August 21, 2006

Child model behavior?

More Internet panic at the Times this week. This is gonna shock you, but I have just a couple of concerns about the new two-part series on online pedophiles. Nothing terrible, to be sure. We're not in Landesman territory or anything. But I do have a few questions.

Let's start with yesterday's feature, With Child Sex Sites on the Run, Nearly Nude Photos Hit the Web.

First off, I wonder how new and newsworthy this "latest trend in online child exploitation" really is. As reporter Kurt Eichenwald notes, "the concept of for-pay modeling sites using children has been around for years. They first appeared in the late 1990ís..." And were widely and well covered at the time. Eichenwald says "The sites that have emerged in recent months, however, are markedly different." I haven't checked them out, but from his descriptions, they don't sound too different from the original "child model" sites. [Update: A reporter who has investigated this topic assures me that the new sites "are far creepier than during the 1990s."] He notes that "the newer ones are explicit in their efforts to market to pedophiles," but only in semi-private news/chat groups. Indeed, "many of the sites portray themselves on their main pages as regular modeling agencies trying to find work for their talent," just as the original 1990s versions did. I assume he didn't go back to check how those early sites were marketed, but it's likely they were just as explicit as the new ones are when they felt they were in friendly territory.

The second minor problem is with the headline, specifically the "child sex sites on the run" part. This is extrapolated from the assertion that, "In recent months, an array of investigations of the child pornography business — by the Justice Department, state and local law enforcement and Congress — have contributed to wholesale shutdowns of some of the most sexually explicit Internet sites trafficking in child images."

Now, considering that just a few weeks ago, online kiddie porn was a $20 billion a year business, you'd think the fact that it's been virtually eliminated would be the real news here. But has it? The only stab at evidence that such sites are on the run are the impressions to that effect of pedophiles in chat rooms. Hardly the most reliable sources. There should also probably be a mention of the fact that Eichenwald himself has testified in some of these investigations.

But my most serious concern about this series comes in the editor's note:

Covering this story raised legal issues. United States law makes it a crime to purchase, download or view child pornography, unless the images are promptly reported to authorities and no images are copied or retained. The Times complied with the law, disclosing what it found to appropriate authorities.

Newspapers report on criminal enterprises all the time. Maybe some Poynter type will correct me, but my understanding is that it is always illegal not to tell the authorities about someone who has committed a crime, but that reporters almost never do, and have traditionally relied on the First Amendment to protect them. It's a bedrock principle that the media should not become an arm of law enforcement. Eichenwald has famously treaded on this territory before. The last time, I praised the care and transparency with which the Times explained its reasoning. This time around, we get nothing more than a simple "we obeyed the laws," without any discussion of the larger issues involved. It would be easy enough to see a crusading prosecutor point to this as a "new standard" set by the media itself when trying to indict a reporter who does want to stand on the First Amendment to protect his sources on some other story -- probably government-secret related.

[Update]: I'm informed by actual reporters that there's a difference between protecting a source who has broken the law and breaking it yourself. Which, I guess, duh. Despite what you see in the movies, reporters can't trespass to get a story. And if you do report on law-breaking, you can be compelled to testify about it afterwards, hence Judy Miller. Still, I'm told this is something of a gray area, especially as the Times is accepting without question that these images actually fall under the law, something that is less settled than you might think from reading this.

Tomorrow: part two in this meta-series

Posted by Daniel Radosh


Regarding your first comment, I can only respond: So? Do you really mean that newspapers shouldn't periodically report on the status of pedophilic communities on the Net, even if nothing has changed from the last time around? I'm not saying they should do it every week, but a report or two every eight or nine years seems like a pretty good idea to me. Even every two or three, for that matter.

I think it was a little more even handed than that -- they did provide a direct link for anyone who couldn't figure out the correct Google string. Wait! Maybe they are going to pass their logs along to the DA. Thank god I didn't follow that link.

Eric: You're absolutely right. Just don't claim it's a new trend, and make it a feature for the Styles section or something, not front page news.

99: They took the link down.

Damn! How am I going to find nubile adolescents cavorting for middle aged men under the guise of teen entertainment?

I'm always weirded out when the Times starts channeling Rickey Henderson.

"The Times did not subscribe to any sites, which it first saw referenced in online conversations among pedophiles. The Times followed a link posted in those conversations to forum postings and images on freely accessible pages of the modeling sites. Because those sites appeared to be illegal, The Times was required by law to report what it had found to authorities."

The Times only glanced at the photos momentarily, but The Times was totally grossed out anyway. The Times took a long hot shower that night, and when The Times' wife asked The Times what was the matter, The Times said it did not want to talk about it.

Think Pentagon Papers. Think Salman Rushdie. Now think Eye on the Prize.

Now rethink, because some of the suspects apprehended by police for this art have gotten suicided by plastic bags over the head, which the police typically call, "couldn't live with the shame".

Splendid writing, Radosh. So looking forward to Part 2. There is still a window before cold weather returns and the prudes once again wax so visciously rabid.

Now have a look at cryptome.org. However, in contrast to John Young, I maintain that the reporting requirement is moot, in that it is already met - in that government is already monitoring EVERYTHING.

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