May 14, 2005 in City
West story puts paper in spotlight
At its heart, The Spokesman-Review’s investigation of Spokane Mayor Jim West is a local story about a trusted public figure accused of abusing the privilege of elected office.
But that isn’t what brought the national news media to Spokane.
The story of West’s double life has captured the nation’s attention because of the irresistible human temptation to shout “Gotcha.”
Or as CBS News producer Robin Singer, in Spokane last week to cover the West story, put it: “When they say one thing and do another, that’s a good story.”
West, a former Republican majority leader in the state Senate, a powerful politician who invoked “family values” to bar homosexuals from working in schools and day-care centers and to prevent them from marrying, now admits to having a sexual relationship with at least one young man he met online and to offering a city internship to a man he believed was an 18-year-old Spokane high school senior. The “student” was actually a forensic computer expert hired by The Spokesman-Review to verify the 54-year-old mayor’s identity on a gay Internet chat room.
It gave the “gotcha” story a twist. The newspaper became one of the players, its methods condemned as deceptive by some and hailed as courageous by others.
“I never realized how big a story this would be nationally,” Editor Steven A. Smith said. “We were not prepared to handle the flood of media that we experienced the last few days.”
Since the story first broke in the newspaper, Smith has been interviewed by CBS Morning News, ABC’s Good Morning America, MSNBC’s Dan Abrams Show and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He said he has been approached by many more cable television news shows and radio talk shows.
So far, the story of Mayor Jim West has launched a preliminary FBI investigation, a recall effort and demands for the mayor’s resignation. The story of The Spokesman-Review’s methods has prompted debate about what’s fair in the search for truth.
“What methods, particularly in the Internet age, can or should a news organization adopt in order to try to stand up a story?” said Christopher Turpin, executive producer of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”
In an editorial last week calling for West’s resignation, the Seattle Times also had words for The Spokesman-Review: “The newspaper’s methodology is objectionable, because reporters should readily identify themselves as they seek to report the truth.”
The trade publication Editor & Publisher ran an article on its Web site quoting the editors of the Sun in Baltimore, the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others, who said they were uncomfortable with news-gathering organizations misrepresenting themselves.
“It is important that sources be aware that they are dealing with journalists,” said Tim Franklin, editor of the Sun in Baltimore.
“We are not private investigators; we are journalists,” said Amanda Bennett, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But Steve Lovelady, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s online magazine, said The Spokesman-Review had performed a public service.
“What exactly is Steve Smith supposed to be guilty of? Having the prudence and caution to hire an expert to ascertain the mayor’s online identity before The Spokesman-Review went into print? Where I come from, we don’t call that entrapment; we call it responsible journalism,” said Lovelady in an online forum by Jim Romenesko at poynter.org, the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida.
Lovelady recalled an FBI investigation in Philadelphia called Abscam, where FBI agents posed as Arab sheiks to expose politicians willing to collect bribes in return for favorable votes on pending legislation.
“At the time, the investigation was lauded as a brilliant use of taxpayers’ dollars. … The only difference here is that Steve Smith used the same technique – disguise – but he didn’t use taxpayer dollars. … Instead, he used the dollars allotted to him by his publisher to do the only thing that matters – to get to the bottom of what was really going on in Spokane’s halls of power.”
The use of a forensic computer expert was only one aspect of The Spokesman-Review’s report by reporters Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele. The story began with a tip in early 2003. Morlin was investigating the suicide of sheriff’s deputy David Hahn, an accused pedophile and friend of West’s, when he uncovered information that led to an 18-year-old man who claimed he had engaged in a sex act with a man who identified himself as Mayor West and whom he had met online.
“These were unsubstantiated allegations at that point – ones that West clearly would have flatly denied,” Morlin said.
Guided by libel law and common-sense standards, Morlin said, his challenge was to prove or disprove the young man’s story.
“As a reporter, I cannot ethically pose as someone else,” Morlin said. But he could hire an expert. In the past, the newspaper has contracted with polygraph and hand-writing experts, among others.
After lengthy consideration, the decision was made in November 2004 to hire a computer expert to assist in the investigation. The expert created the profile “Moto-Brock,” a fictitious high school student who questioned his own sexuality.
Soon Moto-Brock began chatting with someone online who was later determined to be West. When the mayor’s identity was confirmed on April 9, the computer expert’s work ended, but not before Moto-Brock agreed to meet West at Indian Canyon Golf Course.
“Jim West showed up in his new Lexus and was secretly photographed,” Morlin said. “Since our story was published, two more real-life men have come forward. They say what happened to Moto-Brock online with West is almost identical to what they experienced.”
Since the original stories appeared on May 5, the newspaper has reported further allegations that the mayor offered high-paying City Hall jobs and a position on the city’s Human Rights Commission to two young men after they met him in an Internet chat room. Morlin said these two would not have come forward were it not for the work of the forensic computer expert.
Smith said he has no regrets about the way The Spokesman-Review handled the investigation.
“The only way that part of our investigation could have moved forward from initial allegation to story was definitive proof that the individual online was Mayor Jim West,” Smith said. “And I can say without qualification and with full confidence the only way to determine his identity was to engage the technical expertise of the individual we hired.”
Support from readers has been overwhelming, Smith said. They don’t seem the least bit concerned about the computer expert.
The Oregonian’s public editor, Mike Arrieta-Walden, asked his readers, “When, if ever, is it appropriate for journalists or their agents to pose as someone else to obtain information?”
He found that most respondents approved of The Spokesman-Review’s methods.
“In this case I approve because the crime involves children and abuse of office,” wrote one Oregonian reader. “I wouldn’t approve if it was just to find out that the guy was gay.”
Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week, the Portland alternative newspaper that uncovered the story of former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt’s sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl, had no problem with The Spokesman-Review’s methods.
Zusman also cited the example of newspapers, including his own, of sending black and white “renters” out to determine whether there is discrimination in housing. The key, Zusman said, is complete transparency. He believes The Spokesman-Review was up front with its readers about its methods and said the newspaper has set an example of “entrepreneurial journalism that ought to be lauded.”
As for the impact of The Spokesman-Review’s investigation, Smith believes the community will suffer no long-term negative consequences.
“We are better off knowing the truth than we are living under false pretenses, and I hope to trade the immediate pain of the situation for a better future,” he said. “But in the end, that’s up to the citizens. Newspapers don’t decide the outcome; the citizens do.”