The Spokesman-Review is publishing a great investigative series and performing a public service, but it finds itself having to explain its own behavior as well. Was it justified in hiring a computer consultant to catch Mayor Jim West in the act of making dates with young men? And did the newspaper take into account West's usefulness in settling River Park Square disputes in deciding when to begin publishing the investigative report on him?
Personally, I have no qualms on either score.
It is true that entrapment is the diciest of ethical questions in journalism. It involves both deception and injecting reporters into the events they report.
But the Review did not use entrapment to create the story, only to get final confirmation. They had lots of evidence of West's double life, enough for an ordinary story. But this is a colossal story. If anything the Review claimed to be true was not in fact true, it risked a lawsuit of tens of millions of dollars (not to mention irreparably slandering West). Given those stakes, the final check of the computer consultant makes sense to me.
It never occurred to me to connect the stories about West with River Park Square until I received an e-mail circulated in the local journalism community by Professor David Demers of the Washington State University School of Communications.
"Can someone explain to me," Demers wrote, "why the Spokesman-Review endorsed Jim West for mayor when they had been investigating sexual allegations against him for nearly 18 months? Can someone convince me that it had nothing to do with Jim West's moderate position on River Park Square?"
I thought that far-fetched. Then my phone rang and a long-time Spokane political figure, a level-headed moderate who a few years ago adamantly defended River Park Square to me, asked if I thought Jim West was paying the penalty for hard negotiating on River Park Square.
I related these strange imaginings to my colleague, Professor Steve Blewett. He told me that he had been golfing the day before with a "rock-ribbed' member of the Spokane establishment. That man said it struck him as suspicious that the series against West began exactly when the River Park Square was settled.
Just a minute, now. I'm the one always yammering about the Spokesman-Review's sins. If everyone else sees a conspiracy, how come I couldn't see it?
It finally dawned on me what was going on. "Credibility" seems like an abstraction. What I was seeing here was an X-ray of the very real role it plays in journalism.
When the West stories appeared a month ago, my eye went straight to the names on them. I have known Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele, and their work, for more than 30 years. If Morlin, one of the premier investigative reporters in the Northwest, thought there needed to be confirmation of West's Internet activity via a phony teenager, I am inclined to defer to his judgment.
As for the timing of the stories, Morlin and Steele simply would not put up with any nonsense about arranging publication according to a publisher's business desires. Case closed, as far as I was concerned.
Other readers, however, viewed the stories as products of an institution, the same institution that told us about River Park Square. From that perspective, you would have to be rather stupid, given their record, to ignore the possibility that business might intrude on reporting.
Editor Steve Smith has not done much to separate the paper from its River Park Square reputation. He writes editorials that sound full of remorse but end up suggesting the solution is for us all not to remember River Park Square. It's pretty much the approach of former editor Chris Peck, except that Peck called people who questioned him "naysayers," while Smith calls them "wacky."
Listen to this from Smith's May 8 editorial on the ethical questions: "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 coverage was driven by its owners' agenda."
Could you run that by again? Smith admits the Review has a credibility problem -- nevertheless, people who doubt the paper's credibility are "conspiracy theorists"?
It is pointless for Smith to keep writing such arguments. Credibility is not a debating point. It is a memory. Spokesman-Review readers remember that they didn't hear the whole truth on River Park Square. That now forms the background of everything they read in the Review.
Smith could do something about the River Park Square rap if he would belatedly print the whole story. The Review has claimed to do so numerous times, but every time their stories bog down in a prissy regard for the feelings of those upstairs. Why was the Walker Report ridiculously off target, causing the city to get sucked into the deal? It is a cosmic mystery no one could decipher! Betsy Cowles' role? Who's Betsy Cowles?
The Spokesman-Review stories on Jim West are, in my opinion, great journalism. I predict that they will be a contender for a Pulitzer Prize.
But they were bound to be an object of suspicion in Spokane regardless of their quality. Every story in the Spokesman-Review will be regarded warily for a long, long time.
William Stimson teaches a course in journalism law and ethics at Eastern Washington University.
Publication date: 06/02/05