November 20, 2005 in City

Poll finds many voters ambivalent

Richard Roesler Staff writer
 

Tom Woodbury was shopping at Wal-Mart this spring when he saw the headline.

“West tied to sex abuse in the ‘70s, using office to lure young men,” it read.

Six months and more than a hundred stories later, the 63-year-old retired factory worker still reads the paper every morning. But his initial shock, he said, has given way to something else: distaste and story fatigue.

“I think it has been fair,” Woodbury said of the coverage. “But how much more do we need to know?”

In coffee shops, workplaces, homes and letters to the editor, similar questions have come up repeatedly since May. Is Spokane Mayor Jim West the victim of his own misbehavior and indiscretions, or the victim of a crusading newspaper’s witch hunt? And even if the stories are fair, how much is enough?

A new poll, paid for by the newspaper and KREM 2 News, suggests that many readers are just as ambivalent as Woodbury. Out of more than 1,100 Spokane residents asked, 41 percent said they approve of the paper’s coverage of West, while 48 percent said the opposite. Women and people over age 45 tended to approve; men and younger people tended not to.

“He’s fair game, but it’s maybe a little too much overplayed,” said Spokane’s Marc Buckley, 33, working downtown on a recent Thursday. “It’s been overdone, like the Monica Lewinsky thing. It reminds you of a tabloid.”

“The coverage was necessary, valuable, and I’m glad they did it,” said Paul Lindholdt, an Eastern Washington University English professor. “But as it continues, it gets to be overbearing. It’s like they’re beating a drum – or using a club.”

Others, even some of West’s longtime fans, say the ongoing coverage and continuing revelations led them to rethink their initial anger at the newspaper.

Back in July, for example, Dick Westerman wrote a letter to the editor comparing the reporters to vultures, ambulance-chasing dogs and sharks attracted to blood. Now, after months of additional stories and revelations, he’s less sure.

“We thought we were supporting a guy as solid as the rock of Gibraltar,” Westerman said, “and now we find out that’s not the case.”

“Either sloppy or malicious”

Among those who aren’t ambivalent at all: Jim West.

“I think they thought they had a story,” he said recently, sitting in his fifth-floor office at City Hall. “They found out they didn’t, so they had to embellish what they did have.”

Since the first stories broke, the newspaper has published more than 145 stories about West, plus columns, editorials and dozens of related documents. Humor columnist Doug Clark has repeatedly lampooned the mayor, at one point recording for the paper’s Web site a Frank Sinatra knockoff entitled “I did it Bi-Way.”

Among the recurring themes:

“ allegations that West, as a sheriff’s deputy in the 1970s, molested two boys.

“ that West, a longtime state lawmaker, repeatedly voted against gay-friendly bills.

“ that as mayor he used his city-owned laptop to visit a gay dating site – that included sexual images – while traveling.

“ and that West repeatedly offered city jobs or positions to young men in whom he was sexually interested. One, purportedly a Spokane high school senior in a gay chatroom, was in fact a computer expert hired by the newspaper to confirm a real 19-year-old’s report that he had met West in the same chatroom and had consensual sex.

“In my view, the story remains all about protecting young people, protecting children,” said the paper’s top editor, Steve Smith. “…The issue is not dating sites. The issue is trying to date teenagers when you’re the 54-year-old mayor of Spokane.”

West adamantly denies ever molesting anyone. Gay or not, he said, he’s a conservative, and voted like one. He said he has never abused his powers as mayor and that city policy allows banking, emailing and other personal use of the computer while traveling on city business.

“I was told I could use it for personal use when I traveled,” he said.

Shortly after the stories broke, West apologized to city employees for bringing shame and embarrassment on the city.

But as the coverage mounted, West has said that he’s the victim of a personal vendetta by the paper, which is printing stories that he asserts are thin on facts and thick on innuendo.

“They are either sloppy or malicious, and they’re so close to their story they can’t see it,” he said.

“If they can do this to me …”

In a recent interview, West pointed to a stack of printouts of the paper’s stories and transcripts. Many were marked up heavily with a red pen.

He pointed to the first sentence of the first story: “For a quarter century, the man who is now Spokane’s mayor has used positions of public trust – as a sheriff’s deputy, Boy Scout leader and powerful politician – to develop sexual relationships with boys and young men.”

“Stated as fact! That’s a blatant falsehood,” West said. Not until seven paragraphs later does the story mention that West, asked if he has ever abused a child, said “Never. Never. Absolutely not.”

West leafed through the newspaper’s transcript of his Feb. 19 online chat with the “student.” Parts of the conversation are clearly not in the correct order.

“Your computer consultant presented this as accurate. But there are breaks,” he told a Spokesman reporter. “Your computer consultant is a…liar. This is what’s going to break you guys.”

Initially, the paper insisted that all its transcripts were correct.

“I’m mystified as to why Mayor West would tell television reporters that the transcripts we’ve posted online are in any way incomplete,” the Spokesman’s online publisher, Ken Sands, wrote in a note to readers in July. The paper, he warned, would not sit quietly by in the face of “patently false” statements.

The newspaper’s editors now say that 9 out of 23 printed pages from the Feb. 19 chat were accidentally placed in the wrong order before the transcript was typed up for the paper’s Web site, with some sentences also left out. The inadvertent error, they said, had no bearing on the allegations against West.

Once the Dec. 6 election is over, West said, he’ll sue the newspaper for invasion of privacy and computer trespass.

“If they can do this to me,” he said, “they can do this to anyone.”

“The facts have been the facts”

The paper’s coverage does have numerous defenders, some of them past critics.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s been interesting, it’s been pretty thorough, and it’s been fair,” said John Irby, an associate professor who teaches news reporting and writing at Washington State University.

He and others said it’s hard for West to claim invasion of privacy when the mayor allegedly used his city-owned computer to look for young men to date while on city trips.

“How he could possibly imagine that his privacy had been invaded, as a public figure using public equipment, is beyond me,” said Steve Blewett, a journalism professor at Eastern Washington University.

“A lot of people think he’s being picked on. I don’t think so at all,” said Ruth Fairline, 82, a temporary worker counting people for Spokane Transit. “When we elect a public official, we elect them for what they are. And he had this little secret and wasn’t being honest with us.”

“The facts have been the facts,” said nurse’s aide Kevin Boak. “Some people say he’s being hounded, but I think the public has a right to know what’s going on in the mayor’s office.”

West probably didn’t help himself in the public eye when he initially denied, according to an interview transcript, using a city computer to visit the gay.com Web site. He now admits it. And when the newspaper requested a copy of his hard drive, West’s lawyers argued against it. They said the city computer contained images automatically saved while West was browsing on a gay Web site, images that would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person.”

“This is an issue about a public official who’s using public resources to pursue private issues and gains,” said Dave Demers, an associate professor at WSU’s communications school and a vocal critic of the paper in the past. “…You can’t make a privacy argument if you’re downloading sexual pictures of naked people onto your computer.”

“Undercover journalism”

The paper’s decision to put a fake student in the chatroom was criticized this spring by several prominent editors at larger papers, who called it wrong for newspapers to deceive people.

“We are not private investigators, we are journalists,” Philadelphia Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett told the trade journal Editor & Publisher.

“This is a form of undercover journalism that, thankfully, went out of vogue in the early 1980s,” Baltimore Sun editor Tim Franklin told the magazine.

According to the newspaper’s new poll, which was released Saturday, many readers also are uneasy about the newspaper’s tactic.

Asked when, if ever, a newspaper is justified in using deception, 40 percent of city residents said never. Another 42 percent said such deception “might” be justified on rare occasions if there’s no other way to confirm information. Just 1 percent of those polled said that a newspaper should use deception “whenever necessary.”

Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith’s response to critics: The paper needed positive proof that the person online – who went by the name “RightBi-Guy” and “JMSElton” – was in fact Mayor West.

Under the circumstances, Smith said, “I knew of no alternative then, and I know of no alternative now.”

“I think it fits into a long history of investigative journalism in the United States, which historically has provided really useful information to the public,” said Susan Ross, a media expert at WSU, “but often really tiptoes on the line that makes most professional journalists feel squeamish.”

“You already had evidence that he was doing it,” said Jorma Knowles, a 21-year-old student skateboarding near City Hall on a recent afternoon. “From my view, entrapment is trapping someone into doing something they wouldn’t have done.”

“It’s overkill”

Still, even some of those who see the story as legitimate say they think the paper is overplaying its hand. They object to the tone of the coverage, and what they say is a steady cascade of loaded language and headlines hammering West.

“A cloak of secrecy was placed Tuesday over the City Council’s investigation of alleged ‘workplace misconduct’ by Mayor Jim West,” one story began.

“West denies sex act in City Hall,” read one banner headline.

“Panel says West actions bad,” read another.

One story aired critics’ contention that West had launched a public-relations campaign, citing — among other things — a boosterish annual speech and his presence at a ceremony for completion of a street project.

“Civic response to West a model of timidity,” read the headline on one column, which described West’s attorneys as “hired-gun lawyers.”

“Our reluctance to pass judgment mind-boggling,” read another.

Ross, at WSU, considered canceling her subscription over a banner story that said West’s city computer contains sexual images.

“Computer records show Mayor Jim West’s taxpayer-owned laptop contained links to images of men engaged in sex acts with other men,” the story began. The next sentence described the images as “close-ups of male genitalia” and “sexually explicit poses by various men, many of them in their 20s.”

To her, that’s unnecessarily loaded language.

“I get the sense,” she said, “that there’s sort of a media vigilantism going on.”

To Lindholdt, at Eastern, it’s as if the paper is trying to compensate for lost credibility over thin early reporting on River Park Square – a controversial downtown project involving the newspaper’s owners – by being “overzealous” now.

“And it’s overkill,” he said.

Credibility and transparency

Smith said the paper has toned down some of its coverage. An oft-repeated four-paragraph recitation of the allegations against West, he said, was shortened to two sentences after reader complaints.

“I think there have been times, in all of the stories we’ve done, when we might have engaged in hyperbole,” he said. “We tried very hard in the editing after the first few weeks to be aware of that.”

And many of the stories, he said, have been coverage of West’s reactions, not a rehashing of the allegations. More than 20 of the stories have been largely about West press conferences, statements, legal arguments and accomplishments as mayor.

Still, Smith said, reporters are trained to provide detail. In the story cited by Ross, he said, it wouldn’t have been enough to simply say the images were sexually graphic.

“At some point you have to explain what those images are, and if you’re going to do that, you might as well put it in the lead,” he said. “We’re dealing with some pretty unpleasant stuff, and it’s better to be specific about it than be vague and leave it to people’s imaginations.”

The newspaper posted an unusual amount of its source materials – interview transcripts, depositions, chatroom conversations – on its Web site for readers to judge for themselves. Smith has written columns and taken part repeatedly in online chats to explain the paper’s coverage of West.

To Demers, a former reporter, the paper is being overly defensive.

“I think Smith feels like he has to defend everything all the time,” he said. “Just let it go. It goes along with the territory.”

“I understand the argument; we’ve had those debates in-house,” Smith said, citing a similar internal debate over whether to report the story you’re reading now. But today’s readers expect to be more involved in news and determinations of honesty than in the past, he said.

“The newspaper that just says `We stand by our story’ and stops there,” he said, “is not doing justice to this interactive society that we live in – and does not help its credibility.”

“I wish we weren’t having to cover this”

Some readers have theorized that the newspaper’s coverage of West is linked to West’s role in settling the longstanding dispute between the city and the Cowles family, which owns the newspaper.

Not the case, according to Smith, publisher Stacey Cowles and West himself.

“On the one hand, you’ve got critics who say the family profited from the settlement,” said Smith. “They can’t turn around and then say `They’re out to get the mayor because of the settlement.’”

“Everyone wants to put this on the family,” said West. “This is not the family. This is about Steve Smith and (investigative reporters) Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele.”

Cowles said the story has put him in a difficult spot – he likes West, although he said he thinks what the mayor’s done has been “tragic.”

“I guess my personal feeling is I wish we weren’t having to cover something like this,” said Cowles.

Personally, he said, he thinks the paper has positioned some of the stories too prominently in the paper. But the stories themselves, he said, have been thorough and careful.

“I have no say in terms of what appears in the pages of the daily newspaper, with the exception of the editorial column,” Cowles said. Starting about a year ago, Smith periodically updated him on the brewing story, he said, but he had no involvement in it.

“I respected the newsroom’s independence and integrity in pursuing the story,” he said.

“He thought he’d get a Pulitzer”

In a letter to supporters and in interviews, West has portayed the paper’s coverage as a personal vendetta. Smith has made it personal, West said, by giving speeches and interviews about the coverage and by writing a June 19 column criticizing local educators and the clergy for failing to take a public stance against West.

“He thought this was probably a two-month story that he’d get a Pulitzer Prize for,” West said about Smith. “I pissed him off by staying here.”

Smith said there’s nothing personal about it. He and the paper, he said, are just handy targets for an embattled politician. He now wishes someone else had written the column, he said, but stands by what he said.

“The whole thing is disappointing and distressing, and it breaks my heart to be involved in uncovering his behavior,” Smith said. He’s disappointed and dismayed by the allegations, he said, “But there’s no vendetta involved.”

He said he doubts that West will ever file the lawsuit. For one thing, he said, courts have judged Internet conversations to not be private. Secondly, he said, the state law that prohibits recording a phone conversation without all parties’ consent doesn’t apply to Internet chats.

The paper’s lost about 40 to 50 subscribers over the West coverage, Smith said – a fairly small number given a newspaper’s constant subscriber turnover.

West – who early on described the story as “a brutal outing” – said that the coverage would have a very different tone if he wasn’t gay.

“If I had to go to match.com or eharmony.com, would this be the same story? No,” he said.

Blewett, the Eastern professor, disagreed.

“I don’t think that the story was `Is West gay?’” He said. “The story was `Is West a sexual predator?’ There was enough smoke there that it’s the job of the newspaper to find out if there’s any fire.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email