By: Graham Webster
Near the end of the three-year investigation that led to a front-page story today alleging sexual misconduct by the mayor of Spokane, Wash., the Spokesman-Review there took an unusual step — hiring a “forensic computer expert” to verify Mayor Jim West’s online activities by posing as a young man.
“We had allegations of Internet relationships on the record, one real-life individual, and we were in pursuit of other real-life individuals,” Editor Steven A. Smith told E&P Thursday afternoon. “We did not feel that, on the basis of their accounts only, we could publish that assertion. We felt strongly that we needed independent, irrefutable confirmation.”
The paper’s package of stories focused both on charges that West molested two boys many years ago and that he allegedly abused his position today in dealings with young men he met on the Web. (See earlier E&P story.)
From a technical standpoint, Smith said, no one on the Spokesman-Review staff had the expertise to record conversations and track IP addresses, so they hired the expert, a former U.S. Customs Service agent. Shortly after the professional joined the investigation, it became clear that they would have to create a fictional scenario, where the expert would pose as a young man who would be appealing to the mayor.
“Clearly this is, from an ethical standpoint, a step we would take with great reluctance,” Smith said. But the fact that the paper was dealing with the potential misuse of a public office and allegations involving actions that could put young people at risk led Smith to go forward with the plan. “On that basis we believed that extraordinary step was justifiable,” he said.
“We personally discussed it with other folks in our business. I talked with friends and colleagues in our business. I discussed it with an academic. We even consulted, late in the process, journalism ethicists,” Smith told E&P. Noting that some might disagree, Smith said everyone consulted “believed that in the balancing act we had asked the right questions and had reached the right conclusions.”
Even as the reporting team moved forward, Smith said the paper kept open the possibility that they would not use the product of the fictional scenario. Meanwhile, the number of people aware of the investigation was kept to six, including two reporters and a photographer. “If information that was not confirmed had leaked out and done damage, that would have been unconscionable,” Smith said.
To keep the secret, Bill Morlin, the paper’s lead investigative reporter, and Karen Dorn Steele, another investigative reporter assigned to the story, were given private offices outside the newsroom.
The paper broke its secrecy Tuesday, when it contacted West for comment. In a similar case last year, the Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., almost lost its scoop when it informed former Oregon governor Neil Goldschmidt of its plans to release a story on his sexual misconduct in the 1970s. The weekly gave Goldschmidt one week to comment, and he went straight to the Oregonian and confessed. The Week ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize this year for its reporting.
Smith was aware of the Oregon incident when they gave West two days’ notice. “We made the determination here that we were not going to be stampeded into publication by competition, and not going to be stampeded into publication by the mayor,” Smith noted.
The paper had interviewed West in 2003 as part of its initial probe into a related abuse story, so the current scandal “was not nearly as out of the blue as, say, the Goldschmidt story was in Portland.”
Smith said the paper had already heard today from about 100 people by phone or e-mail, and 6 had cancelled their subscriptions in protest. Smith, whose paper endorsed West repeatedly over the years, said he has been a good mayor: “After many, many years of local political chaos, Jim West as a politician and as mayor brought order, civility, and an effective management style to city hall that has been extremely effective.”