Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/05/11/steve_smith.html


May 11, 2005

Spokane Mayor Sex Scandal: Would You Give Paper an Award?

The Spokesman-Review's investigation revealed that Spokane Mayor Jim West was trolling for male teenage sex on the Internet. Ethically flawed or good journalism? In an IM Interview, guest blogger Leonard Witt of PJNet gets Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith's side of the story.

Key Quote from Interview:

I think our credibility with journalists is hurt. But I think this may be a sign of how disconnected some editors are from the sensibilities of citizens who want their newspapers to watchdog government and do it aggressively.

Leonard Witt: Hi Steve. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview for PressThink and my regular site, the PJNet. Letís get right into what has journalists and people interested in journalism ethics all abuzz: Your use of a forensic computer expert to pose as a 17-year-old boy to find out if Mayor West was trolling online for sex with teenage men.

Here is what Tom Detzel, who oversees investigative projects at the Oregonian, was quoted as saying, “It’s a pity they had to undercut the credibility of an otherwise fair and relevant report by setting up a phony identity and luring West into a trap. This is not anything I could ever imagine condoning here. You can’t lie to get to the truth, then expect someone to respect or believe your version of the truth.”

So whatís your reaction?

Steve Smith: Well, I respect Tom and his work. But he never talked to us and really has no idea what he’s talking about. We did not set a trap. And our procedure actually added credibility to our work by confirming otherwise unconfirmable information. Absent our efforts, the entire piece of the project dealing with Internet activity might never have been publishable and we would not have uncovered aspects of the mayor’s life that might actually result in criminal prosecution.

I can walk through the decision-making process and rationale if you would like.

Witt: Sure, why not?

Smith: First, we went into the investigation trying to find individuals who might have been abuse victims 25 years ago. In the course of that investigation, our reporter was told by a source that he should talk to a young man, only 18, who had just told friends he had met Mayor West online and had a date with him leading to consensual sex.

That was a shocking tip and totally unexpected. This was last fall, late October, early November. Bill Morlin subsequently interviewed the young man who told us of meeting a man on Gay.com with the screen name of Cobra82nd. They chatted periodically and eventually decided to meet. The young man was 18. They met, went to dinner (with the kid paying) and then drove out to a local country club where they had sex in the man’s Lexus.

The young man had no additional proof. He said during the tryst the man identified himself as West. But the young man had not recognized him when they met. He had no documentation as the online correspondence had long since gone into the ether.

We had the allegation, which included indications that offers of gifts and perks were involved. But nothing we could prove. Even when we much later found a second young man, we had no proof.

It was my decision that we would not publish anything until we knew without any doubt that the man on the Internet was Jim West. Remember our source was only 18, hadn’t recognized the mayor when they met and had no records. I wasn’t going to charge one of the state’s most powerful politicians without absolute proof. You can’t shoot with a circumstantial popgun in this case.

We had multiple choices. We could just go ask the mayor. Not very smart. A simple denial and then he drops off the website and we’re done. We could ask the young man to go back in…which he did once. But the communication was inconclusive. And he didn’t want any more contact with Cobra82nd. We could find another young man, a real person, but that seemed ethically suspect, maybe more so.

I heard one of the academic ethicists say we had enough because we had a real person and we could hang a story on that. But I think that’s the perspective of someone who doesnít work in the real world. We needed proof.

The decision to hire the consultant was mine. He is a skilled Internet specialist and tracker. His assignment was to go into Gay.com and ascertain the identity of Cobra82nd (and RightBiGuy later). We hoped he could do this without chatting, but by lurking in the background and tracking computer and IP information.

He insisted that he (not us) would go to the police first if he had information about criminal activity. We agreed. He did not know who we suspected was behind the names. We wanted to see what he found out.

We learned quickly that because of Gay.com firewalls, the technical tracking was not going to work, at least initially. Remember, those of us on the small and closed team dealing with this didnít yet understand how these sites operate. We learned that Gay.com has good filters that are built to prevent third-party tracking. Our only remaining option was to go in as an individual and see what would happen. We wanted to know who the individual was and we wanted to know if he would approach underage children. Our guy went in as a 17-year-old with a birthday coming up. He dropped in on some chat rooms and waited.

From there, all activity was initiated by the mayor, as per our consultant’s instructions. He made contact. He initiated sex talk with the 17-year-old persona. He offered gifts for the kidís birthday, he initiated sex, etc.

Throughout all of this we still didn’t have proof. If you read the transcripts, you’ll see the circumstantial case building. But we did not have conclusive proof. I wanted it nailed cold. The conversations happened in the way the mayor has done this before — we initiated no new or unusual behavior from him. And they built trust.

In early April, April 8 and 9 we finally got the proof. First the mayor agreed to a physical meeting and he showed up. We were there. That was what I needed. Secondly, he arranged the meeting through this medium, AOL Instant Messenger, outside Gay.com firewalls. That gave us the IP address, not immediately useful but good to have in the event of litigation.

At that point, we terminated our work on Gay.com. This is an area of misunderstanding in the industry. And no one seems willing to just pick up the phone and ask. They suggest we knew this was the mayor and stayed online, presumably to pick up titillating stuff. Not the case. All we wanted to know was, is this the mayor and what is he doing out there and is it consistent with what we’ve been told.

As a result of this, the mayor admitted all aspects of the Internet portion of our package. That would not have happened if we had left one little crack in the door. That’s it,.

Witt: Okay. So letís put the journalists and ethicists aside for a moment. Do you think a story like this, and the way you did it, builds or hurts the publicís trust in the media?

Smith: Based on what we’re hearing from readers, it has built trust in our readers and Spokane citizens. They know what we wrote is true. Feedback is running 10- maybe 15-1 in our favor and those who don’t like what we did rarely reference the computer expert.

I think our credibility with journalists is hurt. But I think this may be a sign of how disconnected some editors are from the sensibilities of citizens who want their newspapers to watchdog government and do it aggressively.

Let me add quickly. I think the knee jerk reaction of journalists is “we don’t lie.” I agree. But all of our ethics codes, SPJ for example, and even the Poynter’s ethics specialists, allow for exceptions when there is no other way to get the info and the story is important enough. The feds are going after our mayor on official corruption charges as a result of our work.

Witt: You probably saw this coming because you wrote in a letter to Romenesko that by using the forensic computer guy that, ďWe knew it would kill any chance our series would garner awards.Ē If your story matched at least some ethical codes, why would doing the story the way you did, prohibit you from winning any awards?

Smith: Well, there is a history of this. And I knew we would be criticized, and vigorously, by the very people who hand out those awards.

Look at the quick knee-jerk reaction. I find it hard to believe that people will back off that, even if they take the time to listen to our explanations. But let me emphasize, it doesn’t matter. People who know me, know it’s always about the journalism and our responsibility to our community and to its citizens. The prizes, if they come, belong to two of the finest investigative reporters Iíve ever known. I’m just the suit. They are the folks who have done the heavy lifting along with our city editor.

Witt: Tell me a little about the kind of resources that went into building this story in terms of the cost in time, personnel and money?

Smith: Well, the longest part of the investigation was conducted by reporter Bill Morlin. It took him just shy of two years to move from his 2003 series on abuse in the Sheriff’s department to this story. He worked on it steadily, sometimes doing other things. Classic shoe leather stuff. Records, phone calls, blind quests for unnamed victims living on the street. Amazing work to produce our two named, on the record sources of abuse allegations.

Costs started building with the Internet investigation. The consultant didnít come cheap. The scope of the story started growing earlier this year and that’s when we brought in Karen Dorn Steele. She handled the legislative angles and critical backgrounding while chased down more ghosts.

We’ve spent a fortune on our lawyer(s). And there is the travel, time and newshole. It’s gonna be a big blow to my newsroom budget. My publisher has yet to raise that issue. The advantage of a family ownership.

Witt: Who is your publisher any how, and what was his or her reaction, while all of this was happening?

Smith: My publisher is William Stacey Cowles. He is the fifth generation Cowles to own and publish the newspaper (going back to 1880s). He has worked closely with the mayor on critical economic development issues, served with him on boards and encountered him countless times in social settings. Yet he has been thoroughly supportive from the start. Has not gotten in the way. Has stood by us steadily. I’m proud of him.

Witt: So in this era of consolidation, corporate ownership, dwindling resources for newsrooms, migration to citizen journalism and even talk of a death spiral for newspapers, whatís to become of this kind of journalism?

Smith: I have to say this project probably would have been undertaken in most mainstream newsrooms. Given what we knew, I don’t know of any editor who would have walked away. It’s tough. But this is what we’re here for and I don’t think my colleagues would have been deterred. I have more faith in them, maybe, than they have in me.

Witt: I noticed you have expended an incredible amount of time answering questions from the public and from other members of the news media about this story. Would you have done so 10 years ago or is this because of the super-charged political atmosphere and all the cries of bias and the public polls that show distrust in journalists?

Smith: Well, first, I said “yes” to the first few media requests because they came in and it seemed that journalists should respond when they can. This was still building late last week and there was only marginal interest. The Sunday New York Times changed that and we suddenly had a frenzy on our hands.

We decided to back way off on the national stuff…doing the tabloid talk shows, the cable debate shows, there seems no percentage in that. We’ve agreed to most NPR stuff because I respect them. And I’ve agreed to some network news stuff, but so far not the magazine shows. We’re trying to be selective. We’ve turned down 30 or 40 shows. Name it and they have called.

That wasn’t expected, and we didn’t have a mechanism in place to handle that. So we were caught short. The downside of saying no is we leave the field open to everyone else to frame the story and we’re not there to tell what really happened. But I don’t have an alternative, really.

Much of what you see with me is recycled from a couple of interviews and from local stuff I gave to the local TVs. It’s showing up everywhere.

And the only reason youíre seeing me is my two reporters steadfastly refuse to do TV (security reasons) and the managing editor and city editor will do radio, but not TV. This is a lesson learned. God forbid we find ourselves drowning in TV producers again, but next time we’ll bring in someone early to the project and prep them to do all the media stuff.

Witt: We feel honored then. I know you have to run, but I want to revisit this one statement you made about other editors: “I have more faith in them, maybe, than they have in me.” Are you saying doing this story could actually hurt your journalism career?

Smith: Well, I think it probably could. I heard an academic on MSNBC earlier equate this with the plagiarism and fabrication scandals. That’s tough company and unfair. But I think we all realize that, given the incredible passion weíre seeing, and anger, that this could hurt. But then, I’m an old fart. I will be retiring in 10 years or so and don’t aspire to much more. I have come to love this community and figure I’ll stick around if they’ll have me.

Let me just say this, and I don’t mean for it to be self-serving. But we went into this with our eyes wide open. We had a public figure, our mayor, one of the most powerful men in the state, potentially preying on youngsters, apparently trading on his office for sex, possibly involved in an abuse ring in the past. It took a lot of guts to go after this story. And maybe my colleagues, who have been a little gun shy in the last couple of years, should think about that. Michael Jackson or Mayor West. Garden clubs or Mayor West. My reporters are brave folk. My editors are bold. My publisher is steadfast. That ainít bad.
_____________________________________________________________________

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links compiled by guest blogger Leonard Witt…

Tim in Comments says:

With reporting like this newspapers would not be losing circulation.
This is a niche that the local newspaper can fill that no other organization can match. If they do this in a cost effective manner they will succeed.

Jeff Jarvis mostly thinks the Spokesman-Review was wrong, writing in part:

In this age of transparency, acting like someone you’re not and lying is not the way to get the news.
Imagine if every blogger out there tried to run a sting operation on anyone else and published it on the internet. It’s wrong and it’s dangerous.

He, as does The New York Times code of ethics, which is generally against false identities, says it is okay for restaurant reviewers. Finally Jarvis writes:

The lines get a bit fuzzy. But I do believe that entrapment, deception, and lying are not the best ways to get the news.

Witt note: The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is frequently mentioned by Smith in his newspaper’s defense, before I get back to the right, wrong or maybe arguments I want to post exactly what it says:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story

And here is a whole plethora of journalism codes of ethics.

Editor & Publisher has its own plethora of editors commenting about the Spokane story, echoing this statement:

“I donít permit deception; I would not allow it,” said Amanda Bennett, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We go into reporting in a straighter way. We are not private investigators, we are journalists. Undercover is a method of the past.”

Or this statement:

“We have a rule against that, and it would take extreme circumstances to break the rule,” said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post. “But I cannot foresee them. It is not something we have done in my memory.”

Well, what do you think?

Dan Irving making a comment at Jarvis’s Buzzmachine thinks:

In this particular case: If the reporter/s just wanted to out a gay mayor then this was a pretty smarmy way to do it. Being gay may be a political landmind but it is in no way against the law.
On the other hand if they had some idea that he was both gay and had a history of pedophelia then a sting operation would be totally above board in my opinion. It would be like setting up a honeypot to trap hackers. It isn’t unethical - the mayor went looking and got caught. It could just have well been a police sting operation he stumbled into. See Operation Pin.

Witt Note: Interesting stuff, this ethics. Want to know more? Turn to the Poynter’s Media Ethics Bibliography.

Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, joins the discussion in our comment section taking Steve Smith’s side saying:

This is public service journalism at its best.
And as for the supposed ethical issues — so what if, as reported by Editor & Publisher, the editors in Philadelphia and Indianapolis piously say they wouldn’t have taken the measures that Smith took to make his story airtight ?
All that tells me is that if Jim West, or any other Internet predator, was mayor of Philadelphia or Indianapolis, he’d probably be home free. What exactly is Steve Smith supposed to be guilty of ? Having the prudence and caution to hire an expert to ascertain the mayor’s identity before the Spokesman-Review went into print ?
Where I come from, we don’t call that entrapment; we call it responsible journalism.

John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record, joins the discussion at his blog under the headline “Never Say Never.” Writing of Steve Smith, he says in part:

He’s dead on when he suggests a disconnect between citizens and editors on this issue.
We don’t go undercover or lie to get stories either, but I think Julia Wallace of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has it right when she told Editor & Publisher that she hadn’t done it before, but could envision a time when it might be necessary. “You would have to be totally transparent about it. The question is when are you being unclear, and when are you being deceptive?”

Romenesko points us to even more discussions as the matter continues to be debated. Should Smith be getting more support from editors?

Editor Steve Smith on the Spokesman-Review having a liberal bias:

Just for those convinced the paper “outed” a conservative Republican and that this is somehow a liberal paper —- for what it’s worth, in the 2004 election, our editorial board endorsed Bush (the only major paper in the state), George Nethercutt, conservative Republican for U.S. Senate, and Dino Rossi, the just-that-close Republican candidate for governor. While the paper did not support many of Jim West’s social issues stands, it did endorse him in every election in memory. Folks in Spokane would be hysterical hearing someone call us a liberal rag.

Jeff Jarvis after looking at the pelthora of ethics codes said maybe we should consolidate them all down to Don’t lie. Don’t sell out, and Andrew Krucoff in a comment at Jeff’s site weighed in for individual codes, and I quote in full:

A local newspaper (or any for that matter) does not have to answer to your, my, an academic’s, out of touch old school editor’s, or any organization’s code of ethics other than the ones they’ve determined and created for themselves that are in the best interests of serving the welfare of their readership. These are decisions for each newspaper to make and they wouldn’t be around for very long if their code of ethics was that far out-of-whack with their constituents or illegal, obviously.
Of course, you don’t have to dig deep into these institutional prescribed codes, like ASNE’s, to find total justication for what the Spokane paper did: “The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government.” Sounds about right to me.
Ultimately, a newspaper need only answer to its readers and in this case there is overwhelming support for the paper from Spokane citizens. That’s not “bad journalism” that’s just good public service journalism. They’re damn lucky none of those big city editors or academics who are so short-sighted and arrogant to call this “bad for journalism” are not the editor of their newspaper.
I think Jay Rosen said it best: “The case does not lend itself to “rules.” What it requires instead is judgment, and that holds for we critics and observers, too.”
Selling-out is betraying your values and going against what you know is right. Kudos to Steve Smith for not doing that while serving in the best interests of Spokane citizens.

Sisyphus in comments points us to an AEJMC paper Undercover Reporting, Hidden Cameras and the Ethical Decision-Making Process: A Refinement

Anna in comments asks:

How can we find out whether there’s a consensus within the profession as to how the standards (i.e. code of ethics) should actually be applied, in a standardized set of cases?
And if there is no consensus, of what use are the standards?

Posted by Leonard Witt at May 11, 2005 12:01 AM