Steve Smith is the editor of the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington. Yesterday, the newspaper published a package detailing the results of its three-year investigation into what it called the “secret life” of Spokane mayor Jim West. The package detailed allegations of child molestation against the mayor, as well as allegations that he developed relationships with young men he met in gay.com chat rooms. The Spokesman-Review reported that West had sex with at least one young man he met there. He also, the newspaper wrote, offered gifts and an internship in the mayor’s office to a computer expert hired by the Spokesman-Review to masquerade as a high school student in chat rooms frequented by the mayor.
Brian Montopoli: You hired a forensic computer expert to track the mayor online, and eventually had him engage the mayor in a chat room under a false identity. I know that you spoke to a number of people before you made the decision to take that step, including journalism ethicists, and they told you it was the right thing to do. But can you talk about why, personally, you felt such an action was justified?
Steve Smith: Can I offer a clarification? Ethicists never say it’s the right thing to do. They were generally supportive — [they] understood and accepted our motivation — but they’re like shrinks. You have a lot of, “What do you think?” Nevertheless, we did get support from those we consulted with in advance.
Why did we think it was the right thing to do? There were two reasons. The first, of course, was the technical expertise. Online has really changed a lot of things, and when people engage in activities that in the past might have occurred in a different kind of public environment, a different kind of community, there were methodologies for tracking, monitoring, interviewing, intercepting, all the journalistic tools with which we’re familiar. Online is a whole new ballgame. And understanding how online operates, how chat rooms operate, how instant messaging operates, and how people can conduct aspects of their lives in cyberspace requires maybe a little bit more sophistication than traditional ink and paper journalists have at the moment. … We absolutely needed the technical expertise to get behind the screen names and identify, without any doubt, the individual behind the screen names we were monitoring.
BM: And then, once you did that, you made the decision to have the computer expert assume the false identity.
SS: We came to understand that the way these chat rooms operate, we needed to have an identification, we needed to have a screen name. And that the only thing we could do if we wanted to create the interchanges necessary to track [him] — because you have to have dialogue, you have to have exchanges, emails, instant messages, to technically track the communication — was to be a person. And we made that decision with great reluctance, because it is a step that journalists have to ethically question. But we were convinced that the stakes were high, that the allegations from real individuals, who had been sources, were serious enough to warrant extraordinary steps. That we were dealing with potential misuse of public office and even children being at risk.
BM: I get that you need to engage them to find out who they are. But you didn’t necessarily have to then engage them to the extent you did and to even print in the paper some of what was in the [subsequent] dialogues.
SS: That’s absolutely a questionable and arguable position. Somebody else might have decided to cut the dialogue off at a different level. But we felt as we progressed — and we monitored this closely every step of the way — that what we were learning about the mayor’s means of operation, his methodology, his grooming behavior, was significant. The initial identity was that of a 17-year-old high school student who in the course of the dialogue became 18 years old. And the significance there is that the mayor initiated the contact. The mayor scoped out the profile, and initiated the contact with somebody he believed was a 17-year-old high school student.
The conversation escalated sexually at the point in time when the mayor believed this young man turned 18, although he still believed him to be a high school student. And we felt that understanding that escalation was critical to understanding the story.