The Seattle Times' Lynne Varner: Who Needs Phones & Facts When You've Got Moral Certitude & Phony Stats?

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The Seattle Times' Lynne Varner: Who Needs Phones & Facts When You've Got Moral Certitude & Phony Stats?

  • The Seattle Times' Lynne Varner: Who Needs Phones & Facts When You've Got Moral Certitude & Phony Stats?

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    In the newspaper biz, there are two types of editorial writers: those who seek facts and input from folks on both sides of an issue before forming an opinion, and those who phone in columns without ever picking up the phone. Today, The Seattle Times' Lynne Varner joins the shallower ranks.

    Because any editorial worth writing is worth writing twice on the same day, apparently, both Varner and The Seattle Times' editorial board have columns which call for Backpage.com (Backpage, an online classifieds service, and Seattle Weekly are both owned by Village Voice Media) and Seattle Weekly to abandon adult-oriented advertising (no mention of our friends at the Stranger and their Naughty Northwest adult classifieds service, curiously enough). Their prohibitionist stance is cloaked behind steroidal numbers surrounding the forced prostitution of minors, numbers which were discredited in a cover story which ran in Seattle Weekly and its sister papers across the country two weeks ago. Seduced via Twitter by Ashton Kutcher and the actor/activist's L.A.-based philanthropic sherpa, Mayor Mike McGinn pulled all city advertising from the pages of Seattle Weekly, a stunt the Times ed. board today applauds.

    Coming from an ed. board that's so out-of-step with its readership that it infamously endorsed George W. Bush in 2000, this sort of grandstanding isn't surprising, although it casts the paper's support for pot legalization in a particularly opportunistic light. Civil libertarianism, it seems, is great for the Times. Except when it isn't.

    Varner's column, meanwhile, takes the stance that at-risk numbers masquerading as actual numbers are good because they dupe people into taking a problem 100 times more seriously than it actually is. Nobody's denying that underage sex trafficking is a problem; Backpage takes it so seriously that it devotes nearly 100 employees to proactively reporting suspicious ads and those who breach its terms of service to local authorities and national children's advocacy groups. Bizarrely, the Times' editorial board mocks this level of self-scrutiny, writing "If it's not a big problem, why does Village Voice need a small army to manage it?" The answer: Because Backpage takes its responsibility to eliminate ads exploiting minors from its site incredibly seriously, and is willing to devote significant resources to helping law enforcement bring scofflaws to justice.

    If Backpage and, in turn, Seattle Weekly were to follow Craigslist's lead and cave to pressure from its adversaries, the behavior Varner so loathes wouldn't simply evaporate. Instead, it would be pushed back underground--into bus stations, dark alleys, and far-flung corners of the Internet which don't give a damn about the problem and aren't equipped to police it themselves. Would such a scattered landscape make the job of law enforcement easier? Hardly.

    As for Varner's assertion that viewing the underage-trafficking problem through the prism of who's at risk for a behavior--as opposed to who's actually engaged in that behavior--is a good thing, we beg to differ. Opinions might be like assholes, but facts matter. While the number of underage girls arrested for prostitution is not an absolutely accurate indicator of the extent of the problem, it's surely a whole lot closer to the truth than the 100,000-300,000 figure Varner parrots in her column.

    When politicians and concerned citizens see figures like those, they direct energy--and money--toward blanket prohibition and paid media blitzes, falsely assuming the problem's too big to tackle on the street level and calling for the equivalent of banning cars because a few idiots decide to drive drunk. Thankfully, not everyone has bought into such hyperbole: Senate Bill 596, which Backpage is supporting through ads on its website, will provide the first substantial allocation of federal funds for shelter and services for runaway teens and prostitutes since Bush-era scaremongering on the topic snowballed into a sense of helplessness and desperation.

    Did Varner take any of this into account when she wrote what she wrote? Who knows. What we do know is she never attempted to contact anyone affiliated with Seattle Weekly, Village Voice Media, or Backpage.com to seek our side of the story. "I didn't have any questions for you nor would pleading have changed my opinion so I saw no reason to call," she explained in an e-mail.

    Wow. When that sense of certainty trumps the sort of skepticism and curiosity that should be ingrained in any journalist--even an opinion columnist--Seattle's last printed daily might want to clean up its own backyard before sending slugs into the garden of a rival publication.

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