Spokane Spokesman-Review Explanation
Editor Steve Smith explains the Spokesman-Review's actions, including using an undercover forensic computer expert posing as a 17-year-old boy. Most articles are also available at their original external locations.
Steven A. Smith / Editor
May 8, 2005
© The Spokesman-Review 2005
Let’s begin at the beginning.
The Spokesman-Review has a credibility problem. I don’t like it. I challenge it; I fight it. But I can’t simply snap my fingers and make it go away.
Of course, the nut of our problem is our coverage of the River Park Square controversy.
Ethical lapses, gaps in coverage and editorial hyperbole during the controversy’s early and middle years properly damaged our credibility with significant segments of the community.
Problems of our own making opened the door to the conspiracy theorists whose wacky tale spinnings added to the perception of some that the newspaper’s news coverage was driven by its owners’ agenda.
In the past few years, as the controversy has moved inexorably to resolution, I believe we’ve substantially repaired our reputation. The tale spinners are still out there. But I sense that most of our readers believe our coverage of RPS and its attendant legal battles has been fair, balanced, accurate – and aggressive (note our recent legal quest to obtain documents from the city denied to our reporters by the developers, our owners).
But this week’s stories on Mayor Jim West’s recent sexual misconduct and allegations of past sexual abuse have raised the credibility issue again. And properly so.
Why, we are asked, did the newspaper endorse Jim West for mayor in 2003 if its reporters were aware of sexual abuse allegations? Was it because West had vowed to settle the RPS battles while his opponent, Tom Grant, remained an implacable foe of settlement and an outspoken critic of the newspaper?
Furthermore, we are asked, was publication of the West package delayed until last week so that the recently completed RPS settlement agreements could be wrapped and ribboned by the courts?
These are fair questions that deserve answers.
This is what our newsroom knew in the summer and fall of 2003 when West was running for mayor: We had just published a series of stories documenting abuse of young boys in the late 1970s by Scout leaders George Robey and David Hahn, a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy. Hahn had killed himself in 1981 and Robey did the same in 1982. Our story noted the close relationship between Hahn and West – they were co-leaders of a Scout troop and both were deputies. The story included West’s denials that he knew of or was involved in Hahn’s abuse.
Shortly after the stories ran, reporter Bill Morlin received tips suggesting that he continue to dig and that he might discover links to West. He had no names. No dates. No corroborative evidence. Light smoke, at best, but nothing close to a fire.
Under the protocols governing a newspaper’s operation, Morlin did not cross the hard line separating the news function from the editorial function. He did not inject himself in the endorsement process. He did not pass across that line unsubstantiated rumors. Nothing Morlin was chasing would have been on the table during the endorsement process.
As editor, and the only newsroom executive on the editorial board, I was aware of Morlin’s early work. But in 2003, I exempted myself from the mayoral endorsement interviews and discussions because I believed it would compromise my ability to supervise our RPS and mayoral election coverage.
Questions about West’s sexual orientation had circulated for years. But sexual orientation was never viewed as relevant to our coverage of or the editorial board’s endorsement for this race.
We now know that West’s mayoral opponent, Tom Grant, knew of West’s predatory nature well before the election. West had tried to date the underage son of Grant’s boss. Furthermore, Grant knew about allegations of past sexual abuse, having been told about Robert Galliher, one of the accusers in our stories. Grant, a self-described investigative reporter, even passed on these stories while editor of The Local Planet, an alternative newspaper now defunct.
After he was elected mayor, West worked, as he pledged he would, to resolve the RPS legal quagmire. Settlement talks among the various parties proceeded through 2004, and as the year wound down the outlines of a settlement began to develop.
Why, we are asked, did we not report the West stories during that time, before RPS was resolved? Was it because West’s intervention was producing a result favorable to the newspaper’s owners and his “fall” would interfere with that process?
The simple answer is no. We didn’t have a story yet.
Morlin’s search for men who could be identified as possible victims of abuse did not produce results until a few weeks ago when he reconnected with an old source, Galliher, and tracked down a new source, Michael Grant. Until he interviewed both men in mid-April, we had no named accusers.
Morlin learned of the mayor’s online activity last fall. But the Internet connection between the young man who was Morlin’s first source could not be verified independently. To make sure the adult behind the fake screen names on Gay.com was Jim West, we hired a computer specialist who worked several months to nail down the identification. We did not receive conclusive evidence until April 9.
By early April, the RPS issue was all but resolved, at least insofar as this company’s owners were concerned.
Professional journalists and perhaps those involved in law enforcement will understand the pace of our investigation. And anyone familiar with the legal elements of libel will understand any newspaper’s unwillingness to print unqualified rumors and unsubstantiated allegations.
The stories were ready when they were ready. And they were published as soon as we could give the mayor the courtesy of an interview and the opportunity to defend himself.
I know that nothing we say will deter our harshest critics and the tale spinners. For everyone else, our credibility will rise and fall on the basis of our journalistic performance over time. Are we fair, accurate and balanced? Are we aggressive? Do we tell the truth insofar as truth can be determined?
Our newsroom values statement includes the following: “We tell people what we know when we know it without fear or favor.” In the case of the Jim West investigation, that is precisely what we did.
Steve Smith on Exposing a Mayor
Columbia Journalism Review (CJR Daily)
Steve Smith is the editor of the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington. Yesterday, the newspaper published a package detailing the results of its three-year investigation into what it called the "secret life" of Spokane mayor Jim West. The package detailed allegations of child molestation against the mayor, as well as allegations that he developed relationships with young men he met in gay.com chat rooms. The Spokesman-Review reported that West had sex with at least one young man he met there. He also, the newspaper wrote, offered gifts and an internship in the mayor's office to a computer expert hired by the Spokesman-Review to masquerade as a high school student in chat rooms frequented by the mayor.
Brian Montopoli: You hired a forensic computer expert to track the mayor online, and eventually had him engage the mayor in a chat room under a false identity. I know that you spoke to a number of people before you made the decision to take that step, including journalism ethicists, and they told you it was the right thing to do. But can you talk about why, personally, you felt such an action was justified?
Steve Smith: Can I offer a clarification? Ethicists never say it's the right thing to do. They were generally supportive -- [they] understood and accepted our motivation -- but they're like shrinks. You have a lot of, "What do you think?" Nevertheless, we did get support from those we consulted with in advance.
Why did we think it was the right thing to do? There were two reasons. The first, of course, was the technical expertise. Online has really changed a lot of things, and when people engage in activities that in the past might have occurred in a different kind of public environment, a different kind of community, there were methodologies for tracking, monitoring, interviewing, intercepting, all the journalistic tools with which we're familiar. Online is a whole new ballgame. And understanding how online operates, how chat rooms operate, how instant messaging operates, and how people can conduct aspects of their lives in cyberspace requires maybe a little bit more sophistication than traditional ink and paper journalists have at the moment. ... We absolutely needed the technical expertise to get behind the screen names and identify, without any doubt, the individual behind the screen names we were monitoring.
BM: And then, once you did that, you made the decision to have the computer expert assume the false identity.
SS: We came to understand that the way these chat rooms operate, we needed to have an identification, we needed to have a screen name. And that the only thing we could do if we wanted to create the interchanges necessary to track [him] -- because you have to have dialogue, you have to have exchanges, emails, instant messages, to technically track the communication -- was to be a person. And we made that decision with great reluctance, because it is a step that journalists have to ethically question. But we were convinced that the stakes were high, that the allegations from real individuals, who had been sources, were serious enough to warrant extraordinary steps. That we were dealing with potential misuse of public office and even children being at risk.
BM: I get that you need to engage them to find out who they are. But you didn't necessarily have to then engage them to the extent you did and to even print in the paper some of what was in the [subsequent] dialogues.
SS: That's absolutely a questionable and arguable position. Somebody else might have decided to cut the dialogue off at a different level. But we felt as we progressed -- and we monitored this closely every step of the way -- that what we were learning about the mayor's means of operation, his methodology, his grooming behavior, was significant. The initial identity was that of a 17-year-old high school student who in the course of the dialogue became 18 years old. And the significance there is that the mayor initiated the contact. The mayor scoped out the profile, and initiated the contact with somebody he believed was a 17-year-old high school student.
The conversation escalated sexually at the point in time when the mayor believed this young man turned 18, although he still believed him to be a high school student. And we felt that understanding that escalation was critical to understanding the story.
BM: There are two separate but related stories here: the alleged child molestation, and the mayor's Internet-based relationships with young men. Regarding the latter, you cite two sources who are both anonymous, one of whom said he had consensual sex with the mayor. Was your decision to pursue this false identity angle partially because you had two sources who were not on the record and you wanted to make sure that you were correct?
SS: First of all, they're certainly on the record. We're withholding their names from publication to protect their privacy because they are 18 years old, and they are gay, and their families don't know. The key source in this case is identifiable in the event of litigation. So it's a qualified confidentiality. But no, that really wasn't a factor. Even if we had them by name, the allegation was spurious enough that it required additional investigation. And because of the transitory nature of Internet communication, there was really no backup documentation to support the scenario they described. We did have, and have published online, some subsequent dialogues between one of our 18-year-olds and the mayor that occurred after the young man had talked to us. But that was not sufficient to tell us that yes, these events happened and that contextually they make sense, and that this person is, in fact, the mayor. All we have is this individual's word. So we felt an absolutely compelling need to confirm this beyond a question of a doubt before publication. And it wouldn't have made any difference if we'd been able to use this young man's name or not.
BM: Have you ever had a situation like this, or is this the first time you've had -- I know it wasn't a reporter, but a representative of the paper falsely representing themselves?
SS: This is my thirty-fourth year as a professional journalist. I've been a senior editor since the mid-1980s. This is the first time in my career that I've been in a circumstance that involved this sort of scenario. As an editor, it's the first time I've had to make this call.
BM: If it weren't for the hypocrisy angle here -- the mayor has apparently taken positions that supported anti-gay legislation -- would you have gone about this differently? Because otherwise you're looking at something here that I think a lot of people would find inappropriate, but some people would say, "You're looking at a 54-year-old man having consensual sex with a legal teenager, which is obviously inappropriate, but is a personal matter."
SS: Certainly, I understand that. We believe otherwise. The key issue here -- and the mayor acknowledges this, though he draws a different conclusion than we do -- but he acknowledges that he's offered benefits to individuals he's contacted online. He's offered gifts, personal favors, introductions, scholarships, and, in the case of our fictional student, an internship in his own office, in return for sexual favors. In our view, that is a misuse of office. It transcends private conduct and moves it squarely into the arena of official conduct, and it warrants investigation and publication.
The mayor is, as you might expect -- and he's quoted in our story as saying this -- [thinks] that this is private behavior and that the offering of gifts and benefits, up to and including jobs in his office, does not constitute inappropriate conduct. In the end, citizens will have to decide how they fell about that.
BM: I can only imagine what it was like to go talk to the mayor and confront him with this stuff, and tell him, "Hey, we have this fake identity, we have all this information about you." Was he uncomfortable? Were you?
SS: Well, I was not there for 99 percent of the interview. We did not want to feel that we were overwhelming the mayor. I met him in the interview room, and thanked him for coming, and shook his hand, and said that we appreciated his willingness to chat with us about something so important. He was calm. Nervous, but not agitated. And he was businesslike.
The interview was two reporters and a photographer. The mayor asked that we not take pictures, and so the photographer stayed in the room but did not shoot photographs; we honored that request. It lasted almost two hours. It was recorded. We have since posted the entire transcript of the interview online, because we want readers to judge for themselves the give-and-take between the reporters and the mayor.
The reporters in the room tell me that the mayor was progressively uncomfortable. He never lost his temper. His agitation never got the better of him. He frequently paused to gather his thoughts. He was surprised by some of what we knew. He acknowledged readily the online issues. He denied flatly the allegations of molestation in his past. And I think our story reflected all of that.
BM: What repercussions are you expecting from this? What's happened so far?
SS: That's a good question. And, except for what's transpired, I don't have a clue. We, of course, wondered for days and speculated what the repercussions might be, and finally decided that all we could do is print our story and our follow-ups and let events take their course.
The mayor [yesterday] issued a statement, which is just a few paragraphs long. He presented it in a briefing with the press but took no questions. ... He issued an email to city hall staff and department heads apologizing for his conduct but vowing to continue in office. He resigned from the Boy Scout executive board in our region. And now we're waiting to see the political ramifications.
BM: Have you heard from a lot of readers?
SS: We've heard from hundreds. We created multiple ways for people to reach us. All of the principals including myself have our phone numbers and email addresses in the paper and online. But we also created a special online forum. We created an email hotline and a telephone hotline for comments and tips. Last I checked, insofar as public opinion is concerned, we're running overwhelmingly -- ten to one, fifteen to one -- in favor of our reporting and the work that we've done. There are some people who believe that we have invaded the mayor's privacy, or that we're dredging up old allegations. And he has been an effective mayor, and there are people who are concerned we may be costing the city an effective leader. But overwhelmingly, I think the community appreciates knowing something today that they didn't know before.
BM: This whole package obviously has a huge impact on the mayor's life. You've explained why you and the paper felt it was justified. I'm just curious if you have mixed feelings.
SS: Oh, I'm sick to my stomach. And I think I can speak for the reporters and the editors who've been involved with this for some period of time. Reporters and editors involved in the sex abuse priest stories around the country I think can probably empathize with our feelings. If you listen to the interviews with our victims, they bring you to tears -- damaged people whose lives have been irrevocably harmed.
If you talk to the mayor, in terms of his public persona -- [he is] a quiet man. A man I personally liked quite a bit, and ... who brought order to what was a chaotic municipal government. A great deal of respect. There's no satisfaction in these stories. And the last few weeks, as we've been moving to publication, every one of us has had to step back and search pretty deeply about what we were doing and why we were doing it.
Mayor Sex Story: Award Winner or Ethical Mess?
Earlier this week, I wanted everyone on the team to verbally commit to the story in terms of, "Are we doing the right thing? Is this journalistically defensible? Are we prepared to take responsibility for what may come from this?" And it was only after that conversation that we said we were ready to go.
Was the Spokane Spokesman-Review's investigative reporting, which revealed Spokane Mayor Jim West was trolling for male teenage sex on the Internet, ethically flawed or good journalism? In an IM Interview, Leonard Witt of PJNet, gets Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith's side of the story. This is part of our Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust IM Interview series.
Leonard Witt: Hi Steve. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview for PressThink and my regular site, the PJNet. Let's get right into what has journalists and people interested in journalism ethics all abuzz: Your use of a forensic computer expert to pose as a 17-year-old boy to find out if Mayor West was trolling for sex with teenage men.
Here is what Tom Detzel, who oversees investigative projects at the Oregonian, was quoted as saying, "It's a pity they had to undercut the credibility of an otherwise fair and relevant report by setting up a phony identity and luring West into a trap. This is not anything I could ever imagine condoning here. You can't lie to get to the truth, then expect someone to respect or believe your version of the truth."
So what's your reaction?
Steve Smith: Well, I respect Tom and his work. But he never talked to us and really has no idea what he's talking about. We did not set a trap. And our procedure actually added credibility to our work by confirming otherwise unconfirmable information. Absent our efforts, the entire piece of the project dealing with Internet activity might never have been publishable and we would not have uncovered aspects of the mayor's life that might actually result in criminal prosecution.
I can walk through the decision-making process and rationale if you would like.
Witt: Sure, why not?
Smith: First, we went into the investigation trying to find individuals who might have been abuse victims 25 years ago. In the course of that investigation, our reporter was told by a source that he should talk to a young man, only 18, who had just told friends he had met Mayor West online and had a date with him leading to consensual sex.
That was a shocking tip and totally unexpected. This was last fall, late October, early November. Bill Morlin subsequently interviewed the young man who told us of meeting a man on Gay.com with the screen name of Cobra82nd. They chatted periodically and eventually decided to meet. The young man was 18. They met, went to dinner (with the kid paying) and then drove out to a local country club where they had sex in the man's Lexus.
The young man had no additional proof. He said during the tryst the man identified himself as West. But the young man had not recognized him when they met. He had no documentation as the online correspondence had long since gone into the ether.
We had the allegation, which included indications that offers of gifts and perks were involved. But nothing we could prove. Even when we much later found a second young man, we had no proof.
It was my decision that we would not publish anything until we knew without any doubt that the man on the Internet was Jim West. Remember our source was only 18, hadn't recognized the mayor when they met and had no records. I wasn't going to charge one of the state's most powerful politicians without absolute proof. You can't shoot with a circumstantial popgun in this case.
We had multiple choices. We could just go ask the mayor. Not very smart. A simple denial and then he drops off the website and we're done. We could ask the young man to go back in...which he did once. But the communication was inconclusive. And he didn't want any more contact with Cobra82nd. We could find another young man, a real person, but that seemed ethically suspect, maybe more so.
I heard one of the academic ethicists say we had enough because we had a real person and we could hang a story on that. But I think that's the perspective of someone who doesn't work in the real world. We needed proof.
The decision to hire the consultant was mine. He is a skilled Internet specialist and tracker. His assignment was to go into Gay.com and ascertain the identity of Cobra82nd (and RightBiGuy later). We hoped he could do this without chatting, but by lurking in the background and tracking computer and IP information.
He insisted that he (not us) would go to the police first if he had information about criminal activity. We agreed. He did not know who we suspected was behind the names. We wanted to see what he found out.
We learned quickly that because of Gay.com firewalls, the technical tracking was not going to work, at least initially. Remember, those of us on the small and closed team dealing with this didn't yet understand how these sites operate. We learned that Gay.com has good filters that are built to prevent third-party tracking. Our only remaining option was to go in as an individual and see what would happen. We wanted to know who the individual was and we wanted to know if he would approach underage children. Our guy went in as a 17-year-old with a birthday coming up. He dropped in on some chat rooms and waited.
From there, all activity was initiated by the mayor, as per our consultant's instructions. He made contact. He initiated sex talk with the 17-year-old persona. He offered gifts for the kid's birthday, he initiated sex, etc.
Throughout all of this we still didn't have proof. If you read the transcripts, you'll see the circumstantial case building. But we did not have conclusive proof. I wanted it nailed cold. The conversations happened in the way the mayor has done this before -- we initiated no new or unusual behavior from him. And they built trust.
In early April, April 8 and 9 we finally got the proof. First the mayor agreed to a physical meeting and he showed up. We were there. That was what I needed. Secondly, he arranged the meeting through this medium, AOL Instant Messenger, outside Gay.com firewalls. That gave us the IP address, not immediately useful but good to have in the event of litigation.
At that point, we terminated our work on Gay.com. This is an area of misunderstanding in the industry. And no one seems willing to just pick up the phone and ask. They suggest we knew this was the mayor and stayed online, presumably to pick up titillating stuff. Not the case. All we wanted to know was, is this the mayor and what is he doing out there and is it consistent with what we've been told.
As a result of this, the mayor admitted all aspects of the Internet portion of our package. That would not have happened if we had left one little crack in the door. That's it,.
Witt: Okay. So let's put the journalists and ethicists aside for a moment. Do you think a story like this, and the way you did it, builds or hurts the public's trust in the media?
Smith: Based on what we're hearing from readers, it has built trust in our readers and Spokane citizens. They know what we wrote is true. Feedback is running 10- maybe 15-1 in our favor and those who don't like what we did rarely reference the computer expert.
I think our credibility with journalists is hurt. But I think this may be a sign of how disconnected some editors are from the sensibilities of citizens who want their newspapers to watchdog government and do it aggressively.
Let me add quickly. I think the knee jerk reaction of journalists is "we don't lie." I agree. But all of our ethics codes, SPJ for example, and even the Poynter's ethics specialists, allow for exceptions when there is no other way to get the info and the story is important enough. The feds are going after our mayor on official corruption charges as a result of our work.
Witt: You probably saw this coming because you wrote in a letter to Romenesko that by using the forensic computer guy that, 'We knew it would kill any chance our series would garner awards.' If your story matched at least some ethical codes, why would doing the story the way you did, prohibit you from winning any awards?
Smith: Well, there is a history of this. And I knew we would be criticized, and vigorously, by the very people who hand out those awards.
Look at the quick knee-jerk reaction. I find it hard to believe that people will back off that, even if they take the time to listen to our explanations. But let me emphasize, it doesn't matter. People who know me, know it's always about the journalism and our responsibility to our community and to its citizens. The prizes, if they come, belong to two of the finest investigative reporters I've ever known. I'm just the suit. They are the folks who have done the heavy lifting along with our city editor.
Witt: Tell me a little about the kind of resources that went into building this story in terms of the cost in time, personnel and money?
Smith: Well, the longest part of the investigation was conducted by reporter Bill Morlin. It took him just shy of two years to move from his 2003 series on abuse in the Sheriff's department to this story. He worked on it steadily, sometimes doing other things. Classic shoe leather stuff. Records, phone calls, blind quests for unnamed victims living on the street. Amazing work to produce our two named, on the record sources of abuse allegations.
Costs started building with the Internet investigation. The consultant didn't come cheap. The scope of the story started growing earlier this year and that's when we brought in Karen Dorn Steele. She handled the legislative angles and critical backgrounding while chased down more ghosts.
We've spent a fortune on our lawyer(s). And there is the travel, time and newshole. It's gonna be a big blow to my newsroom budget. My publisher has yet to raise that issue. The advantage of a family ownership.
Witt: Who is your publisher any how, and what was his or her reaction, while all of this was happening?
Smith: My publisher is William Stacey Cowles. He is the fifth generation Cowles to own and publish the newspaper (going back to 1880s). He has worked closely with the mayor on critical economic development issues, served with him on boards and encountered him countless times in social settings. Yet he has been thoroughly supportive from the start. Has not gotten in the way. Has stood by us steadily. I'm proud of him.
Witt: So in this era of consolidation, corporate ownership, dwindling resources for newsrooms, migration to citizen journalism and even talk of a death spiral for newspapers, what's to become of this kind of journalism?
Smith: I have to say this project probably would have been undertaken in most mainstream newsrooms. Given what we knew, I don't know of any editor who would have walked away. It's tough. But this is what we're here for and I don't think my colleagues would have been deterred. I have more faith in them, maybe, than they have in me.
Witt: I noticed you have expended an incredible amount of time answering questions from the public and from other members of the news media about this story. Would you have done so 10 years ago or is this because of the super-charged political atmosphere and all the cries of bias and the public polls that show distrust in journalists?
Smith: Well, first, I said "yes" to the first few media requests because they came in and it seemed that journalists should respond when they can. This was still building late last week and there was only marginal interest. The Sunday New York Times changed that and we suddenly had a frenzy on our hands.
We decided to back way off on the national stuff...doing the tabloid talk shows, the cable debate shows, there seems no percentage in that. We've agreed to most NPR stuff because I respect them. And I've agreed to some network news stuff, but so far not the magazine shows. We're trying to be selective. We've turned down 30 or 40 shows. Name it and they have called.
That wasn't expected, and we didn't have a mechanism in place to handle that. So we were caught short. The downside of saying no is we leave the field open to everyone else to frame the story and we're not there to tell what really happened. But I don't have an alternative, really.
Much of what you see with me is recycled from a couple of interviews and from local stuff I gave to the local TVs. It's showing up everywhere.
And the only reason you're seeing me is my two reporters steadfastly refuse to do TV (security reasons) and the managing editor and city editor will do radio, but not TV. This is a lesson learned. God forbid we find ourselves drowning in TV producers again, but next time we'll bring in someone early to the project and prep them to do all the media stuff.
Witt: We feel honored then. I know you have to run, but I want to revisit this one statement you made about other editors: "I have more faith in them, maybe, than they have in me." Are you saying doing this story could actually hurt your journalism career?
Smith: Well, I think it probably could. I heard an academic on MSNBC earlier equate this with the plagiarism and fabrication scandals. That's tough company and unfair. But I think we all realize that, given the incredible passion we're seeing, and anger, that this could hurt. But then, I'm an old fart. I will be retiring in 10 years or so and don't aspire to much more. I have come to love this community and figure I'll stick around if they'll have me.
Let me just say this, and I don't mean for it to be self-serving. But we went into this with our eyes wide open. We had a public figure, our mayor, one of the most powerful men in the state, potentially preying on youngsters, apparently trading on his office for sex, possibly involved in an abuse ring in the past. It took a lot of guts to go after this story. And maybe my colleagues, who have been a little gun shy in the last couple of years, should think about that. Michael Jackson or Mayor West. Garden clubs or Mayor West. My reporters are brave folk. My editors are bold. My publisher is steadfast. That ain't bad.
Editor's Note: I have been guest editing for Jay Rosen's PressThink this week. I have kept a log of the very vibrant ethics discussion over there. I am now copying the after matter here too as part of the record. It was a great discussion.
Online reactions to Witt/Smith interview:
Tim in Comments says:
With reporting like this newspapers would not be losing circulation.
This is a niche that the local newspaper can fill that no other organization can match. If they do this in a cost effective manner they will succeed.
Jeff Jarvis mostly thinks the Spokesman-Review was wrong, writing in part:
In this age of transparency, acting like someone you're not and lying is not the way to get the news.
Imagine if every blogger out there tried to run a sting operation on anyone else and published it on the internet. It's wrong and it's dangerous.
He, as does The New York Times code of ethics, which is generally against false identities, says it is okay for restaurant reviewers. Finally Jarvis writes:
The lines get a bit fuzzy. But I do believe that entrapment, deception, and lying are not the best ways to get the news.
Witt note: The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is frequently mentioned by Smith in his newspaper's defense, before I get back to the right, wrong or maybe arguments I want to post exactly what it says:
Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story
And here is a whole plethora of journalism codes of ethics.
Editor & Publisher has its own plethora of editors commenting about the Spokane story, echoing this statement:
"I don't permit deception; I would not allow it," said Amanda Bennett, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. "We go into reporting in a straighter way. We are not private investigators, we are journalists. Undercover is a method of the past."
Or this statement:
"We have a rule against that, and it would take extreme circumstances to break the rule," said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post. "But I cannot foresee them. It is not something we have done in my memory."
Well, what do you think?
Dan Irving making a comment at Jarvis's Buzzmachine thinks:
In this particular case: If the reporter/s just wanted to out a gay mayor then this was a pretty smarmy way to do it. Being gay may be a political landmind but it is in no way against the law.
On the other hand if they had some idea that he was both gay and had a history of pedophelia then a sting operation would be totally above board in my opinion. It would be like setting up a honeypot to trap hackers. It isn't unethical - the mayor went looking and got caught. It could just have well been a police sting operation he stumbled into. See Operation Pin.
Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, joins the discussion in our comment section taking Steve Smith's side saying:
This is public service journalism at its best.
And as for the supposed ethical issues -- so what if, as reported by Editor & Publisher, the editors in Philadelphia and Indianapolis piously say they wouldn't have taken the measures that Smith took to make his story airtight ?
All that tells me is that if Jim West, or any other Internet predator, was mayor of Philadelphia or Indianapolis, he'd probably be home free. What exactly is Steve Smith supposed to be guilty of ? Having the prudence and caution to hire an expert to ascertain the mayor's identity before the Spokesman-Review went into print ?
Where I come from, we don't call that entrapment; we call it responsible journalism.
John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record, joins the discussion at his blog under the headline "Never Say Never." Writing of Steve Smith, he says in part:
He's dead on when he suggests a disconnect between citizens and editors on this issue.
We don't go undercover or lie to get stories either, but I think Julia Wallace of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has it right when she told Editor & Publisher that she hadn't done it before, but could envision a time when it might be necessary. "You would have to be totally transparent about it. The question is when are you being unclear, and when are you being deceptive?"
Romenesko points us to even more discussions as the matter continues to be debated. Should Smith be getting more support from editors?
Editor Steve Smith on the Spokesman-Review having a liberal bias:
Just for those convinced the paper "outed" a conservative Republican and that this is somehow a liberal paper --- for what it's worth, in the 2004 election, our editorial board endorsed Bush (the only major paper in the state), George Nethercutt, conservative Republican for U.S. Senate, and Dino Rossi, the just-that-close Republican candidate for governor. While the paper did not support many of Jim West's social issues stands, it did endorse him in every election in memory. Folks in Spokane would be hysterical hearing someone call us a liberal rag.
Jeff Jarvis after looking at the pelthora of ethics codes said maybe we should consolidate them all down to Don't lie. Don't sell out, and Andrew Krucoff in a comment at Jeff's site weighed in for individual codes, and I quote in full:
A local newspaper (or any for that matter) does not have to answer to your, my, an academic's, out of touch old school editor's, or any organization's code of ethics other than the ones they've determined and created for themselves that are in the best interests of serving the welfare of their readership. These are decisions for each newspaper to make and they wouldn't be around for very long if their code of ethics was that far out-of-whack with their constituents or illegal, obviously.
Of course, you don't have to dig deep into these institutional prescribed codes, like ASNE's, to find total justication for what the Spokane paper did: "The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government." Sounds about right to me.
Ultimately, a newspaper need only answer to its readers and in this case there is overwhelming support for the paper from Spokane citizens. That's not "bad journalism" that's just good public service journalism. They're damn lucky none of those big city editors or academics who are so short-sighted and arrogant to call this "bad for journalism" are not the editor of their newspaper.
I think Jay Rosen said it best: "The case does not lend itself to "rules." What it requires instead is judgment, and that holds for we critics and observers, too."
Selling-out is betraying your values and going against what you know is right. Kudos to Steve Smith for not doing that while serving in the best interests of Spokane citizens.
Sisyphus in comments points us to an AEJMC paper Undercover Reporting, Hidden Cameras and the Ethical Decision-Making Process: A Refinement
Anna in comments asks:
How can we find out whether there's a consensus within the profession as to how the standards (i.e. code of ethics) should actually be applied, in a standardized set of cases? And if there is no consensus, of what use are the standards?
Spokesman-Review Editor Steven A. Smith addressed your questions about stories on the mayor
Moderated by Ken Sands
The allegations against Mayor Jim West (full coverage) that have been reported in The Spokesman-Review in the past week have initiated many discussions, both about the mayor and about the newspaper's methods in developing the stories. Editor Steven A. Smith responded to your questions on May 9. This transcript will stay on this page indefinitely.
Ken Sands: We've already received an unprecedented number of questions for this discussion -- more than 75 in advance of the chat (with more arriving). We'll try to answer as many of them as we can, as time permits.
Some of the questions are redundant. Others are slightly off-topic. It's not our job to speculate on what could or should happen next with the mayor.
However, many of you have legitimate questions about the newspaper's techniques in this investigation, and we will attempt to answer those candidly and completely.
The discussion should begin shortly. To see it unfold, click the "refresh" button on your browser toolbar regularly.
Samba: How have you been sleeping at night?
Steve Smith: Thanks for the question. I'm going to take it in a positive way. All of us involved in this story have been working around the clock since the middle of last week. It is exhausting work and we're all tired.
When I do manage to catch some time, I sleep well. I am fully at peace with the work we've done. We're doing our job.
Dane Hughes: If he was a democrat the chant would be just tar and feather him and ride him out of town on a rail. But this is a republican town so lets just have him resign. Why has the S-R avoided the political side of this story?
Steve Smith: Well, I don't think we have avoided the political side. It was one of the early angles explored last week.
I don't think the response in town would be different if West were a liberal Democrat. I'm a parent. Reprehensible behavior is reprehensible behavior. If a public official hits on my 18-year-old son, I'm not going to be worried about his political affiliation.
Lynda Jo Gross : Do you feel that ultimately, journalistically, the end (of course it's not over yet) justified the means?
Steve Smith: I choose to frame it somewhat differently. The only ethical issue raised about our series -- at least in the newspaper industry -- is our decision to hire an outside expert to chat with the mayor in an effort to confirm his identity.
That move, while controversial, is not outside the ethical boundaries of our profession. All of the major ethics codes allow for deceptive reporting techniques under certain circumstances. There are guides to decisionmaking and checklists to be followed. We followed those.
Fundamentally, it is a course you can adopt if there is no other way to confirm the information being sought and if the stakes are high enough.
In this case, I am absolutely comfortable that our methodology was appropriate and that it was ethical. In that sense, our approach has been justified by the outcome.
Kevin J Lanphar: How could so many people know or suspect for years about Jim West and his secret and the SR not tackle this sooner? Not referring to him being gay but his interest in kids. Seems like an accomplished news staff would have picked up on this long ago.
Steve Smith: I can only speak directly to the time I have been here. I came to Spokane in July 2002. By mid-summer of 2003 I had authorized Bill Morlin to pursue the first wisps of information -- and it was pretty preliminary stuff, believe me. As the story developed, he -- and later Karen Dorn Steele -- had the full support of my office and others in the newsroom.
But, like you, I wonder how this went on so long without anyone, here or in Olympia, taking it on. I don't want to criticize other journalists whose knowledge and motives are unknown to me. But I remain puzzled.
Deborah Fredericks: Ken, I want to commend S-R for publishing these stories. My impression is that many people have been too afraid of West's clout in Olympia to speak out on that they knew, and I am glad you didn't.
My question is about the statute of limitations on child molestation charges in Washington State. Adult men are now coming forward with allegations, but I'm wondering if it's too late for any legal action under state law.
Steve Smith: We've been told it is too late. It's unclear if authorities could or would even mount investigations on cases so old and so far beyond prosecution.
Civil actions always are possible, as we've seen in the case of the Catholic Church. That may be the only scenario for the airing of these allegations in a court of law.
Holly: The Jim West stories are following three threads: child molestation accusations, trolling for 18 year-olds using City Hall bait and living a double life. Why does the paper appear to be giving equal emphasis to issues of possible criminality, unethical behavior and (mere) hypocrisy?
Steve Smith: That's a good question, though I'm not sure how to respond. We're trying to put what we know out there. Some stories emhpasize one element, others another. Since the story broke last Thursday, much of our reporting has been generated by new sources and most of them are tied to the mayor's contemporary activity.
Also, please keep in mind that new sources on the older allegations require considerable investigation. We have to tie the source to the time and place, match them up with Scout records, put them on the camping trips or hikes they claim to have been on, etc. Those stories may yet take some time to hit print while others relating to contemporary Internet activity are somewhat easier to confirm and publish.
Dan Shier: What "good" will come from airing all this dirty laundry?
Steve Smith: The truth might come out. In a democracy, citizens must have the truth to properly exercise their citizenship.
The city government might be returned to leaders with integrity.
The community's pedophiles may well be put on notice that the community won't stand for child sexual abuse by anyone, gay or hetero, and will root it out.
Those are some good starting points.
Would you rather we just sit back and let this behavior go on because Mayor West has been doing a good job managing the bureaucracy and bringing business to town? I refuse to accept the possibility that only Jim West can do those things. And maybe someone not leading this horrible, personal hell (of a life) -- as the mayor himself described it -- could actually do better.
Mark Mohr: Your investigative series is quite compelling. I have two questions: what was your immediate reaction to unexpectedly being called at home at 6:00AM Sunday morning by Mayor West to discuss the Spokesman's articles about him? Also, I have noticed that reporter Bill Morlin has apparently chosen not to comment publicly on his investigation and/or coverage of the story. Is that his decision or, as the newspaper's editor, have you preferred to handle that instead?
Steve Smith: I was taken by surprise by the mayor's call Sunday morning. I was prepared for phone calls -- had my house phone and cell phone by the bed and had a notebook and pen handy. But that's SOP for old reporters working a big story. I thought any calls would be from the office. I was certain, when I called the number back -- an auto redial without ever really looking at it -- that I was going to be talking to the city editor. I was surprised, but not so much as to be rendered useless -- to find myself talking to Jim West. I started taking notes immediately.
Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele have steadfastly declined to do media interviews. In Bill's case, he just won't do TV. Karen has been too busy -- the story is, after all, still developing. It has been left to me to represent our journalism.
I have been stunned by the national interest. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but I didn't expect it. In the last few days, we've just started turning down national media because we don't have the time. We'll try to catch up later.
Besides, this story shouldn't be about us. It is about Mayor West and that's where the focus ought to be.
Nathan Swinton: An editor at the Oregonian said it was a "pity" the Spokesman undercut its own credibility by lying to get to the truth. How do you respond to this comment?
Steve Smith: Well, I disagree.
Here was our problem. We had one (later two) young men saying they had chatted with a person while on Gay.com, that the person turned out to be Mayor West and that, in one case, the conversations produced a "date" and a sexual encounter in the mayor's car late one night.
The problem in the cyber world is that there was no backup evidence. We simply had the account of this one individual (later the second but with less specificity and no encounter).
If we had published that allegation, it would have elicited an immediate denial from the mayor and that would have been that. The screen names would have disappeared, the mayor would have dropped out of the chat rooms and we'd be guilty of either improperly sullying his reputation or guilty of letting him off the hook.
In the end, the only way to confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were dealing with the mayor was to go online as we did. I believe The Oregonian would have done the same given the circumstances, but I accept the Monday-morning quarterbacking.
See my previous answer -- our profession's ethics do allow for deception under certain circumstances. I believe those circumstances existed.
In the end, our credibility requires that we be right. We were right. I think that's what matters to the citizens of Spokane. As to the nannies of journalism, they weren't here to make the call.
richard m.: can and will you categorily state that the publisher & related family did not exert any influence on the development of this story or affect the timing of the release of this story which comes after the riverpark square issue with the city is now largely over and viewed as having been settled rather favorably for the developers compared to what could have happened?
Steve Smith: I can categorically, unequivocally, without the slightest hesitation tell you the publisher, Stacey Cowles, and other members of the Cowles family had no involvement with this story, its preparation, its conduct or its timing.
I informed Stacey late last fall that we were working on this project and outlined for him the essential elements. I kept him up to date in three or four meetings through this year, about once a month. No editor would prepare a package like this that would produce the impact this story has achieved without letting the publisher know it was coming.
I never provided Stacey with our evidence. He never read a story in the project. He was in Des Moines last week when the story broke, saw the stories as you all did by reading the morning paper (in his case, online).
We have a strict wall of separation here that gives the editor enormous discretion and freedom, typical of most American mainstream dailies. I'm proud to say that wall remained fully intact even though the publisher understood this package would produce an earthquake in a town he loves.
Ken Sands: We've paused for a few moments to watch Mayor West's comments on city Cable Channel 5.
kennedy joss: Do you agree with West's statement this morning that he is 'being destroyed because he is a gay man'? It seems to me that if West had not built a career politically attacking gays, and had not tried to touch underage boys, there would be no case or story whatsoever here.
Steve Smith: I do not agree with the mayor. This is not about being gay.
As we were working on our actual stories, I kept rewriting them in my mind as if the issues involved hetero sex ... that is a scenario in which the 50-plus-year-old mayor was chatting up 17- and 18-year-old high school girls and then initiating cyber-sex and soliciting real life sex when they turned 18. Would that be a story? As the parent of teenagers, including a teenage daughter, I decided it would absolutely be a story. Maybe even a bigger story.
One of our issues here was a built-in reluctance to pursue this because we were afraid of being accused of gay-bashing. That might be one reason the press of this state stayed off the story for so long, confusing the gay issue with the abuse and hypocrisy issues.
No, I think this story is about behavior most in our community would find repulsive -- gay or straight. And for his behavior, the mayor ultimately must take responsibility.
Yee Haw: IS HE QUITTING RIGHT NOW? sounded like it to me, if he was not guilty, he would not have abandoned his office. Good Luck Deputy Mayor Lynch!!
Steve Smith: As we understand it, he is taking a leave of absence, for all intents and purposes, while things sort out. He asked people to reserve judgment until the newspaper stops "persecuting" him and until he has a chance to more fully respond.
Janean: So what was the timing based on?
I heard that an internal memo went out a week before the story was printed requesting that all staff stop snooping on Bill and Karen's big story, since early release might hurt the story and the paper. Were you rushed at all to release it?
Steve Smith: The timing was based on when the story was done and when we could get to the mayor for an interview. We had completed most of our reporting the week before, but Mayor West was out of town.
I did send out a memo asking the staff to back off. We kept tight security on the story becuase release of unverified information and rumors could do real damage to the mayor or to others. We wanted to release only what we could stand behind. And speculation in a newsroom -- a pretty messy place in terms of gossip, to be honest -- could do real damage.
Last week, we began seeking an interview with the mayor for late in the week. He demanded an early interview Wednesday evening, refusing to be put off. It was Wednesday night or never. So, in the interest of making sure we had his defense in the story, we met with him Wednesday and published Thursday instead of later in the week.
Brek Lawson: So Mayor West confides in you - relates how he feels and what is going on - in his Sunday morning phone call.
I assume he called you because you are acquaintances and you publish the paper. Is it customary to take your personal conversations and relate them nearly tabloid style to the public when they are with someone personally undergoing a crisis?
It almost seems if there are a string of sensational stories being run under the guise of a witch hunt for some 25 year old crimes, and all decency has gone out the window.
Steve Smith: I can't tell you why Mayor West chose to call me. We are acquainted via the roles we both play in the community. We have had no social relationship, though he did come to a community Christmas Party at my home in 2003.
I think he called me because I am responsible for our coverage and because I had told him, and all other officials with whom I deal, to feel free to call me any time on any subject. He had my card and my cell phone number.
The mayor has been in public life for 25 years. He knows that journalists always are on duty.
He had not spoken to anyone in the press since Thursday morning. He was on my phone describing his state of mind and again denying the most serious charges. I took notes because that is my job. And, frankly, given the circumstances, they were pretty good notes.
As to decency ... well, again, the story is about the mayor, not about us. The community will ultimately decide issues of decency.
KJ: You coverage of the story has been quite good. I do not think it unfair to engage a suspected pedophile in a chatroom - he is there willingly, and engaging him, even under false pretenses, is the only reliable way to draw him out.
But journalistic ethics are all about drawing lines. How would you contrast the S-R's engaging an expert to engage Mayor West in a chat room with The Globe's hiring of a woman to induce Frank Gifford to cheat on his wife?
Steve Smith: Good question.
Mayor West is an elected official, the face of Spokane, the leader of city delegations to Washington, D.C. He is a man who went to the citizens of our community and asked for their trust.
He influences our daily lives in ways as fundamental as street repairs and the number of cops on the beat.
He stands up in the Opera House and hands out awards to the community's young people as he did at this year's Chase Youth Awards ceremony.
The conduct we were tracking was potentially illegal, at least repugnant and destructive of the mayor's office.
Frank Gifford was a TV celebrity cheating on his wife with a hooker. That's not a story mainstream media would care about and certainly not a story I would invest Bill Morlin's time in, let alone a computer expert's.
Michael Moran: I am curious on why the West stories are free to access, but the rest of the newspaper's site is pay-per-view? The Spokesman Review is not read due to this decision. Running the admittedly news-worthy, but really lurid sex stories for free is damn creepy.
Steve Smith: We started charging for the online version of the day's paper some months ago (Sept. 1, 2004) because it costs a lot to produce a daily news report and we just can't give away our news online while charging for it in print.
There is a considerable amount of online content, including breaking news, that sits outside the firewall. We made the decision to put the West material outside the firewall because we felt it was a story of tremendous local significance and that we could not, in good conscience, deny access to anyone who wanted to read it.
One other reason: We run Google ads on our site and they drop in automatically and rely on key words to match the little ads to the content on the online page. Inside the firewall, we can't disconnect this feature. The result could be little ads tied to the West content for something like Boy Scout recruiting.
Outside the firewall, we can eliminate all advertising.
Clarification: The Google ads can be disconnected inside our paid content wall, but not selectively for individual stories, and we didn't want to disable it entirely. (Ken Sands)
George: Have you considered asking any of the sources to take polygraphs, and are there more sources coming forward?
Steve Smith: To the second half of your question first, yes there are more sources. And you're seeing some in the paper already (check out our Web site later this afternoon).
Some reports require considerable investigation and verification. It takes time.
I rejected the polygraph scenario. I suppose we could find a private operator somewhere and try to hire that person. But we're not a law enforcement agency. We don't handle forensic evidence, we can't DNA test. We can't subpoena or compel release of some kinds of records. Getting into the polygraph business is a line we should not cross given these circumstances.
I suppose I might have thought differently if these were current allegations. Then again, had they been current allegations, I suppose the police would be doing examinations of their own.
Carl H.Grossman: The Mayor is trying to place blame with the newspaper for doing the story. His inability to accept full responsibility for his actions shows that he is not honorable and fit for public office. Is the paper responsible for his "leave of absense" as he is suggesting? Could you have done anything different in an effort to get to the truth?
Steve Smith: Well, we certainly not responsible for his leave of absence. We've editorialized that he ought to resign, certainly in the best interest of the community.
As to what we could have done differently, I'm open to suggestions. There will be considerable after-the-fact dissection of this project by us and by others.
In the end, our business is publishing what we know. We can't, would never, engage in backroom negotiations, would never hold out the worst aspects of the story so as to avoid offending delicate sensibilities.
As an editor, I am genetically disposed to tell people what I know and trust that citizens will always figure out how they feel about what they've learned and they'll figure out what to do about it.
joe: You faked the person on the chat room, but why also the age -- 17, almost 18? The web site says it's for 18 years old and older. The only reason to lie about the age is to try influence people to think that he was guilty of the molestation charges. Faking a person is one thing, but faking the age is absolutely terrible.
Steve Smith: Good question.
Keep in mind we initially had believed the mayor might be trolling for underage youth as well as 18 and above. The Web site requires a simple declaration of age to register. And those who use the site tell us it is replete with youngsters. If you go into the chat rooms, you'll often find more underage kids than adults. We're also told this is a site where older men seek out minors.
We wanted to know if the mayor would approach someone underage (he did without prompting), if he'd turn the conversations to sex (he did, without prompting). But as soon as we moved the character to 18, the mayor's intent became overtly sexual. He offered the young man gifts for his birthday and immediately began pursuing cyber sex and a personal meeting -- not to mention the internship in city hall.
This was not entrapment. We did not initiate any behavior new to the mayor. This was behavior in which he had been engaged. We did not initate any of the escalations.
Again, only the mayor can take responsibility for what he has done.
erc: How did you first find out about the story?
Steve Smith: As I said in my note to readers, it began with a Bill Morlin series in summer of 2003 detailing the David Hahn sex abuse scandal within the Spokane County Sheriff's Department (which was, itself, an extension of earlier investigations into abuse by priests).
In reporting the 2003 story, Morlin noted that Hahn and West were close friends, co-Scout leaders and co-deputies. In those stories, West denied knowing of Hahn's abuse of children in his cahrge.
After the series ran, Morlin received tips suggesting he dig deeper, that there might be a connection. That investigation has taken nearly two years.
The Internet angle popped up unexpectedly last fall when one of Morlin's sources directed him to an 18-year-old man who had told friends he had just had sex with the mayor after meeting him on Gay.com.
Reader: Weren't the Sunday and Monday stories pretty weak and petty compared to the earlier reports from Thursday through Saturday? It seemed Sunday and Monday was about kicking someone who was already down and not about proving the serious charges published earlier.
Steve Smith: I disagree.
We had Cherie Rodgers, the most veteran council member, calling on the mayor to resign because he had masturbated in his office in city hall. That's not insignificant. Then we had the mayor denying that and Rodgers refusing to back down. I have to say those stories are part of the inevitable fallout of this sort of project.
It's a big deal.
Gary: are you aware of any efforts at any time of Mr. West to monitor or uncover possible newspaper research regarding his "personal conduct"? I would think that if he was worried about being uncovered at all, he'd look your direction.
Steve Smith: I don't believe the mayor had a clue we were monitoring his Internet activity. He's certainly not indicating that to us.
I think many people are somehow convinced that they can get away with strange stuff online. To an extent, that's true. But there are cracks in the system.
Bob Stokes: Steve
My questions concern the "forensic expert" the Review hired to chat online with Jim West.
1. What did your consulting journalism ethicist say about that practice?
2. Having now validated the practice in Eastern Washington (for private as opposed to police use), what prevents similar use by other private parties?
For example, the Review's enemies (of which there have always been some) might hire someone to play news source. By intentionally feeding you bogus information, they could see how carefully you check your facts, then bust you if you miss something.
3. For advantage, revenge or other reasons, other private parties might set up political opponents, business competitors or personal enemies. Yet others might set up perfect strangers, just to create "interesting" stories.
Steve Smith: We talked with several people while making the decision to employ the expert. I consulted friends in the business. And our managing editor walked through the whole thing with one of the top ethicists in our business. In general, they were supportive, including the ethicist who walked us through a checklist and reached the same conclusions we did.
There is nothing to stop anyone from doing as we did, private, public, law enforcement.
It's possible someone will try to sting us.
All we can do is our job to the best of our ability and let other people be responsible for their behavior.
And, by the by, people are always trying to plant phony-baloney stuff in the newspaper or on TV. We try to be avoid bogus information every day.
Having said that, should someone try to sting me with a session of cyber sex, I can always just say "no."
Don't you think it's all about our own personal standards and behaviors?
Wendy Brady: What about alleged police coverups of the alleged (West) and acknowledged (Hahn) child molestations - do you plan additional investigation & follow up reporting?
Steve Smith: I do not feel comfortable using the term "coverup" yet. We just don't know all that we need to know.
We do know all of the investigative files, including citizen complaints, related to Hahn were shredded with his personnel file after he killed himself in 1981. To our knowledge, there was no investigation into his abuse record after his death. Any links to Mayor West, if they existed, would have been shredded with that file.
Obviously we and others are trying to learn more.
MA student: Jim West is a powerful political machine in the state of Washington. Do you worry about any backlash from him or his supporters?
Steve Smith: We already are experiencing some backlash. There are people who are convinced we'd never have published this story about a liberal Democrat. What I'd like to say is "Are you nuts?"
But that would be glib and superficial.
I do think I've made it clear we would have gone after this story had it been a liberal or conservative, male or female, gay or straight.
Bob: Was there any abuse of public office (internship offers, etc) in chats with other people online prior to you hiring Moto-Brock?
Steve Smith: There were offers of gifts, perks and benefits. But the internship offer was new.
I do direct you to our Web site later today and tomorrow's paper for new information.
Janean: "We did not initiate any of the escalations."
I disagree. While reading the transcript of the online discussions, it seemed Moto-Brock initiated the meeting. West came across as reluctant to meet, something about not wanting to spoil their relationship. Moto-Brock also gave West many compliments on his photo.
Steve Smith: We have posted an unprecedented volume of supporting material on this story just so readers could look for themselves and decide whether we took liberties in our reporting and editing. I don't know of any paper that has ever opened up the process in this way.
So, if after reading the transcripts, you've come to that conclusion, that's great. You're making use of this material and I appreciate it.
Obviously, we draw a different conclusion.
Bob Pollard: Do you see your paper's treatment of this story as having the potential to further sour the relationship between the Spokesman-Review and Spokane's political leaders? How will you be instructing your reporters to handle government sources who might be even more skeptical of appearing in the newspaper?
Steve Smith: Great question.
There is enormous tension between the newspaper and the community's political and bureaucratic leadership. It's a pretty closed community and one not attuned to conducting the public's business in public, releasing information and keeping doors open.
I don't know if this experience will help or hurt.
But our reporters are trained to be aggressive. They are asked to pursue the tough questions and not take "no" for an answer. They know they'll have support in my office when they hurt some politician's feelings by insisting on an answer to an important question.
And, as you can see from our work here, they are asked to tape everything. No more "I was misquoted" defenses.
Cori Nagele: My comment is regretfully I will no longer take the paper nor will I watch channel 6. I have an "opinion" that the owners of both the newspaper and the television station have a vendetta against someone whose done more for our city than any of the past 5 elected mayors. Why not run stories that are factual and not all amock with details of a persons private life?
Steve Smith: I appreciate your decision. No one should buy a newspaper out of any sense of obligation. If we don't meet your needs or live up to your standards, you should take your business elsewhere.
I have already said my piece on the involvement of the owners. I stand by that.
Mayor West was doing a good job as mayor. We have said so editorially.
Citizens will ultimately decide if that outweighs the behavior we've been uncovering. That's the beauty of our system. The people decide.
Lynn Fallows: Steven:
I am distressed that the Spokesman Review would write the graphic sexual statement in the Sunday morning paper quoting Cherie Rodgers-front page where every kid can read it. The paper has a respondsibility to the community, families and children. Yes we need to know if our Mayor has abused his use of power but the attorneys investigating this can deal with the graphic details. Again, the Spokesman-Review has failed to report the news in a responsible manner. You have resorted to sensational reporting & have not used restraint in reporting this very upsetting news about our Mayor. Everyone is hurt by what has happened. Please respond.
Steve Smith: I'm sorry you were offended. I can only say that we edit the newspaper for thinking adults. I know, of course, that children read our paper. But what sort of paper would we be if we edited the front page for the sensibilities of 10-year-olds.
I'm sorry, some stories require honest, adult language. Our goal was to inform, not offend.
But, obviously, we knew some would view it differently.
Rebecca Rubens: Have you developed any evidence that any other staffing decisions by the Mayor besides the offer of the internship you detailed have been influenced by the Mayor's sexual interests or socialization preferences? How about the past when he was in state government? How do you balance the public right to know against the privacy of other individuals that may not have done anything wrong themseleves and could be hurt by such investigation?
Steve Smith: As to the first part of your question, please look at the fresh coverage today and tomorrow.
We work hard to protect the privacy of innocent parties while avoiding overreliance on anonymous sources. For the past allegations of abuse, we insisted on named, on-the-record and photographed sources. We have been somewhat more willing to withhold the identification of young gay men who have yet to come out to friends and family.
And we have avoided bringing into the story family members of the mayor who have only peripheral involvement in the story and are not, themselves, public figures.
a reader: how much space of letters to the editor do you expect to run and if the mayor writes one, will you run it in its entirety and would your editorial board likely respond?
Steve Smith: Well, we're being flooded with letters. We have to figure out how to get them into print. It may take some extra space.
We would certainly run a letter or op-ed column from the mayor.
Response would depend on what he says.
Cheryl: Is anyone keeping a suicide watch on Jim West? Seems like suicide is the out of choice for people like West.
Steve Smith: I can't answer that with direct knowledge.
We were concerned enough about the mayor's mental state after our interview Wednesday night to notify authorities so they could check in on him.
My guess would be his friends and family are staying close.
Please understand all of us at the paper know the effect of our coverage on the mayor. It is devastating. I am trying, personally, to hang on to my sense of compassion and empathy, while also recognizing the harm caused by the mayor himself.
But all of us can pause to contemplate the mayor's agony and empathize with his pain.
Karen Davis-Beam: I believe the good citizens of Spokane will choose to allow Mr. West to remain Mayor. He took the time to be involved in young children's lives, while busy parents didn't. He served his country, when others ran. He chose to take a public stand against legislation that would undermine family values. If those accomplishments were not enough, he has almost single-handedly reinvigorated Spokane's very sluggish economy. Spokane can not afford to lose such a business leader.
Steve Smith: Thanks for your comment.
You have summarized well the sentiments of many people we're hearing from since Thursday.
As I said, citizens will decide.
rachel: Why weren't the police notified? Wasn't this a job for them? Not you?
Steve Smith: As to the allegations of sexual abuse 25 or so years ago, the police were involved. With any crimes from that time well past the statute of limitations, there was no need to call police. There is no criminal investigation to conduct.
Our deal with the computer consultant, and this was part of our explicit services agreement, was he would notify police directly -- not us -- should he come across illegal activity. We were comfortable with that.
Don Piper: I still find it hard to believe that throughout a mayoral election campaign that some information about the mayor's personal life did not come out, particularly in a relatively small community such as Spokane.
Do you feel that your "sting" operation and recent coverage is a "make-up" for the investigative journalism that should have been taking place during an election?
And, were you really more interesting in exposing potentially criminal behavior or just exposing hypocritical behavior? Is Spokane a community that would accept an openly gay mayor?
Steve Smith: During the campaign, there just wasn't anything reliable to go on. Smoke.
Please see the Sunday paper where you'll see a story indicating that Tom Grant, as both journalist and mayoral candidate, knew as much or more than we did and chose not to pursue it or mention it.
(Though he would not have objected to us doing that job for him.)
The coverage has nothing to do with makeup. It ran when it was ready to run. Anyone involved in law enforcement investigation will appreciate the time it takes to develop leads, especially on cases 25 years old. And I've already indicated we were totally unaware of the Internet issues until last fall, more than a year after the election.
Scott W.: How were you able to determine the IP addresses of West's computer through gay.com chat? Were those IP addresses furnished by gay.com?
Steve Smith: We never got the IP address.
I wish we could have traced the communication to a particular IP or computer.
That's why the deception lasted as long as it did. Unable to employ technology to trace the IP, we had to draw the mayor out until he provided other conclusive evidence that RightBi-Guy was indeed Jim West.
Gay.com knew nothing of our activities. Their privacy policies would have prohibited them from releasing any personal information.
Correction: I'm now told we did, in fact, capture the IP address in one of our very last exchanges with the mayor. Absent a court order, the address could not prove conclusively that we were dealing with Jim West. But in the event of litigation, it would have been an important piece of evidence in our defense.
JJB: Has any consideration been given to finding out what is on Mr. West's computers that he used in Olympia as State Senator. Did he make efforts to keep possesion of them, wipe the hard drives, etc??
Steve Smith: Good question. I don't think we've asked that.
His city computers have been taken by investigators. I'll ask our reporters to see if we can find out what happened to his legislative equipment, though they'd be years old now.
Robert Fairfax: Please do not try Mayor West in the papers. The court of public opinion is a fickle thing. His private life, no matter how reprehensible, is his private life. If he has broken laws, however, he should receive severe punishment. Pedophiles ruin lives and should be imprisioned without possibility of parole. Mayor West, If your skeletons are sneaking up on you, remember "you reap what you sow".
Steve Smith: The court of public opinion belongs to the public. Our job is to provide information.
But I don't think our stories are about the mayor's private life. They are very much about his public life and these stories are the public's business, no matter how distasteful.
rachel: I understand about the computer expert, but you said Mayor West started talking with you (or whoever) online about sex and the age posted was 17 - that is a minor's age. Why weren't the police notified? A teacher, professor, clergy are required by the law to notify police, what gave you the exception?
Steve Smith: Talking about sex to a 17-year-old online is not a crime.
Soliciting a 17-year-old for sex can be under certain circumstances, such as setting up a meeting.
But that didn't happen here.
In some states, by the way, journalists have the same obligation to report as officers of the court, etc. That is not the case in Washington. Had we come across criminal behavior placing a young person in jeopardy, we absolutely would have reported it.
jr: If you have compassion....why are you sitting here bashing him? I will never again buy a paper as well.
Steve Smith: I understand your decision.
But I would argue I'm not bashing the mayor. I'm describing our journalism.
But citizens are free to draw their own conclusions.
Ken Sands: We are truly humbled by the response to this chat, and wish we could answer every question we've received. But we've been at this for two hours now, and there still are about 110 questions that we haven't been able to address. And more questions keep coming in.
Thank you for your thoughtful questions. We plan to do this again, sometime in the near future. Meanwhile, you can visit our online forum to discuss this issue with other citizens.
© 2006 Leonard Witt