Was Tony Ortega paid to keep his mouth shut?

Former Village Voice editor, Tony Ortega, went down in New York history as the man who hammered the final nails into the coffin of the once venerable alternative weekly.

And, as the man who used “junk science” from vested interest groups to make the sex trafficking of underage girls something much less than the national epidemic it is. All in defense of the sex ads on the Village Voice Media classified ad website Backpage dot com, the platform that props up the Phoenix-based company. 

After being picked by executive editor Michael Lacey for the job in 2007, Ortega dutifully said:

It’s an incredible newspaper, an incredible opportunity, and something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time.”

Maybe Ortega, 55, should have qualified the statement by saying “was an incredible newspaper,” for New Yorkers had long known that with the exception of a few reporters from the Voice’s old guard, the paper was a far cry from the lively investigative and cultural institution it once was.

And soon, Ortega got rid of the old guard too. Over the intervening years, he fired long-time investigative reporters.

With those departures, in a flash, 50-plus years of New York institutional knowledge was out the door.

There were further Ortega-mandated firings which soon became an annual event as Phoenix desperately tried to get its sinking revenues in line with costs. They did it through the sex-trade.

But what would Ortega really know of New York, let alone a newspaper that was intimately involved in the culture of the Big Apple? After all, he had spent a grand total of a year and a half in the city, prior to being appointed to his dream job.

Ortega – like many other Village Voice Media employees – stands accused of taking blood money at the expense of underage girls victimized by Backpage dot com. In defense of his paymasters, Ortega commissioned stories for the Voice, as well as the other Village Voice Media publications, that attacked widely held statistics on the scope of the national sex trafficking epidemic. But strangely enough he kept his mouth shut since “living” the Village Voice and we are wondering if he received a substantial payment to remain quiet.

Unleashing his anger, a character defect which he shares with his boss, Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey, Ortega belittled those who exposed his dirty little secret, the upwards of $25 million a year that the company raked in from the exploitation of women and girls through prostitution ads placed on Backpage dot com.

CNN reporter Amber Lynn felt the indignant wrath of Ortega after her expose of child prostitution and Backpage dot com, aptly entitled “Uncovering America’s Dirty Little Secret.” Ortega was foaming at the mouth as he said:

CNN leads the media’s mass paranoia. She has set out to take down a new target: Village Voice Media.” He criticized the broadcast as a “sensationalistic piece,” that he labeled “manipulative” as well as Lynn’s “involvement in a semireligious crusade.”

Contrary to the views of those who daily work in the trenches to battle juvenile sex trafficking. Ortega insists it is a small problem, conveniently focusing on arrest statistics, while knowing – as does law enforcement – that arrest figures are a mere fraction of the huge number of minors victimized by pimps on Backpage dot com.

Ortega speciously claimed that Village Voice research, using official law enforcement data, shows that underage prostitution arrests are closer to 800 per year for the entire country. But, the “research” the Voice produced is dwarfed by the numbers compiled by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice which had estimated the number of prostitution arrests of persons under the age of 18 in the United States at about 1550 per year.

To the consternation of Ortega, a multitude of groups were fighting child prostitution and slavery including Groundswell (the social action group of the Auburn Theological Seminary), the Polaris Project “For A World Without Slavery”, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights “advocates for justice, dignity and policy reform for vulnerable women and girls”, the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Organization for Women and a host of others as well as the National Association of Attorneys General , US Senators and Representatives and mayors from across the country.

And while he claimed that the opposition to Backpage dot com is a small group of political activists and religious organizations, Ortega never looked at the massive list of groups and activists that opposed his beloved Backpage dot com.

Now, a mostly silent Ortega is content to hide behind the flawed and agenda-laden story – all based on the junk science of talking heads – that occupied a prominent spot on the Village Voice Media homepage as well as on the Voice’s homepage and on the homepages of the 12 other titles that made up the company.

But there are plenty of experts that can annihilate the Ortega argument that sex trafficking is a small problem.

Hofstra University published a study that claimed there have been 11,268 human trafficking survivors in New York State alone since 2000. “We’re really just scratching the surface with our estimate,” Associate Professor Dr. Greg Maney said. “It really highlights how pervasive human trafficking is in the area and the scope of the tragedy.”

And that number includes only the survivors who have come forward. Maney said there are still many more left to be helped. Meanwhile, Mary Ann Finn, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University and Ric Curtis, chair of the Anthropology Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York said the problem was how Village Voice harped on arrest statistics — just 827 for child prostitution nationally over the most recent decade.

It significantly undercounts the problem when you just talk about the arrests,” Finn said. She also said that Village Voice Media had “a vested interest in minimizing the problem.”

Vested interest, indeed.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a Village Voice Media executive who asked not to be identified, said that the Backpage dot com ads produce at least one-seventh of the company’s annual revenue.

Ortega headed up another Voice story, this one taking issue with a New York Times story that exposed the Village Voice-Backpage dot com charade. The writer, Nicholas Kristof, responded and refuted the faulty logic that Ortega’s story was based on.

To make matters worse, on a visit to Ortega’s alma mater, Cal. State-Fullerton, where he gave a speech to a sparsely-attended gathering, he was met by a throng of protesters who reviled him for profiting through the sex trafficking of minors.

In response to the protesters, a suddenly meek Ortega could only respond:

They don’t really understand what is going on.” That’s the best response Ortega could come up with for defending pimps and sex trafficking. The moral of the story is this: Underage prostitution is to Tony Ortega as the Holocaust denial is to Neo-Nazis.

Hebrew version here.

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