In a front-page story today, the New York Times reports that the Justice Department has asked Google “to turn over records on millions of its users’ search queries as part of the government’s effort to uphold an online pornography law,” a request the search giant is resisting.


Porn stories are always a big hit, and with representatives of the industry testifying before a Senate committee on the effects of porn on the nation’s children, the brass behind ABC News’ Web site clearly wanted to get in on the action.


Yesterday afternoon, one of the top billed stories on ABC News’ homepage, headlined “Online Porn — Profit or Hype?” raised a provocative question: “It’s generally believed that porn is one of the largest and most lucrative businesses on the Internet. But does anyone know for certain?”


ABC certainly does not. The venerable news organization’s report (part of a porn package) reads more like a story pitch than an article anywhere close to completion.


We clicked on the homepage prompt and saw another interrogative headline, “Is Porn a Growing or Shrinking Business?” followed by still more questions: “[I]t is generally assumed that it’s one of the most lucrative and largest businesses in and out of cyberspace. But is that true?”


ABC then referred to numbers from trade magazine Adult Video News (we’ve sent our resumes) suggesting that the industry had revenues of about $12.6 billion in 2005, with more than $2.5 billion of that coming from online sales. But then ABC gets inquisitive again: “But are numbers like these accurate and do they mean that the industry has grown or remained a fringe business that caters to the marginal spendthrift?”


Hoping for an answer to that question? ABC doesn’t provide one. It does, however, pose yet one more question in a section header: “How Big Is It?” ABC is either modest, or it doesn’t have much to reveal. “[A]ccording to many media analysts,” it reports, “the numbers are unsubstantiated and the adult entertainment industry is virtually untrackable — in terms of dollars spent.” ABC then produces a total of one analyst who says so, Jan Saxton of Adams Media Research, before conflating the names of Saxton and her business.


After providing a few irrelevant Nielsen/NetRatings numbers showing that users visit adult sites for unusually long durations, the story pathetically ends by saying, “The dollar amounts from Adult Video News can’t be independently verified, and no one from the publication responded to an email request for an interview. A contact number couldn’t be found.” That’s odd, given that AVN’s publisher, Tim Connelly, was quoted on-camera on World News Tonight only last February, while a switchboard listing for AVN Publications can be found here. Try harder, ABC, try harder!


Grudgingly, we concede that ABC’s main point — that accurate estimates of the shady industry’s revenues are hard to find — is on the mark. But that doesn’t mean the network’s normally high reporting standards should be abandoned for a flimsy story, sexed-up or otherwise, that explains almost nothing.


And so it’s left to some intrepid reporter of the future to answer the question: How much money do they make at National Geographic, anyway?

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.