Blackmail and journalistic ethics

An out-of-town businessman goes to a New York sex club, gets ripped off for a quarter of a million dollars, fights it in court. The Economist prints his name and the name of his company. Why?

There’s a mildly amusing item on p. 31 of the October 29 issue of The Economist. It seems that a Missouri businessman celebrated closing a deal by visiting an upscale New York lap-dancing venue, and is now being sued by American Express for not paying the $241,000 tab. He’s not the first to have such a problem: a Bangaladeshi businessman faced at bill of $129,000 for five hours’ entertainment.

Local papers have named the Missouri man the Lap Dunce, and made fun of his claim to have spent “only” $20,000 that evening. The New York Times ran an oped arguing that “a reasonably priced lap-dance” “is not a right.”

All good clean (or dirty) fun, I suppose: a little comic relief from the dismality of most of the news The Economist reports.

But The Economist — like, one presumes, the other journalistic outlets which covered the fracas — chose to print the name of the Missourian and the name of his company. Offhand, I can’t see that the names make the story any more amusing, or that I or anyone else had any strong interest in knowing them. But printing them clearly adds to the victim’s embarrassment.

As The Economist notes, strip clubs and other sex-trade businesses cheat their customers with abandon, knowing that most will pay up quiety rather than exposing their indulgence by complaining. In effect, this is blackmail: pay what we say you owe, or have the folks back home sniggering and your wife talking to a divorce lawyer. (Yes, the man in this case is married, at least for now.)

By printing his name, then, The Economist assisted in the execution of an extortionate threat, merely to amuse its readers at the discomfiture of the target of the extortion.

Very funny.

Update Several readers point out that the victim’s name had been published in many places before The Economist got around to it. Fair enough. The moral onus on the first publisher is clearly greater than that on subsequent publishers. But The Economist probably has many more readers among prosperous Missourians than does the New York Daily News, so it’s editor’s decision to publish the name added to the man’s humiliation. Even accepting that in this case the information was so fully public that no additional damage could be done to the man’s reputation, it seems to me that The Economist might have noted the questionable ethics displayed by its competitors. It’s now standard practice not to publish the names of the victims of sexual assault; I see no reason not to create a comparable practice for the victims of blackmail.

And yes, I am assuming that a bill of a quarter of a million dollars for an evening’s entertainment is not a legitimate bill. But even if you hold that an open question, publishing the man’s name wouldn’t be appropriate. The club wants the name printed, and the customer doesn’t; to print it is to take sides. And that can only be justified on a fairly convincing showing that the man is trying to weasel out of a just debt.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: