How the New York Times missed the latest escort scandal

On Monday night at the Webby Awards, New York Times staff accepted their prize with the words, "Eliot Spitzer we thank you." Covering hooker drama went well for the paper last March, and the obsession still moves them. For the last three weeks, the Times has been investigating the complaints of escorts, first reported on Valleywag: that Dave Elms, the now-jailed founder of TheEroticReview.com, extorted sex from them in exchange for reviews on his popular site. According to a series of leaked emails, the story is currently stalled, as reporter Matt Richtel and his stringers can't find women who will speak on the record about their dealings with Elms. We verified the San Francisco-based Timesman's interest from Internet-working escorts, who are reluctant to give the paper interviews that will only further expose their business to scrutiny for all the wrong reasons. They have, however, offered Valleywag their preemptive corrections. Here's the story they hope the Times won't write:

Yet another exposé of the "virtual red light district." The women who have been targeted by Elms are not "21st century streetwalkers", nor are they harbingers of "Whoring 2.0" — they are real women, with real careers, who have really been sexually harassed. The reason so few want to come forward, says activist and working girl Karly Kirschner, is that "these women have had a traumatic experience, probably are feeling used and manipulated and humiliated. They're in a state of shock like any other survivor of assault." Where some see a story about The Internet Gone Wild, escorts see business as usual in an industry where few take on-the-job harassment seriously.

Quotes from clients who talk as big a game to reporters as they do to escorts. The prospect of getting famous for sinking Dave Elms, a big figure in the sex-for-pay world, motivates obsessive clients like Dave in Phoenix, who has been complaining about Elms for years on a private email list meant for his favorite escorts only. But what do escorts have to gain from indulging a client's Nancy Drew fantasies of getting them to play girl detective? In a June 8 email leaked to Valleywag, Dave in Phoenix wrote:

We still need folks to talk to the reporter "on the record" the story is being delayed and reporter says will be bigger than we even know but he can't go into details. A major problem for the part of the story on extortion of gals to provide him sex or that being his demand is few credible companions are willing to come forward on the record even with names protected. He has many providers very scared of him, even in Phoenix. Reporter is getting impression that most companions are a bit "flaky" and doesn't know what to believe.

Flaky, or realistic? One escort explained that she wouldn't give an interview to the Times because "there would be no benefit for any provider to get involved. Dave Elms is in no way concerned with shame. He is married. He doesn't care what shame it brings to his family. He is only concerned with keeping his own ass out of prison." As Kirschner put it, "No court in the U.S. is going to hold Elms accountable for embezzling free sex from a bunch of criminal whores."

More avoidable outings by the Times. Kirschner raised concerns about the paper's ability to maintain confidentiality. At the peak of Spitzergate, the Times ran a story that contained enough identifying information on two of the sex workers interviewed that their family members and clients discovered them. Getting outed is the worst possible outcome of a Times story. The best is a crackdown on sites like TheEroticReview.com. Either way, the escorts risk losing their livelihood.

TheEroticReview.com changed the rules in the business of online escorting. It capitalized on the critical mass of prostitutes who, due to Web-based advertising, could go truly freelance and run their own business, without management. With TER, Elms has jockeyed to take the abusive middleman's place.

It's a difficult story, not nearly as sexy as Eliot Spitzer's high-class hotel hookups. Gold star to the Times for chasing it at all. Could the lack of a salacious hook be part of the problem? This may be a story best written by those no longer dazzled by the business, like the ladies in it — who are long used to dealing with guys who talk a good game but, in the end, just want a piece of them.

(Photo via NYT)