Who's Fooling Mike McGinn?

When it comes to sex trafficking, the mayor is getting duped.

Last Friday at 4:54 p.m., Mayor Mike McGinn sent the following e-mail to his communications director, Beth Hester: "I want you to have all the departments suspend their advertising in the Seattle Weekly. They are still playing games with the numbers and underreporting the problem. I might change my mind after we meet with them next week, but for now I want everything pulled." The e-mail was subsequently forwarded to department directors and leaked to the press, and ads for Seattle Center were suspended, pending the results of a meeting later this week between McGinn and representatives from Backpage.com, the online classifieds arm of Village Voice Media, Seattle Weekly's parent company. The "problem" the mayor is referring to is the trafficking of minors involved in the sex trade, and the "numbers" are how many minors are actually involved in it. McGinn is indeed being gamed on the numbers surrounding underage prostitution, but not by us. The mayor developed an interest in the issue after Seattle Weekly and its VVM sister papers ran a story about how Charlie Sheen stand-in Ashton Kutcher and his wife, Striptease star Demi Moore, were peddling grossly inflated figures in their well-intentioned quest to end underage sex trafficking. Moore and Kutcher put the figure of participants at 100,000–300,000 nationwide, while our reporters estimated the number to be in the high three digits. So which figure is closer to the truth? In a recent analysis of the debacle, Business Insider sided with University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Estes, who said in our story (and, in turn, theirs): "Kids who are kidnapped and sold into slavery—that number would be very small . . . We're talking about a few hundred people." Who's Estes? The author of the study Kutcher and Moore have been quoting, a study which was not intended to pinpoint how many youth were involved in the sex trade, but rather to roughly estimate how many were at risk for such behavior. "The DOJ's Office of Juvenile Justice figures are slightly larger," BI's piece goes on to read, "placing the arrest average closer to 1,500 per year, but even so, the Voice's point is well-taken that a crisis of the scale the Kutchers contend is certainly not underway in the United States." It could be that the mayor's statistical frustration has more to do with a disagreement over figures quoted in our original story that were specific to underage prostitution arrests made in Seattle, although a mayoral spokesperson assured us late Friday that this wasn't the case. But to provide a clearer picture of exactly what transpired, the numbers the mayor's office flagged as erroneous came from his own police department, which, in providing updated figures (which we promptly adjusted), was profusely apologetic. "Shame on us," said SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb. "We didn't get you the right numbers the first time." As we've said before, we welcome McGinn's interest in the issue of underage sex trafficking. It's one that Backpage devotes considerable manpower to policing on its site every day, proactively engaging law enforcement and advocacy groups alike. But, as evidenced by the tone-deaf PSA campaign produced by the mayor's tight Twitter homey, Kutcher, really good intentions are often mucked up by really crappy execution. And judging from the comments in response to a Seattle Times story on Friday Night Mike's huffy missive, actual Seattleites—not Bono-quoting philanthropic sherpas, like Kutcher and Moore's charity consultant Trevor Neilson, the man whose Tweet first got McGinn's attention—would like to see the mayor sharpen his focus, to put it politely. The most instructive comment in reply to the Times' story? That of "Robert the Bruce," quoting Mark Twain: "Never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel."

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