by Joel Smith
In the voluminous investigative report published by the Spokesman-Review last Thursday, Editor Steve Smith acknowledged that the paper hired a forensic computer expert to confirm Mayor Jim West's identity and presence in the chat rooms of the Web site Gay.com. To do this, the expert, a former federal agent, posed as a gay (or at least questioning) 18-year-old Spokane man and engaged a user believed to be West in a series of conversations over the course of several months.
The move paid off. The computer expert was able to positively identify West as the chat room denizen (alternately dubbed "Cobra82nd", "therightbi-guy" and "jmselton"). West later admitted to the paper, and to the public in a press conference last Thursday, that he had indeed "visited a gay chat line on the Internet and had relations with adult men." The admission laid the groundwork for the paper's contention that West used the trappings of his public office to lure young men, and that he may have done so using city computer equipment.
But the decision to hire an undercover proxy to sting the mayor has raised a few ethical questions. In a note published with the rest of Thursday's package, Smith wrote that "the seriousness of the allegations and the need for specific computer forensic skills overrode our general reluctance ... [to] use a fictional scenario in pursuit of a news story." But he adds, in a Seattle Times story published last Friday, "I think it's an industry issue, not an issue for our readers."
He's right about one thing. In the week since the story broke, the ethical questions around the Spokesman's reporting have lit up newsrooms throughout the region and across the country. Within days, stories began to appear in the Seattle Times and P-I and online industry magazines like Editor & amp; Publisher and the Columbia Journalism Review, questioning the Spokesman's methods.
In an Editor & amp; Publisher story released online Tuesday, editors from major dailies in Baltimore, Minneapolis, Boston and elsewhere unite in their uneasiness with the Spokesman's methods, some opining that "this is a form of undercover journalism that, thankfully, went out of vogue in the early 1980s" and "I don't permit deception; I would not allow it."
Earlier in the week, the Seattle Times quoted University of Minnesota media ethics prof Jane Kirtley as saying, of media deception, "I deplore it ... Journalists should be journalists ... It is not an appropriate role for journalists to be conducting sting operations."
But not everyone in the business is so adamantly opposed. Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for a story reminiscent of the West story, in which he discovered that former Oregon governor and Portland mayor Neil Goldschmidt sexually abused an under-age woman while in public office. He calls the Spokesman's methodology "creative and appropriate," though he acknowledges that the decision to use an undercover source shouldn't be taken lightly.
"It looks to me like they had a story that was absolutely in the public interest and they had sources that were good but not unimpeachable. And they had a time lapse and the question of 'What is he doing now?'" Jaquiss tells The Inlander. "I feel as if they were acting responsibly to try to determine what's happening today."
Columbia Journalism Review reporter Brian Montopoli, who interviewed Steve Smith for a story published on cjrdaily.org, says the paper's methods were "defensible to a degree" and that verifying that the chat room character was indeed West before publishing it as a rumor was, actually, in the mayor's best interests. However, whereas many media outlets praise the Spokesman's transparency in publishing the transcripts they obtained through their computer consultant, Montopoli finds the move distasteful.
"The mayor was not under the impression that he was speaking on the record for the purpose of publication," he says. "I thought it was unethical for them to print that ... And though it was interesting, and it certainly makes for good reading, it was inappropriate."
Last weekend Portland's Oregonian and Tacoma's News Tribune editorialized on the Spokesman's methodology. The latter's David Zeeck praised the paper's thorough reporting but opined that subterfuge was an unnecessary risk.
"Without the expert's ruse, they already had their 53-year-old mayor trolling for sex online and admitting to have consensual sex with an 18-year-old he met through a chat room," he writes. "I see no reason to concoct a second story." He adds, "The expert established West's identity, but then went further, running right up to the line of entrapping West."
Zeeck concludes, "A little more restraint -- and a little more reporting -- would have made the stories more pointed and more powerful."
Oregonian public editor Michael Arrieta-Walden was kinder in his assessment, praising the paper's "dogged reporting" and complete transparency. He notes that creating a fictional character "crossed a line that journalists should rarely, if ever, pass" but then adds that "what is striking is that readers don't question the methods," passing on (like seemingly every media outlet) editor Steve Smith's quote that reader response has run "at least 8 to 1 in favor of the newspaper."
Arrieta-Walden's comments may have been true at the time of his story's publication, but a quick look at the Spokesman's comment area today yields a whole slew of questions from readers.
One poster, "disgustedjournalist," notes, "In the journalism world, misrepresenting yourself is every bit as bad as plagiarism, accepting money from the government and simply making stuff up ... I think the SR should be crossing their fingers that this doesn't blow up in their faces."
Another reader, called "Distant observer," says, "I hope you folks applauding the SR realize that the SR didn't merely report the news here: they CREATED it. They hired a guy to lie to an individual. Eventually they set a trap for the mayor and he walked into it."
And the newspaper's decision to hire an incognito computer expert isn't the only subject of ethical scrutiny, in the online comment area or elsewhere. Many are questioning the Spokesman's decision to endorse West as Spokane's mayor in 2003 while it was simultaneously investigating allegations of abuse against him. They also question the timing of the big story, just weeks after the final settlement of the River Park Square case.
Smith tells The Inlander, "We didn't have anything [substantial] to report until March and early April," saying that the investigation was nothing but "smoke" at the time of the mayoral endorsement and that he recused himself from the endorsement that year.
While that satisfies many Spokesman readers (and there are indeed innumerable posters to the paper's Web site who applaud its hard work), others remain uneasy, calling the investigation "overzealous" and accusing Smith of "basing his journalism on lies."
And that uneasiness among readers could prove more troublesome for the Spokesman down the line, says Aly Colon, a media ethics teacher with the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism think tank. While Colon doesn't disagree with the paper's methodology, he acknowledges the inherent risks.
"The fundamental challenge that the Spokesman-Review faces with its undercover, fictional, non-journalistic approach is that they are attempting to convince their readers of a truth by engaging in a lie," he says, adding that it's not unheard of. "[But] it's something that raises questions and causes [readers] to wonder, 'If you engaged in a deception in the obtaining of the information, would you be willing to engage in deception in the reporting of information?'"
Publication date: 05/12/05