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The Naked Untruth

The mainstream media’s love affair with covering the adult industry continues its several-year run, and still fails to uncover the basic facts.
 
 
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Porn is back in the news again -- as if it ever left.

Last month, the Supreme Court overturned on First Amendment grounds the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, which had outlawed “virtual” child porn. In early May, the National Research Council unveiled a long-awaited report on Internet child porn that compared the Web to swimming pools -- potentially dangerous but also fun, and requiring supervision. And two weeks later, the Supreme Court opened the door for ancient obscenity laws to be applied to online content. In response to the legal decisions, Congress is drafting a slew of bills aimed at controlling Internet porn.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media’s love affair with covering the adult industry has continued its several-year run, and not just on the local newscasts following Laker games. Ted Koppel, in the midst of protecting his job and journalistic honor from David Letterman, devoted an entire Nightline program to the sex business this March. A month earlier, the chin-strokers at PBS Frontline broadcast a one-hour special called “American Porn.” Even The Times of London overcame the usual British reticence by running a long feature in late April examining the economics of smut.

As they have been for the last two years, these stories are filled with ominous-sounding language about porn proliferation and profitability, especially in contrast to the dot-com collapse. “It’s a multi-billion dollar business -- and growing,” Frontline intoned. “In a wired world, can anything stop it?”

A better question might be, “Can anything stop the porn coverage?” Because, even as publications such as the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC assign full-time beat reporters to the adult industry, the porn-story onslaught continues to spread a series of wild myths, clouding a business that’s never before received so much sunshine.

The $10 Billion Industry That Isn’t

“Whether we like it or not, pornography has become a part of society. This industry, with an estimated yearly profit of $10 billion, has moved out of the shadows and peep shows into the mainstream fabric.”
-- Martin Renzhofer, Salt Lake Tribune, April 9

“William Lyon, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition. … Said the adult entertainment industry, which is largely based in the San Fernando Valley, had a gross profit last year estimated at between $10 billion and $12 billion.”
-- Los Angeles Daily News, April 17

Microsoft doesn’t make $10 billion a year in profits. In Los Angeles, the worldwide capital of the adult industry, the 50 most profitable publicly traded companies didn’t earn more than $7 billion combined in 2000, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal -- and that list includes such industrial giants as Occidental Petroleum, Amgen, Northrop Grumman, Unocal, City National, Hilton Hotels and Litton Industries.

The Tribune and Daily News both fell for one of the most common pitfalls of covering porn -- taking the participants’ word at face value. As I learned the hard way while writing about the adult industry off and on for the past seven years, porn people are capable of looking you straight in the eye and telling you lies so convincing that even they believe them.

Since there is precious little reliable public data about the adult business, reporters depend to an unusual degree on the veracity of people who are accustomed to secrecy and deception, and who don’t always understand the nuanced differences between such terms as “profits” and “revenue.”

It is revenue that people mean to be referring to when they call porn a $10 billion industry. And even that figure is probably way off base.

“The $4 billion that Americans spend on video pornography is larger than the annual revenue accrued by either the NFL, the NBA or Major League Baseball. But that's literally not the half of it: the porn business is estimated to total between $10 billion and $14 billion annually in the United States when you toss in porn networks and pay-per-view movies on cable and satellite, Internet Web sites, in-room hotel movies, phone sex, sex toys and that archaic medium of my own occasionally misspent youth, magazines."
-- Frank Rich, New York Times Magazine, May 20, 2001

New York Times columnist Frank Rich parachuted into the sex biz one year ago, producing a lengthy work whose fictitious numbers have since provided the basis for all future reporting. Luke Ford, a former online chronicler of the industry who is still known as the “Matt Drudge of porn,” commented at the time that “Rich did exactly what many journalists had done before: trotting out tired and unchecked numbers from a 1998 Forrester research study ... and video sales stats from AVN."

AVN -- the Adult Video News -- is the porn industry’s version of Variety, and it estimated in December of 2000 that Americans spent $4 billion on adult video rentals in the first year of the 21st century. That number, and Rich’s extrapolations from it, have been widely quoted as gospel ever since.

Last year, Forbes.com columnist Dan Ackman debunked the figure as "baseless and widely inflated." In a point-by-point deconstruction of Rich's calculations, Ackman cobbled together a estimate for the whole industry (including video, pay-per-view, Internet and magazines) at between $2.6 billion and $3.9 billion.

"The idea that pornography is a $10 billion business is often credited to a study by Forrester Research. This figure gets repeated over and over. The only problem is that there is no such study," wrote Ackman, a lawyer-turned-journalist who had never previously covered porn. "In 1998, Forrester did publish a report on the online 'adult content' industry, which it pegged at $750 million to $1 billion in annual revenue. The $10 billion aggregate figure was unsourced and mentioned in passing."

Ackman himself estimated the video segment at $500 million to $1.8 billion -- much less than AVN's $4 billion. "How Adult Video News gets this number is not clear. We asked Adult Video News' managing editor, Mike Ramone. 'I don't know the exact methodology,' he said, 'It's a pie chart.' Asked to break the figure down into sales versus rentals, a standard practice among those who cover the video industry, he said he didn't think it was available and suggested we call the editor-in-chief, who didn't return our calls."

In rushing to cover a titillating and unknown new subject, Ackman suggested, journalists have left their skepticism at the door. "Many have claimed [the industry] is large and profitable, especially on the Internet. Many of the claims are cut from whole cloth, but are accepted without question by the legitimate press. ... Certainly, self-interested statements by pornographers merit a second look."

AVN executives lashed back at Ackman, defending their figures as "absolutely correct," and suggesting that "people who sit and throw stones and do absolutely no research ... should not be taken seriously."

In an e-mail interview last year, AVN Editor Mike Ramone said: "Ackman had no objectivity, and was out to do a smear piece on AVN in an attempt to save face after being scooped by a major competitor, the New York Times Magazine."

The debate spilled over to eYada.com's Lovebytes show, where veteran actor and porn personality Bill Margold told Ackman: "In an industry predicated on screwing, you're going to get fucked. You honestly expect us to tell the truth about what we're making?"

In an interview last year, Rich says he stands by his figures, which he gleaned after four months on and off the story. "I did a tremendous amount of reporting on this," he says. "I used the Forrester Research figure, and there were larger figures that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Economist. I didn't talk to rival research outlets but I talked on background to a prominent research firm I can't name, and I went to companies involved in mass distribution of the products. I'm pretty comfortable with this figure."

He’d better be -- it’s become the de facto estimate in the press and even government. “Statistics are very hard to figure out because the companies which make money are reluctant to give numbers out,” Koppel said in his report. “The best estimate is that pornography makes over $10 billion a year, and it's growing.”

The Times of London stated flatly last month that porn accounts “for an estimated total annual revenue of $10-$14 billion a year in the United States alone. Even the conservative figure, given in a 1998 study by Forrester Research, makes pornography a bigger business than professional football, basketball and baseball combined.”

As for online sales, Koppel was confident to proclaim that “over $2 billion was spent on Internet porn last year.” The National Research Council puts the number at $1 billion. Forrester competitor Jupiter Research, meanwhile, estimated that online porn revenues this year would only be a paltry $230 million, according to the New York Daily News March 25.

Whatever the number, it’s tempting to think that this business is growing exponentially, behind closed doors, making thousands of failed dot-commers and tech-savvy strippers millions of dollars. Not so, says porn legend Ron Jeremy.

"They are not multi-zillionaires," the 49-year-old Jeremy said. The owners of video companies like VCA, Leisure Time and Vivid might make seven figures, and a handful of Internet-porn queens might make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, but the rest of the pack is merely comfortable, he maintained. "Maybe some girls own their own home, or bought condos and live off the rent money. Maybe their mortgage is over, maybe they got a nice car."

There is one place to go for numerical perspective on porn, even if most reporters don’t know about it -- one of the adult industry’s biggest companies, Private Media Group, trades on NASDAQ (at a meager $5 a share). According to recently filed SEC documents, the company’s profits last year topped off at a massive … $7 million. On revenue of $34 million. And only a third of that took place on American soil. At that rate, you’d need about 900 more Privates to approach the $10 billion figure … and Private is one of the top five porn companies in the world.

Other Industry Myths

"The biggest myth? That we need to recruit girls," Ron Jeremy says. The actress pool, he explained, is constantly replenished by strippers who come voluntarily to make a name for themselves so they can charge higher rates on the road.

For adult screenwriter Rodger Jacobs, the biggest myth is that "adult movies are plotless." "It's not that some people don't try, however, to make the most superior product available with their meager offerings," he says.

For the porn star Chloe, the biggest myths are about the long-rumored existence of "fluffers" (women supposedly hired to "prepare" male actors), and the widespread use of hard drugs on sets. "When I was new, I was looking for it, but it's not really happening," said the 30-year-old actress, who says she’s a former heroin addict and that the adult industry has been a positive influence in her life.

Susannah Breslin, a sex reporter who works for Playboy TV, says mainstream reporters are more susceptible to the porn myths because they don't use their usual standards when reporting about the sex trade. "For them, porn is a joke and they don't take it seriously, they don't care about getting their facts right," Breslin said.

With the increased coverage, and the addition of porn beats at a handful of mainstream publications, the myths about the adult business are bound to give way to a more accurate picture. But, says Luke Ford, it might take a while.

"The media don't catch the baloney, the lies, the true horror of this industry that you capture when you go on sets and you mix with the people, and you just see the cavalier way they deal with life," Ford said. "Every one of these people lie. Everyone. They lie by habit. When their lips move, they're saying lies -- they can't help it. ... If the greatest reporter in the world decides to make porn his beat, it would still take him a year or two to get up to speed."

Emmanuelle Richard is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for French media.