A Case Study in Ethics in Journalism
An Overview of the Ethical Issue

An Overview of the Ethical Issue

After the story broke, the Spokesman-Review got national attention, much of it debating whether it acted ethically in using an undercover forensic agent to pose as an 17-year-old boy on the Internet. The following articles provide an overview of the ethical issues regarding this story. Both articles are also available at their original external locations

Story generates national attention

Kevin Graman / Staff writer

May 13, 2005

© The Spokesman-Review 2005

At its heart, The Spokesman-Review's investigation of Spokane Mayor Jim West is a local story about a trusted public figure accused of abusing the privilege of elected office.

But that isn't what brought the national news media to Spokane.

The story of West's double life has captured the nation's attention because of the irresistible human temptation to shout "Gotcha."

Or as CBS News producer Robin Singer, in Spokane last week to cover the West story, put it: "When they say one thing and do another, that's a good story."

West, a former Republican majority leader in the state Senate, a powerful politician who invoked "family values" to bar homosexuals from working in schools and day-care centers and to prevent them from marrying, now admits to having a sexual relationship with at least one young man he met online and to offering a city internship to a man he believed was an 18-year-old Spokane high school senior. The "student" was actually a forensic computer expert hired by The Spokesman-Review to verify the 54-year-old mayor's identity on a gay Internet chat room.

It gave the "gotcha" story a twist. The newspaper became one of the players, its methods condemned as deceptive by some and hailed as courageous by others.

"I never realized how big a story this would be nationally," Editor Steven A. Smith said. "We were not prepared to handle the flood of media that we experienced the last few days."

Since the story first broke in the newspaper, Smith has been interviewed by CBS Morning News, ABC's Good Morning America, MSNBC's Dan Abrams Show and NPR's "All Things Considered." He said he has been approached by many more cable television news shows and radio talk shows.

So far, the story of Mayor Jim West has launched a preliminary FBI investigation, a recall effort and demands for the mayor's resignation. The story of The Spokesman-Review's methods has prompted debate about what's fair in the search for truth.

"What methods, particularly in the Internet age, can or should a news organization adopt in order to try to stand up a story?" said Christopher Turpin, executive producer of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

In an editorial last week calling for West's resignation, The Seattle Times also had words for The Spokesman-Review: "The newspaper's methodology is objectionable, because reporters should readily identify themselves as they seek to report the truth."

The trade publication Editor & Publisher ran an article on its Web site quoting the editors of The Sun in Baltimore, The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others, who said they were uncomfortable with news gathering organizations misrepresenting themselves.

"It is important that sources be aware that they are dealing with journalists," said Tim Franklin, editor of The Sun in Baltimore.

"We are not private investigators, we are journalists," said Amanda Bennett, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But Steve Lovelady, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review's online magazine, said The Spokesman-Review had performed a public service.

"What exactly is Steve Smith supposed to be guilty of? Having the prudence and caution to hire an expert to ascertain the mayor's online identity before The Spokesman-Review went into print? Where I come from, we don't call that entrapment; we call it responsible journalism," said Lovelady in an online forum by Jim Romanesko at poynter.org.

Lovelady recalled an FBI investigation in Philadelphia called Abscam, where FBI agents posed as Arab sheiks to expose politicians willing to collect bribes in return for favorable votes on pending legislation.

"At the time, the investigation was lauded as a brilliant use of taxpayers' dollars. … The only difference here is that Steve Smith used the same technique - disguise - but he didn't use taxpayer dollars. … Instead, he used the dollars allotted to him by his publisher to do the only thing that matters - to get to the bottom of what was really going on in Spokane's halls of power."

The use of a forensic computer expert was only one aspect of The Spokesman-Review's report by reporters Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele. The story began with a tip in early 2003. Morlin was investigating the suicide of sheriff's deputy David Hahn, an accused pedophile and friend of West's, when he uncovered information that led to an 18-year-old man, who claimed he had engaged in a sex act with a man who identified himself as Mayor West and who he had met online.

"These were unsubstantiated allegations at that point - ones that West clearly would have flatly denied," Morlin said.

Guided by libel law and common-sense standards, Morlin said, his challenge was to prove or disprove the young man's story.

"As a reporter, I cannot ethically pose as someone else," Morlin said. But he could hire an expert. In the past, the newspaper has contracted with polygraph and hand-writing experts among others.

After lengthy consideration, the decision was made in November 2004 to hire a computer expert to assist in the investigation. The expert created the profile, "Moto-Brock," a fictitious high school student who questioned his own sexuality.

Soon Moto-Brock began "chatting" with someone online who was later determined to be West. When the mayor's identity was confirmed on April 9, the computer expert's work ended, but not before Moto-Brock agreed to meet West at Indian Canyon Golf Course.

"Jim West showed up in his new Lexus and was secretly photographed," Morlin said. "Since our story was published, two more real-life men have come forward. They say what happened to Moto-Brock online with West is almost identical to what they experienced."

Since the original stories appeared on May 5, the newspaper has reported further allegations that the mayor offered high-paying City Hall jobs and a position on the city's Human Rights Commission to two young men after they met him in an Internet chat room. Morlin said these two would not have come forward were it not for the work of the forensic computer expert.

Smith said he has no regrets about the way The Spokesman-Review handled the investigation.

"The only way that part of our investigation could have moved forward from initial allegation to story was definitive proof that the individual online was Mayor Jim West," Smith said. "And I can say without qualification and with full confidence the only way to determine his identity was to engage the technical expertise of the individual we hired."

Support from readers has been overwhelming, Smith said. They don't seem the least bit concerned about the computer expert.

The Oregonian's public editor Mike Arrieta-Walden asked his readers, "When, if ever, is it appropriate for journalists or their agents to pose as someone else to obtain information?"

He found that most respondents approved of The Spokesman-Review's methods.

"In this case I approve because the crime involves children and abuse of office," wrote one Oregonian reader. "I wouldn't approve if it was just to find out that the guy was gay."

Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week, the Portland alternative newspaper that uncovered the story of former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl, had no problem with The Spokesman-Review's methods.

Zusman also cited the example of newspapers, including his own, of sending black and white "renters" out to determine whether there is discrimination in housing. The key, Zusman said, is complete transparency. He believes The Spokesman-Review was up front with its readers about its methods and said the newspaper has set an example of "entrepreneurial journalism that ought to be lauded."

As for the impact of The Spokesman-Review's investigation, Smith believes the community will suffer no long-term negative consequences.

"We are better off knowing the truth than we are living under false pretenses, and I hope to trade the immediate pain of the situation for a better future," he said. "But in the end that's up to the citizens. Newspapers don't decide the outcome, the citizens do."


Online relationships

Mayor West offered perks, internship to expert posing as 18-year-old during Web chats

By Bill Morlin / Staff writer

May 5, 2005

© The Spokesman-Review 2005

An 18-year-old Spokane high school senior meets someone who says he’s 53 in a gay chat room online.

After talking for several weeks using the online alias “Cobra82nd,” the older man suggests the two meet for a dinner date, and the teenager accepts.

The older man arrives in his late-model blue Lexus convertible on a warm June evening, and the two talk face to face for the first time over dinner at a trendy restaurant in north Spokane.

Afterward, the young man picks up the tab. He smiles as he’s given the keys to the convertible in the restaurant parking lot.

Minutes later, while driving curvy roads north of the city, he asks the older man, whom he doesn’t recognize, what he does for a living.

“He basically asked, ‘Can I trust you?’.” the young man said in a recent interview.

“I’m like, ‘Yeah,’.” he continued. “I think this guy’s crazy. What now? Then he says like, ‘I’m the mayor of Spokane.’

“I was kind of silent for a minute,” the young man said, recalling his disbelief, “but then it clicked: his face, TV commercials, stuff like that.”

Until that moment last summer, the young man, who asked that his name not be used, said he had no idea he was on a date with Spokane Mayor Jim West.

The evening ended with consensual sex, according to the young man, who has not told his family about his personal life. “I’ve never wanted to see him again after that.”

The young man’s story raised questions for the newspaper. If West was online at Gay.com, was it the public’s right to know? Would it be the public’s business if West was using city computers to chat during his working hours as mayor? What if he was using the Internet to meet people who weren’t 18, the legal age of consent? Was he abusing his public office in any other way?

The questions became a critical part of the ongoing investigation into the sex abuse allegations against West.

To verify the 18-year-old’s allegations that Cobra82nd was Jim West, the newspaper asked the young man to save any additional online conversations between them.

In November and December, they talked again. This time, the 18-year-old said, the man changed his online screen name from Cobra82nd – a possible reference to the helicopters West flew in while a paratrooper in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division – to “RightBi-Guy.”

The paper then hired a forensic computer expert in November to help verify the young man’s allegations that West was online.

The expert, a former federal agent who asked not to be identified for these stories, has helped track child pornography through the use of online chat technology.

The computer expert registered on Gay.com as “Moto-Brock,” a fictitious 18-year-old Ferris High School senior questioning his own sexuality and eager to met older gay or bisexual men. Once in the chat room, which has a policy that all participants be 18, the consultant changed his age to 17 because the newspaper wanted to know whether West was using the Web to meet underage children.

Within two months, Moto-Brock and RightBi-Guy were discussing sex in the Gay.com chat room, and the dialogues were being recorded by the newspaper’s consultant.

West, interviewed Wednesday, admitted his online relationships with the 18-year-old and Moto-Brock.

After a long pause in the interview, he said, “They were both adults, and I was in public office when I dated women in this community. So what’s your point?”

According to the transcripts of those online conversations, RightBi-Guy was the first person to raise the issue of sex.

He also suggested that he and Moto-Brock switch their conversations from the Gay.com chat room to America Online instant messaging, which is transitory in nature and disappears quickly unless steps are taken to record chats.

Over a period of several months, RightBi-Guy offered Moto-Brock autographed sports memorabilia, prime seats for Seahawks and Mariners games, help getting into college, an internship job in the Spokane mayor’s office and the promise of trips to Washington, D.C.

In mid-March, Moto-Brock told RightBi-Guy that he’d turned 18.

On two occasions, RightBi-Guy appeared to believe he was engaging in mutual online masturbation with Moto-Brock, according to transcripts of the explicit exchanges.

Asked about simulating masturbation online with a teenager, West said Wednesday, “You have a better memory than I do.” He declined an offer to look at the transcripts of the dialogue.

“We never had sex online,” West said of his relationship with Moto-Brock. “You’ve got words on paper.”

According to the online conversations, RightBi-Guy asked Moto-Brock to meet him for golf at Indian Canyon at 10 a.m. April 10. So Moto-Brock would know whom to look for, RightBi-Guy e-mailed him his picture.

The picture was of West. He also e-mailed Moto-Brock a link to the mayor’s Web page on the Spokane City Hall site.

Three people affiliated with The Spokesman-Review reported seeing West arrive at the course in his blue Lexus at 9:45 a.m. April 10. He was seen looking around the parking lot. As he waited for Moto-Brock, he purchased two buckets of balls and kicked one of them across the driving range.

The two never met in person. Shortly after that failed meeting, the consultant was asked by the newspaper to stop communicating online with RightBi-Guy. But West subsequently sent the consultant two more e-mails, including a final message sent April 28. Sent from the mayor’s office, the e-mail has “internship” in its subject line. The e-mail asks Moto-Brock “still interested?”

While the consultant was online over a period of a couple of months, the newspaper attempted to identify other young men listed on West’s Gay.com profiles as his “hot picks” and “buddies.”

One of them, a 19-year-old Eastern Washington University student, was identified and located for an interview. He asked not to be identified in this story, but he confirmed that he was one of RightBi-Guy’s “hot picks.” The EWU student said he and RightBi-Guy chatted online several times, but haven’t met.

“He sounds a little too old for me,’’ the student said.

He said he did not know the real identity of RightBi-Guy.

The following are excerpts from online conversations between RightBi-Guy and Moto-Brock from February to April.

Background: In their first online chat Feb. 19, RightBi-Guy says he’s home watching Gonzaga beat San Diego in the West Coast Conference basketball tournament.

Within the first 100 words of their conversation, recorded by the newspaper’s consultant, RightBi-Guy brings up the topic of sex. He also appears to be trying to impress the young man, claiming he gets sports perks, knows Microsoft founder Bill Gates and baseball star Edgar Martinez and has a job that allows him to “hang out with rich people.”

Moto-Brock: “What kind of stuff do you do?”

RightBi-Guy: “For fun or are you talking sex here?”

Moto-Brock: LOL (laughing out loud)

RightBi-Guy: “I like to camp, hike, scuba dive, boat.”

Moto-Brock: “Oh, man, I always wanted to learn how to scuba. It just looks so cool.”

RightBi-Guy: “It is. I used to be an instructor. Learned in the Army. Paratrooper.”

Later, after small talk about sports, RightBi-Guy asks if Moto-Brock is interested in girls.

Moto-Brock: “You know I try to. I go out on dates and stuff.”

RightBi-Guy: “What did you think of when you shower at school?”

Moto-Brock: “I try like hell not to get hard.”

RightBi-Guy: “Okay, then I remember that from my school days. Ha Ha Ha.”

Moto-Brock: “Keep the conversation light. Think about homework, stuff like that.”

RightBi-Guy: “I see. Hey, I’m enjoying this. Do you get turned on by guys?”

Moto-Brock: “Yes. I know I’m gay or at least very bi-sexual.”

RightBi-Guy: “I think I was in the same place when I was your age. I dated because I was expected to.”

RightBi-Guy: “I’ve always liked people younger than me. Just felt more comfortable with people either younger or older.”

RightBi-Guy: “My name is Jim, by the way.”

Moto-Brock: “I’m Brock.”

RightBi-Guy ends the conversation by telling Moto-Brock that he prefers chatting through America Online’s “instant messaging,” where host monitoring is less likely than on a Web site such as Gay.com. He also says he has to go to a “cancer fund-raising dinner” but would rather remain online with Moto-Brock.

Moto-Brock: “Man you have my curiosity up about your job.”

RightBi-Guy: “When we meet, I’ll tell you.”

Background: Their second conversation occurs a week later, on Feb. 26, another Saturday, through AOL’s instant messaging, with West using the screen name “JMSElton,” apparently derived from his full name, James Elton West. Moto-Brock complains that his parents don’t give him enough privacy.

JMSElton: “Kids get into a lot of trouble in today’s world. Parents should be concerned.”

The two then talk about various people that JMSElton knows, including Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

Moto-Brock: “God you know so many people. You know it really makes me feel a little better about my future if you have been so successful and are gay.”

JMSElton: “Remember, I’m very closeted. No one knows I like guys. Except the few guys I’ve been with and highly trusted.”

JMSElton: “It’s just that the openly gay guys are a little over the top for me. I don’t really like the in-your-face attitude some guys have. And the massive political agenda either. I say live and let live. Most gay guys turn me off, too.”

Later in the conversation, JMSElton asks Moto-Brock about a Ferris teacher accused of having sex with a female student.

JMSElton: “Don’t have sex the first time you meet someone. You don’t know what they’ve been doing or what disease they might have. Whatever you do, don’t go anal with anyone.”

Moto-Brock tells JMSElton that he’ll turn 18 on March 10. JMSElton wishes him happy birthday and says he wants to send a present of his choosing.

JMSElton: “What do you want? My autographed basketball from the 2003-04 Zags? My autographed football from the 2002 Seahawks? My autographed football signed by Paul Allen and Dennis Erickson? Or my Edgar Martinez autographed rookie card that I got two weeks ago when he was in town? Or maybe you’d like my autographed Seahawks, signed by No. 1 Warren Moon?”

The conversation changes course.

JMSElton: “I still date women once in a while. Last weekend I went to a charity dinner auction and took a date.”

Moto-Brock: “I don’t hate being around them (women) or anything. They just don’t turn me on that way.

JMSElton: “Understand. But kissing me would do it?”

Moto-Brock: “Umm, sure feels like it.”

JMSElton: “Okay, well, I’m off to bed. Be careful out there. We should meet up sometime.”

Background: Their third online chat, again using instant messaging, occurs March 8. When JMSElton asks for a picture, Moto-Brock sends a random photo of a young, dark-haired athletic-looking man.

Apparently believing the picture to be that of Moto-Brock, JMSElton says he’s handsome, “real stud material.”

JMSElton: “I could never be into the gay scene with its politics and all. I’ve just seen too many guys decide once they come out that it becomes everyone else’s problem to deal with. I’m not into femmy guys.”

JMSElton: “It’s our secret here.”

Background: The two chat online again March 8 and then March 9, mostly exchanging small talk. JMSElton says he’s going to Washington, D.C., on business and mentions taking a couple of high school interns with him on a business trip there years earlier.

Moto-Brock: “Ohhhhh. You are killing me here. I want an internship! So I can go to DC.”

JMSElton tells Moto-Brock he has a friend who might be able to get the teen an internship.

On March 21, Moto-Brock receives an e-mail from Spokane Mayor Jim West. It reads, in part, “A friend of mine has asked if I would consider you for an internship in the mayor’s office. He informs me that you are a high school senior at Ferris High School in Spokane. … If you are interested please contact Melissa Murphy in my office at 625-6250. She will have you fill out an application which will need your parents’ and school official’s approval. We look forward to hearing from you.”

Moto-Brock e-mails JMSElton the following:

“Holy crap, is this for real!!?!? The mayor of Spokane sending me an e-mail inviting me to apply for an internship? I can’t hardly believe it! He is really a friend of yours? That is unreal. Well, I don’t know what to say … “thank you” seems like not enough.”

JMSElton replies: “Don’t thank me until you see how it works out. It should be fun and better to put on your resume than working for me.”

Background: In another AOL instant messaging conversation, Moto-Brock asks JMSElton if he’s too young for him.

JMSElton: “Careful. Let’s take it slow here ok?”

Moto-Brock: LOL

JMSElton: “I don’t want to ruin our friendship before we even get started.”

JMSElton: “But yes, you interest me alot.”

JMSElton: “But I’m not sure how I would handle your father........or your mother...”

JMSElton: “So you saying you are attracted to me?”

Moto-Brock: “Well, yeah, kinda”

When JMSElton and Moto-Brock talk online April 9, they talk about meeting. West electronically sends his photo during the chat, but Moto-Brock acts like he doesn’t immediately recognize him. West then sends an Internet link to the mayor’s biography page at City Hall.

Moto-Brock: “So what u doing this weekend?”

JMSElton: “Have a dinner in about an hour that I really don’t want to go to but said I would.”

Moto-Brock: “Lucky u!”

JMSElton: “Tomorrow afternoon I have to be somewhere at 3:30 for about an hour. …may golf in the morning tomorrow. … or just go to the driving range.”

Moto-Brock: “Want some company?”

JMSElton: “Maybe …you interested?”

Moto-Brock: “Sure.”

JMSElton: “We could hit some balls.”

The two talk for a while about sports.

JMSElton: “You will be online tonight about 10pm?”

Moto-Brock: “It depends on if u want to get up early to go hit some golf balls.”

JMSElton: “Maybe go to golf course about 10 am.”

Moto-Brock: “10am would be cool”

JMSElton: “I still worry about meeting you.”

Moto-Brock: “Why????????????”

Moto-Brock: “Cause you aren’t in shape? I don’t care bout that with u”

JMSElton: “Because guys like you don’t come along very often and I want it to last. …am I crazy here?”

Moto-Brock: “I don’t understand why it wouldn’t. …why wouldn’t our friendship last if we meet for golf swings???”

JMSElton: “It will . …but it will be different … hopefully better but different”

Moto-Brock: “Why? Really?”

JMSElton: “We trust each other right?”

Moto-Brock: “Of course.”

JMSElton then sends Moto-Brock the photo.

Moto-Brock: “What is that?”

JMSElton: “This is me.”

Moto-Brock: “You are not fat ...... why would u say that I wouldn’t like u?”

JMSElton: “I didn’t say you wouldn’t recognize me … just that you might be surprised”

Moto-Brock: “U have a nice face.”

JMSElton: “You are so sweet. Thank you.”

JMSElton: “OK, let’s meet tomorrow at the driving range at Indian Canyon. Can you find that? 10am?”

JMSElton: “I’ll be driving a blue Lexus convertible. You’ll be in a Ram pickup?”

Moto-Brock: “And u look great, I’m kind of relieved.”

JMSElton: “Good. …that’s not really what I was worried about.”

Moto-Brock: “I thought maybe u were nervous for real reasons like u looked really bad or something”

JMSElton then sends Moto-Brock the link to Mayor Jim West’s Web page.

JMSElton: “Check this out, but please don’t tell anyone at all.”

Moto-Brock: “Huh? That’s you?”

JMSElton: “Does that change things alot?”

Moto-Brock: “Holy crap.”

JMSElton: “Shhhhhh”

Moto-Brock: “That is u? U r screwing with me aren’t u?”

JMSElton: “Shhhhhh. No I’m not.”

Moto-Brock: “You are who I’m applying with???????????????”

JMSElton: “See this is what I was afraid of. Now you won’t apply.”

Moto-Brock: “The heck I won’t!”

JMSElton: “Well please be careful ok?”

Moto-Brock: “Of course I will. ... I wasn’t sure I should because I didn’t think I’d get it and I didn’t wanna disappoint u.”

JMSElton: “Oh you were going to get it. Don’t worry about that.”

Moto-Brock: “Now some things u said make more sense.”

JMSElton: “Maybe so.”

Moto-Brock: “Like all the peeps you know. Wow, that is so cool.”

JMSElton: “Well it’s a part of my life I don’t share at all and is somewhat new to me.”

JMSElton: “And the last thing I want is some high school kid getting into trouble because of me. … I hope this isn’t too big of a responsibility for you.”

Moto-Brock: “No, I’m cool and it’s cool. Now I see why u get the press box for the Cougs!”

JMSElton: “Someday I may run for governor and this would be bad if you know what I mean.”

JMSElton then gives Moto-Brock a cell phone number that Mayor Jim West uses.

When he didn’t show up for golf, Moto-Brock sent an e-mail saying a relative was sick. West responded that “family always comes first. Always.”

After brief e-mail exchanges, Moto-Brock stopped communicating.

On April 28, he received one last e-mail from West, asking about the City Hall internship.

“You still interested?” the mayor asked.


© 2006 Leonard Witt