- Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885–1917 by Gretchen Soderlund
Gretchen Soderlund’s slim book argues that a key to understanding the striking transformations in journalism in the decades on either side of 1900 lies in the surge of public alarm over the menace of white slavery. Between 1885 and 1917, Soderlund maintains, British and American media scandals involving the phenomenon of sex trafficking—also known as forced prostitution—helped to transform how reporters gathered and sourced the news and to propel the general journalistic shift from sensationalism to objectivity. Focusing mainly on William T. Stead’s 1885 exposé of child prostitution in London, George Kibbe Turner’s articles for the muckraking McClure’s Magazine about organized vice in Chicago (1907) and New York (1909), and the New York Times’s somewhat hesitant entry the following year into the coverage of vice, Soderlund argues that “in order to understand the logic governing journalism, one must understand its relationship to anti-vice movements and other social and moral crusades” (6).
All of these cases are well known, but, in each, Soderlund concentrates [End Page 191] on journalistic tactics and issues at play—the uses of the relatively new and controversial technique of the interview, the social status and institutional power of the sources interviewed, the ways that claims of truth and falsity were wielded, and the conflict over the proper social and political role for the journalist in a mass society.
First came Stead, the fiery young New Journalist from a northern provincial paper, who had been summoned to London to wake up the catatonically dull Pall Mall Gazette. His four-part series, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” woke up much of the population, too. Presented as an “authentic record of unimpeachable facts” and intended to arouse public support for a bill raising the age of sexual consent for females, Stead’s exposé of the forced prostitution of girls and young women was lurid and explicit, drawing on his own ventures into London’s underworld to investigate brothels, interview traffickers, and even purchase a thirteen-year-old virgin himself to prove it could be done. (It was harder than he had thought.)
Sales of the paper spiked even as denunciations of its obscenity raged, but when Stead was charged with having “abducted” the thirteen-year-old, his journalistic tactics essentially went on trial with him. Yet while the prosecution attacked him for misrepresenting facts and branded his purchase of the girl as nothing more than a sensational stunt, Stead insisted that his journalism, impeachable though it might have become, nonetheless served a greater good by investigating social institutions and shaping public opinion.
The United States remained generally free of homegrown panics over sex-trafficking until 1907, when George Kibbe Turner, sent by the muckraking editor S. S. McClure to investigate crime in Chicago, came back with an article exposing a whole empire of vice rooted in gambling houses, saloons, dance halls, and brothels, many of which, Turner reported, were controlled by Eastern European Jews and preyed on poor immigrant women. The nationwide media-induced furor helped lead to the passage of the Mann Act, which criminalized the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes and inspired McClure and Turner to look to New York for a repeat of their success. In that debased city, they reported in a set of three articles, flourished an even wider and more entrenched sex trade involving not just Jews, but also another of the muckrakers’ recurrent targets: Tammany Hall. The articles, which appeared shortly before the municipal elections, again riveted national attention and may have contributed to Tammany’s massive defeat that year.
But Turner’s claims, like Stead’s, began to unravel in the courtroom, when the new District Attorney launched an investigation into the city’s organized sex trade and could not actually find much. And that thrust the New York Times—a determinedly unsensational paper for the social and cultural elite, with firm ideas about...