Spokane Undercover

By: Greg Mitchell

If you’ve been visiting our site the past few days, you probably noticed that we’ve covered, from the start, the sensational probe by The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., that caused the city’s mayor, Jim West, to take a leave of absence this week. After months of research, the newspaper published allegations that the mayor had sexually abused minors in the past, had more recently misused his official position in sex-related activities, and other charges.

Earlier this week, E&P’s Joe Strupp talked to about ten top editors at major newspapers around the country. To his surprise, he found that each one expressed serious questions about the Spokane paper’s use of an outside computer expert, who adopted a fictional name and posed as a 17-year-old, to converse with West in a gay chat room. Most said they would rule out such a tactic at their papers.

Some journalism ethicists support the paper, however, and this week, in an online chat with readers of the Spokesman-Review, its editor, Steve Smith, strongly defended his controversial decision. “I am fully at peace with the work we’ve done,” Smith said. “We’re doing our job.”

What follows are some excerpts from the transcript of that chat. If you would like to join in the discussion — via E&P — send me your comments, at gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com

Asked if, journalistically, the end justified the means in this case, Smith replied: “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.”

Asked about comments that the paper had undercut its credibility by lying to get to the truth, Smith said: “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.

“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.”

Asked by another reader to contrast his paper hiring 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,” Smith replied: “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. 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.”

Another reader asked this pointed question: “Having now validated the practice in Eastern Washington, what prevents similar use by other private parties? For example, the Review’s enemies 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. Or 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.”

Smith replied: “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.'”

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