reader, and we made a decision that we weren't going to take ads which we felt objectified women. So that was stripper ads, escort ads, veiled prostitution ads, massage ads.

And, you know what, we probably lost 15 to 20 percent of our revenue base, which went on to our competitors and other people. And when Village Voice came to town to buy a paper, they bought the other paper, closed the one I worked at down.

So yes, we were right, but I don’t know – how victorious we would be. The paper ended up out of business.

BOB GARFIELD:

Can you foresee a situation where, assuming they can somehow get Backpage.com shut down, to the – the cure becomes worse than the disease?

DAVID CARR:

Well, the second oldest profession is prostitution, the third oldest is trying to stamp it out. That hasn't gone very well. And once you put in on the Web, I think it allows people to operate in unseen ways.

And, you know, if you look at like the Communications Decency Act, hosts have not been held liable for the content that’s on their site. And, you know, you could argue about the appropriateness of it, but that is the law of the land. If people use the U.S. Mail to ship inappropriate information, including, let’s say, pornography that uses minors, you don't go and shut down the Post Office. And I think they're trying to make that analogy.

BOB GARFIELD:

Yeah, it sounds fetching for about a moment, but, uh, the Post Office doesn’t know what's in the packages, does it?

DAVID CARR:

Well, Village Voice would argue they don't know what's in the packages either.

BOB GARFIELD:

Yeah, they claim not to know what's in it, but I - you know, I don't know if those escort services have ever escorted anyone to the opera.

DAVID CARR:

Well, if that was part of someone’s kink, they probably would be more than happy to do it.

BOB GARFIELD:

[LAUGHS] David, thank you, as always.

DAVID CARR:

A pleasure to speak with you, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:

David Carr writes a column about media and culture for The New York Times.

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