Last night's Frontline documentary about Jim West's fall from power and The Spokesman-Review coverage that triggered it is prompting considerable criticism of the paper and the way it reported the story.
Among viewers' reactions on the Frontline site:
-that the scandal ensures that Spokane will remain "a parochial backwater" for decades to come
-that the coverage was "abusive" and that the paper has devolved into a "sensational tabloid"
-and that the coverage was more witchhunt than legitimate news.
In a lengthy response posted on the newspaper's website Wednesday, S-R editor Steve Smith said that the documentary ignored key details, oversimplifying the story.
They took an incredibly complex investigation and tried to squeeze it down into a 60-minute narrative documentary based on a predetermined “Shakespearean” dramatic arc:
I think their mistakes of commission (fact errors) and mistakes of omission were not malicious, in general, but driven by the demands of their narrative and their medium.
But the overall effect, I think, was to seriously dilute the depth, breadth and detail of our reporting and to place far more importance than facts warranted on West’s gayness as the cause of his fall.
Frontline got its Shakespearean tragedy - no one can dispute that Jim West was a tortured man. But I don’t think they got to the truth of the story. And I don’t think they ever understood Spokane.
That post has drawn numerous comments so far today, most of them also critical of the newspaper.
...It's good that the Spokesman-Review is opening a window to its news-gathering and editorial processes. What it reveals, however, is how craven, morally arbitrary, capricious and destructive the sausage-making factory of journalism actually is. You can put lipstick on that pig all you want but you're still wallowing in muck.read a typical one.
Online editor Ken Paulman joined Smith's defense of the coverage, urging critics to read the stories before passing judgment.
If you're forming your opinion solely on a 60-minute TV documentary, that's entirely your right, but don't expect any of us to exhume this debate unless you've done your homework. This ground has already been covered numerous times in this community, and frankly, I don't expect anyone here has the patience to re-explain it.
S-R blogger Frank Sennett was outraged by the outrage, calling the documentary "West's final victory":
He was so good, he got a crew for the respected PBS investigative reporting show to go into the tank for him. Never mind the credible, horrific allegations of child sexual abuse. Never mind the pattern of unsettling grooming behavior toward boys that would have put even Mark Foley to shame. Never mind his close association with two local molesters.
A few writers -- this is from a local reader named Greg -- in both forums backed the paper's coverage:
I'm dumbfounded by the responses here.
Are people really upset over investigative journalism, and did you think Nixon got a raw deal over that whole Watergate scandal?
I want my local paper to be aggressive in its watchdog role. I also want it to dot all its "i"s and cross all its "t"s (which has been an issue elsewhere), and in the West case, it has done that.
A viewer in Toronto had a very different take, especially considering the documentary's contrasting of election-night reactions as voters booted West from office: West and a few supporters quietly toasting the city's future, and a few S-R editors, many a little punchy after a 12-hour day, chuckling about how to word the next morning's headline.
Mr. West started out as a villain in my eyes and ended a hero.the Toronto viewer wrote.
He faced his detractors with what can only be called grace. And as they crowed over headlines like "West Goes Down" he stood watching his defeat with utter dignity and it was then I felt real respect and a sense of forgiveness for this man."
For a look at the newspaper's complete coverage, including transcripts of interviews, chatline excerpts and community reaction, go here.