It is surprising that Tony Ortega – the long-time confidant of Michael Lacey and James Larkin – has not been sought out as a defendant or subpoeaed for the knowledge he has regarding the executive management decisions made at the Village Voice/Backpage.com. The refrain we have heard from various lawyers as to why Ortega has not been named as a defendant is that he was “simply following the orders of his bosses.” While this might be technically true, Ortega’s 17 year relationship with Lacey and Larkin suggests otherwise.
Tony Ortega was hired by Lacey and Larkin in 1995 and quickly established himself as an asset and moved throughout the country to turnaround weekly newspapers acquired Lacey and Larkin. Bob Norman, a reporter for the New Times Palm Beach wrote upon Ortega’s leaving Florida in 2007 to head up the Village Voice in NYC, “he has the hard-earned trust of the intrepid leader of Village Voice Media chain, Michael Lacey. That goes a long way.”  Ortega was Lacey and Larkin’s go-to editor and fixer for almost 17 years and the timing of his Village Voice editorials suggests he might have been intimately involved in the strategy to mitigate the allegations that Backpage.com was complicit in advertising prostitution and facilitating human trafficking – including the trafficking of children.
Lacey and Larkin started Backpage.com in 2004. According to the Arizona indictment, by 2008 Backpage was well aware of the “overwhelming majority of the website’s “adult” ads involved prostitution.” In 2010 Backpage.com came under more and more scrutiny for complicity in facilitating prostitution, including underaged victims, from anti-human trafficking advocacy groups, state attorney generals and law enforcement. In November 2010 and again in March 2011 Lacey and Larkin were advised by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (“NCMEC”) “that a large portion of the ads on Backpage were blatant prostitution ads, that many of the ads featured children.” The scrutiny on Backpage.com soon became overwhelming and Lacey and Larkin attempted to mitigate their public relations nightmare by unleashing Tony Ortega and the Village Voice. In June 2011 Ortega begins an investigative series on the “Truth Behind Sex Trafficking” to undermine the issue of human trafficking. In July 2011 Tony Ortega wrote as Editor-in-Chief of the Village Voice:
“…we are being told that there’s a widespread, growing, and out-of-control problem to fear in our country. And it has a catchy name: ‘trafficking’.”
“Seven years ago, the people I work for were smart enough to start Backpage.com.”
Lacey and Larkin used Tony Ortega and Village Voice as a mouthpiece to minimize the issue of human trafficking and send a message that what BP was doing was not only legal, but smart. An extreme parallel, but a parallel nonetheless, of what Tony Ortega did for Lacy and Larkin is what Joseph Goebbels did for the Hitler – providing a PR arm to legitimize horrendous actions. As the Nuremberg trials would later establish, the “just following orders” defense would be no excuse for Goebbels either.
In his de facto propaganda pieces on behalf of his employers, Ortega’s uniformly speak to a ‘conspiracy narrative’ constructed to undermine the rising public outcry against Backpage. It appears that Ortega’s “Truth Behind Trafficking” section existed for the purpose of exculpating Backpage by featuring articles critical of the charges being made against Backpage while downplaying the issue of sex trafficking more generally.
The timing of Lacey and Larkin’s tactical use of Tony Ortega, the depth of their relationship over 17 years, and the continued refusal from Ortega to publicly distance himself from his disgraced former employers simply cannot be overlooked.
Lacey and Larkin founded the Phoenix New Times
Tony Ortega joins the Phoenix New Times
Tony Ortega moves to New Times Los Angeles
Tony Ortega moves back to Phoenix New Times as Associate Editor
Tony Ortega moves to New Times Kansas City as Editor-in-Chief
Lacey and Larkin create Backpage in response to the Craigslist threat. (AZ indictment p.6)
Tony Ortega moves to New Times Palm Beach as Editor-in-Chief
Tony Ortega assumes post of VV Editor-in-Chief
“By 2008, if not earlier, the BACKPAGE DEFENDANTS were aware that the overwhelming majority of the website’s “adult” ads involved prostitution. (AZ indictment p.8 – cites many examples of knowledge.)
BP testifies in federal court admitting in the criminal trial of a pimp that he used the email address “Youngpimpin86.” “This episode provided notice to Backpage that it was implausible to pretend such ads were merely offering lawful escort services.” (AZ indictment p. 9).
A group of state attorneys general wrote a letter to Backpage. This letter observed that “ads for prostitution – including ads trafficking children – are rampant on the site…(AZ indictment p. 9)
On Nov 17th, Backpage executives received an email acknowledging that the term Lolita is “code for under aged girl” but explaining that this term could simply be stripped out from ads.. Ads wouldn’t be removed…just edited. (AZ indictment p. 12).
Lacy and Larkin on conference call with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (“NCMEC”) and are advised that a large portion of the ads on Backpage were blatant prostitution ads, that many of the ads featured children, and that the posting of such ads was illegal in every state. (AZ indictment p. 12)
Backpage executives in email exchange regarding removing links to other prostitution sites state that it would “be a stupid move” because it would hurt Backpage financially. (AZ indictment p. 13)
NCMEC again advises Backpage that a large portion of the ads were blatant prostitution ads.
Backpage representatives met with representatives from the office of the Washington State Attorney General. Backpage representatives attempt to claim that no prostitution ads appeared on their website.
Tony Ortega writes in the Village Voice and sums up Backpage’s attitude towards the exploitation of children: Tony Ortega, writing as VVM “Editor” ran this disclaimer above what he referred to as a “The Village Voice Special Reports”. This was billed as an “investigative series” which was entitled “The Truth Behind Sex Trafficking”.
Congress hauled in Craigslist on September 15, 2010. There, feminists, religious zealots, the well-intentioned, law enforcement, and social- service bureaucrats pilloried the online classified business for peddling 100,000 to 300,000 underage prostitutes annually.
Those same numbers had already inspired terrified politicians, who let loose hundreds of millions of dollars in the past decade to prohibitionists bent on ending the world's oldest profession.
The Craigslist beat-down was absurdist theater.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security hearing on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking culminated with the humbled attorneys from Craigslist announcing that they would close down their adult classified business.
The First Amendment was shouted down in the name of children. Village Voice Media watched with more than passing interest. From its earliest days, the Village Voice has run adult classifieds. Today, those classifieds are hosted online at Backpage.com.
Having run off Craigslist, reformers, the devout, and the government-funded have turned their guns upon Village Voice Media.
Solicited by advocates, such websites as Huffington Post and The Daily Beast and others in the mainstream media raised the alarm that America’s children have been enslaved in prostitution, thanks to the Internet.
It is true that Village Voice Media has a stake in this discussion.
But the facts speak for themselves.
The above seems to be an expanded version of Tony Ortega’s original “Editor’s Note” disclaimer which read:
EDITOR’S NOTE: Village Voice Media, which owns this newspaper, owns the classified site Backpage.com. In addition to used cars, jobs, and couches, readers can also find adult ads on Backpage; for this reason, Women’s Funding Network and their allies have often called attention to the site, sometimes going so far as to call for its closure.
Certainly we have a stake in this discussion. And we do not object to those who suggest an apparent conflict of interest. We sat quietly and did not respond as the WFN held symposiums across America—from Seattle to Miami—denouncing Backpage. Indeed, we were never asked for response.
But then we looked at the “science” and the media’s willingness to regurgitate, without question, these incredible statistics. In the interest of a more informed discussion, we decided to write.
This section, which ran continuously until Ortega’s departure in September of 2012, contained a series of links to articles from a variety of news organizations and media outlets curated by the “Editor of the Village Voice” (Tony Ortega).
Lacey and Larkin draft an editorial entitled “Backpage understood.” In the
Documents, Lacey bragged about Backpage’s contributions to the prostitution industry: “Backpage is part of the solution. Eliminating our adult advertising will no way eliminate or even reduce the incident of prostitution in this country…”
Tony Ortega writes that the people he works for were smart enough to start Backpage and that Backpage is “quick to cooperate” with the NCMEC :
“A small group of political activists is quite ready to provide the answer. In the second decade of the 21st century, we are being told that there’s a widespread, growing, and out-of-control problem to fear in our country. And it has a catchy name: “trafficking.”
“In cities across America, we are told over and over, like a mantra, that “100,000 to 300,000” underage sex slaves have been stashed away from public view, with more joining them every day. It’s a problem growing so quickly that the United States soon will be no better than Moldova or Nepal in regard to child sex trafficking. Why go to the third World looking for this nightmare when our cities and suburbs are bursting with children in bondage?
“The actual data behind this “epidemic” is wanting in the extreme. It involves guesses by activist professors, junk science by nonprofit groups trying to extract money from Congress, and manipulation by religious groups hiding their real agendas about sex work. And one of the most visible enablers in this national fantasy has been young CNN reporter Amber Lyon.
“Seven years ago, the people I work for were smart enough to start Backpage.com, a competitor to Craigslist. While other newspapers were doing little more than publicly condemning Newmark for the way Craigslist has, for years, eaten into their classified ads revenue, we decided to fight back. That’s just how we operate.
“Backpage.com has since inherited some of the adult business that left Craigslist. The Village Voice itself has been taking such ads since the mid-1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the adult business was a large part of the paper. Today, it’s a smaller presence in the print edition, and the Voice‘s website has no adult advertising—that business appears only at Backpage.com.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars putting in place strict policies and monitoring services to make sure that it is only adults finding each other through Backpage.com‘s adult pages. Not only do we have security specialists making constant searches for keywords that might indicate an underage user, but we’re quick to cooperate with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when we find suspicious ads.
Ortega’s speech at Cal State Fullerton’s College of Communications Alumni Chapter is protested by anti-human trafficking advocates citing his relationship with Backpage.com. Ortega defended the adult section of Backpage.com as free speech and commented, “I love protests and I’m actually felling kind of honored that they are protesting me even if they don’t really understand what is going on.”
Lacey and Larkin spin off Village Voice paper from backpage.com.
Tony Ortega leaves as Editor-in-Chief of the Village Voice.
I was there on the 6th of October, 2011.
Ortega’s speech at Cal State Fullerton’s College of Communications Alumni Chapter is protested by anti-human trafficking advocates citing his relationship with Backpage.com. Ortega defended the adult section of Backpage.com as free speech and commented,
"I'm now running one of the most controversial publications in the country which is why I have a protest going on and I'm actually really kind of honored at the protesting .....they don't really understand what's going on .......I'm glad that you were able to get past the barricades and come to this wonderful party."
We knew what was going on then,...and we continue our fight for Justice a decade later with a two-prong strategy to Investigate and Organize. Our goal is Justice for Survivors, and the establishment of the National Association of Human Trafficking Victim Advocates to organize and support the victim advocates on the front line every single day.
by: Philip J. Cenedella IV
From the Backpage, to the Front page
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