The road to the City of Emeralds is paved with yellow brick. – L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz
Many reasonably-intelligent people in the media and even academia are afflicted with a curious kind of farsightedness; they can see events of the near past (say 25-150 years) with clarity, but are completely unable to recognize their resemblance to modern ones. The example that leaps immediately to mind is “sex trafficking” hysteria, which as I’ve previously demonstrated bears a remarkable similarity to the Satanic Panic and is virtually indistinguishable from the “white slavery” hysteria; Furry Girl has also pointed out its resemblance to the “crack” panic of the 1980s. Furthermore, the bizarre, exaggerated stories told by “sex trafficking survivors” look very much like the “recovered memories” of self-proclaimed victims of extraterrestrial visitors and Satanic cults. Yet somehow, even people who understand the concept of moral panics cannot identify the “trafficking” myth as one of them. It’s not unlike the way that people recognize tyranny in politicians of the opposing party, but not in those from their own party, or who fail to comprehend that the War on Drugs is no different from Prohibition of the 1920s.
But the example I’d like to address today is yellow journalism, which is the substitution of sensationalism, scaremongering, scandal and bogus research for real reporting and ethical journalism. The term is most closely associated with flamboyant newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the majority of articles on the subject concentrate wholly on that time, as though it were a phenomenon relegated to the past; in actuality it has become the norm, with once-respectable media outlets such as CNN, the New York Times and the BBC competing with each other to publish the most lurid, judgmental and fact-free stories on sex work and many other issues.
Case in point: National Geographic. It would be difficult to imagine a more staid publication, but the TV network which bears its name is simply awful; the few times I’ve watched it I’ve been appalled at the number of errors, distortions, omissions and what I must presume to be outright lies in its programs. One year ago today I reviewed an episode of its Taboo series ambitiously entitled “Prostitution”, only to discover that its director and writer appear to have been at cross purposes:
…the single most common form of prostitution in the Western world, namely escorting, was entirely ignored in favor of lurid concentration on a very small fraction of the American market. The director seems to have leaned a little on our side…[but] the writer leaned the other way: Every negative statement about prostitution was expressed as a fact, while every positive one was said to be an opinion. Statements about the terrible conditions of their lives made by the Bangladeshi prostitutes and the American streetwalkers were reported with the word “is”, while statements made by the legal Australian and Dutch prostitutes were reported with the word “claims”. In other words we hear that the streetwalker is miserable, but the Aussie brothel girls only claim to be happy. It’s a subtle bias, but one a less-critical viewer would absorb without noticing.
This ambivalence seems to be the norm at NatGeo (the network’s attempt at a “hip” nickname for itself); Amanda Brooks recently agreed to appear in another of their shows entitled “Sex for Sale: American Escort” (apparently an attempt to make up for our omission from the Taboo episode). After being “assured…this was a stand-alone documentary focusing on the US and the legal issues surrounding prostitution”, Amanda agreed to spend two (unpaid) days with them, and this was the result:
…I watched it in horror. The title alone let me know this was not a serious documentary examining criminalization in the US. In fact, they barely mention criminalization or its effects. They don’t bother to figure out that criminalization is the reason for a lot of the pushback they receive when trying to interview agencies…My role was “blink and you’ll miss it,” which was a bit of a relief by the end. The “undercover” harassment of random agencies in Vegas was nauseating. I have no love for escort/stripper agencies in Vegas but this show actually made me feel sorry for the people who were just running a business…The supposed pimp-daddy in shades interviewed by Mariana [van Zeller] appears to be a hobbyist indulging in what’s known as “role-play.” Even [my photographer] thought the guy was fake and she doesn’t deal with pimps, hobbyists or agencies…Focusing the “hidden” camera on the one girl’s boobs was completely uncalled for, especially given the victim-y slant of the whole show. Exploitation is exploitation, whether it’s a pimp, client, or “hidden” camera. What turned my stomach the most was the Vegas escort they interviewed/exploited. Though they obscure her face, at one point they show her site and it was recognizable…I felt ripped off, for sure. On the other hand, I was also relieved that I didn’t play a more-prominent role in this disaster. The CNBC documentary I did in 2008, while it ruffled some feathers over its display of websites, treated us with a lot more respect overall and had as balanced a view as it’s possible to get with mainstream media. I’m still very happy with that documentary. This effort was not that. Not even close…
It used to be that one could tell the difference between articles in respectable news sources and those in the tabloids. But what real distinction is there when the BBC distorts and exaggerates a story in exactly the same way as the New York Daily News?
In this small Mexican town that sends sex slaves to New York, little boys dream of growing up to be pimps…The town of 10,000, about 80 miles from Mexico City, is Mexico’s undisputed cradle of sex trafficking, one end of a pipeline that leads directly to our city’s streets. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s New York field office arrested 32 sex traffickers last year; 26 of them were from Tenancingo. It’s a family business, and through the decades, the pimps have perfected methods to coerce women into sexual slavery using romance, lies and the threat of violence. Over the last 20 years they have branched out of Latin America, sending sex workers to New York and other U.S. cities, experts said…Each family sends its youngest and most handsome men across Mexico to pose as salesmen with nice clothes and fancy cars, Munoz Berruecos said. They woo rural women waiting at bus stops or taking Sunday strolls in the park. Once the women are seduced, they are coerced into prostitution. The women are held inside the Tenancingo “security houses” — where some say they were repeatedly raped. If they have children, the kids are kept in the town for leverage after they are dispatched to red-light districts. Some go to Mexico City. Many end up in Queens, where johns can order them for delivery by calling numbers advertised on cards, key chains or bottle openers, authorities say…Officials said each prostitute they bring to New York — where they service up to 35 johns a day — nets the traffickers about $100,000 a year…
Here’s Dr. Laura Agustin’s debunking of the BBC version of the same story. I only have two things to add in regard to the Daily News version: note that the number of clients per day has now ballooned to 35, and consider the repeated iterations of (unnamed) “experts said” and “authorities said” (one of Frank Mott‘s defining characteristics of yellow journalism is “a parade of false learning from so-called experts”). Despite the paper’s blatant exploitation of women to sell advertising you won’t hear a word from “feminists” about it, or about the stereotypes of female stupidity, gullibility and muddle-headedness this sort of story promotes; for neofeminists, that’s OK if it makes men look like monsters and whips up anti-sex sentiment in the hoi-polloi. And for the media, lying is OK if it rakes in cash, even if that means drowning the reputation won by the hard work of previous generations of reputable journalists in a sea of yellow ink.