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Culture of Fear BookKiddie Porn and Cyberpredators

The Halloween tales were forerunners of what grew into a media staple of the last quarter of the twentieth century: crime stories in which innocent children fall victim to seemingly innocuous adults who are really perverts. The villains take several familiar forms, two of the more common being the child pornographer and his or her pedophile customers.

A report on NBC News in 1977 let it be known that "as many as two million American youngsters are involved in the fast-growing, multi-million dollar child-pornography business"-a statement that subsequent research by criminologists and law enforcement authorities determined to be wrong on every count. Kiddie porn probably grossed less than $1 million a year (in contrast to the multibillion dollar adult industry), and hundreds, not millions, of American children were involved. Once again, facts were beside the point. The child pornographer represented, as columnist Ellen Goodman observed at the time, an "unequivocal villain" whom reporters and readers found "refreshingly uncomplicated." Unlike other pornographers, whose exploits raise tricky First Amendment issues, child pornographers made for good, simple, attention-grabbing copy.

A conspicuous subtext in coverage during the late 1970s and 1980s was adult guilt and anxiety about the increasing tendency to turn over more of children’s care to strangers. Raymond Buckey and Peggy Buckey McMartin, proprietors of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were the most famous alleged child pornographers of the era. Their prosecution in the mid-1980s attracted a level of media hoopla unsurpassed until O. J. Simpson’s double-murder trial nearly a decade later, and from the start they were depicted as pedophiles and child pornographers. The local TV news reporter who first broke the McMartin story declared in his initial report that children had been "made to appear in pornographic films while in the preschool’s care." The media later quoted officials from the district attorney’s office, making statements about "millions of child pornography photographs and films" at the school.

Not a single pornographic photograph taken at the McMartin School has ever been produced, despite handsome offers of reward money and vast international police investigations. Yet thanks to the media coverage, when social scientists from Duke University conducted a survey in 1986, four out of five people said they believed that Raymond Buckey was part of a child pornography ring.

In more recent years child pornographers and pedophiles have come in handy for fear mongering about the latest variety of baby-sitter: the Internet. In the 1990s politicians and the news media have made much of the existence of pedophilia in cyberspace. Speaking in 1998 on behalf of legislation he drafted that makes it easier to convict "cyberpredators" and imprison them longer, Representative Bill McCollum of Florida made the customary claim: "Sex offenders who prey on children no longer need to hang out in parks or malls or school yards." Nowadays, warned McCollum, child pornographers and pedophiles are just "a mouse click away" from their young prey.

This time the panic did not rely so much on suspicious statistics as on peculiar logic. With few cases of youngsters having been photographed or attacked by people who located them on-line, fear mongers found it more convenient simply to presume that "as the number of children who use the Internet continues to boom . . . pornography and pedophilia grow along with it" (New York Times). Reporters portrayed the inhabitants of cyberspace, children and adults alike, in somewhat contradictory ways. About the kids they said, on the one hand, "Internet-savvy children can also easily access on-line pornography" (New York Times). On the other hand, reporters depicted computer-proficient kids as precisely the opposite of savvy. They described them as defenseless against pedophiles and child pornographers in cyberspace. "Depraved people are reaching right into your home and touching your child," Hugh Downs told viewers of ABC’s "20/20."

To judge from reports by some of the people featured in news reports, cyberspace was largely devoid of other adults who could protect children from these creeps. The Internet is "a city with no cops," the New York Times quoted a district attorney from Suffolk County, even though law enforcement officials actually do a great deal of lurking and entrapping. Since 1993 the FBI has conducted an operation codenamed "Innocent Images" in which agents assume false identities and post seductive messages on the Internet and on-line services. In one of the more highly publicized busts that resulted from the operation, a thirty-one-year-old Washington, D.C., attorney was arrested when he showed up at a shopping mall to meet a fourteen-year-old girl whom he had propositioned on-line for sex. In reality he had been corresponding with an adult FBI agent who had assumed a provocative on-line name-"One4fun4u"-and had sent the man messages stating that she’d had experience with an older man and "it was a lot of fun." In another arrest, a fifty-eight-year-old man was snagged by agents who used the names "Horny15bi" and "Sexcollctr" and described themselves on-line as "dreaming of kinky sex." One of them gave as her motto, "vice is nice but incest is best."

Cyberspace has been policed by other adults as well. Reporters for newspapers and television stations, posing as young teens or preteens, have responded to solicitations for sex, only to arrive at the agreed-on meeting place with cameras and cops in tow. Groups with names like "Cyber Angels" and "Safeguarding Our Children" collect information on pedophiles via e-mail from children who say they have been approached or molested. Members of adult vigilante groups make it a practice to disrupt Internet chat rooms where child pornography is traded and pass along information to police.

While judicial experts continue to debate which of these intervention strategies constitute entrapment or invasion of privacy, there is an extralegal question as well. David L. Sobel, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, framed the question succinctly. "Are we making the world a better place," he asked rhetorically, "by tempting some of these people to commit crimes they may not have otherwise committed?"

Subtract from the battery of accounts in news stories all instances where the "children" lured out of cyberspace were actually undercover adults, and what remains? Several of the most widely covered incidents involving real children turn out to be considerably more ambiguous than they seem on first hearing. Take for instance the murder of eleven-year-old Eddie Werner in a suburb in New Jersey in 1997. Defined in the media as the work of a "Cyber Psycho" (New York Post headline) and proof that the Internet is, as an advocacy group put it, "a playground for pedophiles," the killing actually bore only a tertiary connection to the Net. Eddie Werner had not been lured on-line. He was killed while selling holiday items door to door for the local PTA. Reporters and activists made the link to the Internet by way of Werner’s killer, Sam Manzie, a fifteen-year-old who had been having sex in motel rooms throughout the previous year with a middle-aged man he had met in a chat room.
In an essay critical of the reporting about the Werner murder Newsweek writer Steven Levy correctly pointed out: "Cyberspace may not be totally benign, but in some respects it has it all over the often overrated real world. After all, one could argue, if young Eddie Werner had been selling his candy and gift-wrapping paper on the Internet, and not door to door, tragedy might not have struck."

In that same vein, consider a suspenseful yarn that took up much of the space in a front-page piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled "Youngsters Falling Prey to Seducers in Computer Web Crime." It was about a fifteen-year-old whose parents found him missing. Using the boy’s America Online account, they discovered that he had been sent a bus ticket to visit a man with whom he had communicated by e-mail. The parents frantically sent messages of their own to the man. "Daniel is a virgin," one of the parents’ outgoing messages said. "Oh, no, he’s not," came back the chilling reply. Yet when the reporter gets to the conclusion of Daniel’s saga it’s something of an anticlimax. The teenager returned home and informed his parents he had not been harmed by his e-mail companion, who was only a little older than Daniel himself. Nonetheless, the moral of Daniel’s story was, according to the Los Angeles Times reporter: "Such are the frightening new frontiers of cyberspace, a place where the child thought safely tucked away in his or her own room may be in greater danger than anyone could imagine."

Now there’s a misleading message. For those children most at risk of sexual abuse, to be left alone in their rooms with a computer would be a godsend. It is poor children-few of whom have America Online connections-who are disproportionately abused, and it is in children’s own homes and those of close relatives that sexual abuse commonly occurs. In focusing on creeps in cyberspace, reporters neatly skirt these vital facts and the discomforting issues they raise.

 



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