Kutcher vs. the Village Voice

Before moving forward, it should be known that I worked for the Village Voice from 2002-2004. Ownership has changed since then, and I think all but one of my colleagues has since departed. But I thought you guys should know that beforehand.

Moving on, last week the Village Voice attacked Ashton Kutcher for throwing out wildly incredible numbers in his efforts to fight child prostitution. Kutcher responded by attacking the Voice's ad-base, and correctly pointing out that paper is not a disinterested party.

The VVM story, then, finds and demolishes the stated number, gets an empirical basis for the actual number, and makes a powerful point about how current initiatives are a way of spending too much money on exactly the wrong thing. If there were hundreds of thousands of underage prostitutes in the US, then the Congressional appropriations would make sense. But given the actual numbers, that money would be much better spent on shelters.

There are, however, big weaknesses with the piece. For one, it gratuitously attacks Ashton Kutcher, a smart person who's making the world a better place, in an unpleasantly ad hominem manner. Kutcher is not the problem here. And it needs a lot more serious discussion of VVM's own ethics with regard to running adult classifieds, including classifieds which turn out to be advertising underage prostitutes. 

You can argue about the efficacy of Kutcher's campaign, but he's not making the problem worse. VVM, meanwhile, is a non-negligible part of the problem, and needs be a lot more honest about its own place in the child-prostitution ecosystem. The result of all this has been a destructive Twitter war with Kutcher, which has already resulted, among other things, in American Airlines pulling ads from VVM websites. 

VVM, in other words, could hardly have engineered a higher heat-to-light ratio if they'd tried. All of which makes the article look less a serious investigation, and more a noxious publicity stunt. If VVM is willing to examine its own behavior with regard to child prostitution in detail, then this road might have been well worth traveling. But if they just want to take potshots at Ashton Kutcher, I do wonder whether they will ultimately achieve anything at all, beyond a general notoriety.

My one caveat here is that I think that carelessly trafficking in bad facts while not worsening child prostitution, hurts the movement to end it. When you are seeking to bring attention to a persistent problem, which much of society would like to avoid, credibility is essential. The last thing you need is to furnish people with more reasons for why they should look away. 

Good intentions are not enough. And vengeance doesn't make you look any more serious. I really, really wish Ashton Kutcher had come out and directly admitted that the numbers he offered for child prostitution were bad. The fact of the thing is that Kutcher wasn't attacking the Voice for their involvement in trafficking, until the Voice attacked him.

Kutcher claims, via tweet, to only have played "stupid on TV." I guess. From the vantage point of a battle rapper, I get the point. Kutcher has successfully carved into his adversaries revenue, and pointed out their own credibility issue. But from the vantage point of one seriously engaged in a long war with a persistent and oft-underestimated foe, I do not. 

I am deeply suspicious of the efficacy of spectacle, of giving Ashton Kutcher's dust-up with a newspaper higher billing than the victims he is warring on behalf. Thus, for me, the critical question for me is this: How does standing on bad facts help end child prostitution? 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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