by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & n irresponsible news outlet swoops in, screws up the story and ruins a reputation. Now Steve Smith and the Spokesman-Review know how Jim West must have felt.
About 18 months after the Review argued that the former mayor was likely gay and likely a pedophile, they got their work double-checked last week on PBS's Frontline. The reaction from viewers who chose to write letters about the Nov. 14 program was unambiguous and harsh; the Review, the clear majority of letter writers judged, was wrong in the way it reported the story. Privacy still matters to people, and telling lies to get a story did not go over well among Frontline's viewers. Neither did conflating homosexuality with pedophilia, as some specifically noted.
Now the irony for Spokane is that, just as the derision and ridicule has subsided over having that "anti-gay gay mayor," the city is taking a whole new round of flogging over what one respondent on the Frontline Web site called "that rotten little newspaper."
The morning after the show aired, Review Editor Steve Smith wrote why he thought Frontline screwed up the story on his "News is a Conversation" blog. "...watchdog journalism that doesn't piss some people off isn't watchdogging anything," Smith wrote. "I am not at all concerned about the show's impact on the newspaper. We fought our battles last year and I think Spokane citizens and media observers already decided if they agree or disagree with our investigation. But the show really did a number on the community and that's a real shame...
"The dialogue we pursue on this blog and elsewhere helps readers understand complex and challenging newsroom decisions in a way that a 60-minute, New York-produced documentary cannot."
Smith is onto something there about the out-of-towners coming in with a certain predisposition to what they would find. In her "Producer's Notebook," Rachel Dretzin wrote: "When we made our first trip in August 2005, we expected to find a community largely hostile to gay rights efforts... Until recently, Spokane, with its depressed economy and deserted downtown, has been viewed as a backwater, a place to escape from."
And the city scenes on the program seemed to reflect that flattering assessment: trains chugging through town like it's Ohio; foggy cityscapes; the Downtower Motel, with its mood-setting missing neon letters.
Smith offered some valid criticisms of the show. Protest as he might, however, Smith may know even better than ever what West learned that morning in May: Once that first story comes out, it's very hard to undo the damage done.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & y feeling was that the show was extremely fair -- almost too fair at times. Immediately after watching it, I felt it was kind of a vanilla take on the whole controversy. But after reading some of the reaction, I realized how differently the story would play in Maryland or California, where all people knew about Jim West was perhaps what they heard Jay Leno say about him.
So I can see what the producers were after -- a very even-handed, you-make-the-call approach. You could argue that by ending the show with the fact that the FBI cleared West of any federal wrongdoing and that he passed away in July tilted the emotional balance to West. But the fact is, that is precisely how the story ended.
I was frustrated that they didn't call West more on the times he was vacillating on camera, seemingly calculating how to best minimize the political damage, as when he was asked whether it is appropriate for a 54-year-old man to date an 18-year-old of any gender. He gave no answer. But I was also frustrated that they didn't give more context to the controversial nature of hiring an outsider to go undercover and lie about his identity to bust the mayor. Still, in both cases, viewers could judge for themselves.
And I think Frontline was more than fair to the Review. They never mentioned the bizarre story from September about Deputy Mayor Jack Lynch, in which zero evidence of anything made the front page and led lots of local readers to wonder if we were in for the sequel to Jim West. Frontline also dropped two issues that were widely discussed in Spokane at the time; whether the mayor had run afoul of the paper's owners and why the paper endorsed West for office while they were investigating him. These examples seem to prove that Frontline, one of the most trusted names in American journalism, was not out to embarrass the Review.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & ut Review staff managed to embarrass themselves. First, one of the lead reporters on the story, Bill Morlin, told Frontline he couldn't pose as a 17-year-old on line to nab West, but he could hire someone else to do it. Coming from a newspaper that has spent the last year and a half lecturing everybody about ethics, it was a jaw-dropping moment. Even more odd was the reaction the next day, in which both Smith and Review counsel Duane Swinton wrote that even they didn't agree with Morlin. "This was one area where Morlin and I strongly disagreed (we still disagree)," wrote Smith. And, "I'm still bothered by the position that Bill took," wrote Swinton, on Smith's blog.
The Review also came off badly when Morlin was caught barking "Come clean with us, Jim!" on the audio tape of the interview the night before the story broke.
And finally, the end of the show featured the juxtaposition of West and the Review's editor on the night of the recall election. In a scene that would have fit right into an Arthur Miller play, West watched the election returns in a kitchen with what was left of his social circle. The filmmakers jump between that pathetic scene and the Review brain trust debating headlines for the next morning's paper. That's when Smith seemed to answer questions viewers may have had about whether the newspaper was acting as the prosecutor in the West case: "We won," he suggested as a potential headline.
Again, you can argue this juxtaposition was part of Frontline pushing your emotional buttons in West's direction. Perhaps. But it's also true that Frontline sent out its cameras that night, and those were the scenes they recorded.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & was interviewed for three hours for the show. I hate being on TV, and as I sat there I tried to choose my words carefully -- something I do better when I write. Everybody knows that TV people are always looking for the killer soundbite. (Apparently I didn't give them any; I was left on the cutting room floor.)
And this is where it gets sticky for the Review and its transparent newsroom initiative. On the one hand, you've got to hand it to them for giving Frontline so much access -- to Morlin, to the headline-writing session, to the audio tapes of the interview -- but on the other hand, their lack of guile hurt them. Ever the politician, West, I believe, was performing for the cameras. The Review was honest and open, and look what good it did them. You could warn staffers to be more careful, that the world is watching, but that's not genuine -- that's not transparency.
It's a real conundrum, and by the end of the day after the program aired, Smith was wondering, too.
"Do any of you see value in the Transparent Newsroom initiative?" he asked on his blog. "...following the Frontline piece, several in the newsroom are wondering if there is any real value in the effort."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & s the war between Jim West and the Spokesman-Review played out -- and continues to play out, even after West's death -- most local residents were left to wonder how it all reflected on the city. Fortunately, Frontline did include one person who represented the Spokane I want the world to see. You can wonder at the motives of Jim West to start attending church while he was fighting the recall election, but you won't wonder at all about the motives of Rev. Lonnie Mitchell, who welcomed West into his congregation.
While I don't share some of the views Rev. Mitchell offered on the program, all of Spokane should be proud he was included. Spokane's been weathering some harsh storms in recent years, and Rev. Mitchell proves that even in crazy times, some people manage to maintain their basic decency. n
You can watch the Frontline show, "A Hidden Life," on their Web site, www.pbs.org/frontline.