Steve Smith on Exposing a Mayor

Steve Smith

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 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.

BM: There are two separate but related stories here: the alleged child molestation, and the mayor’s Internet-based relationships with young men. Regarding the latter, you cite two sources who are both anonymous, one of whom said he had consensual sex with the mayor. Was your decision to pursue this false identity angle partially because you had two sources who were not on the record and you wanted to make sure that you were correct?

SS: First of all, they’re certainly on the record. We’re withholding their names from publication to protect their privacy because they are 18 years old, and they are gay, and their families don’t know. The key source in this case is identifiable in the event of litigation. So it’s a qualified confidentiality. But no, that really wasn’t a factor. Even if we had them by name, the allegation was spurious enough that it required additional investigation. And because of the transitory nature of Internet communication, there was really no backup documentation to support the scenario they described. We did have, and have published online, some subsequent dialogues between one of our 18-year-olds and the mayor that occurred after the young man had talked to us. But that was not sufficient to tell us that yes, these events happened and that contextually they make sense, and that this person is, in fact, the mayor. All we have is this individual’s word. So we felt an absolutely compelling need to confirm this beyond a question of a doubt before publication. And it wouldn’t have made any difference if we’d been able to use this young man’s name or not.

BM: Have you ever had a situation like this, or is this the first time you’ve had — I know it wasn’t a reporter, but a representative of the paper falsely representing themselves?

SS: This is my thirty-fourth year as a professional journalist. I’ve been a senior editor since the mid-1980s. This is the first time in my career that I’ve been in a circumstance that involved this sort of scenario. As an editor, it’s the first time I’ve had to make this call.

BM: If it weren’t for the hypocrisy angle here — the mayor has apparently taken positions that supported anti-gay legislation — would you have gone about this differently? Because otherwise you’re looking at something here that I think a lot of people would find inappropriate, but some people would say, “You’re looking at a 54-year-old man having consensual sex with a legal teenager, which is obviously inappropriate, but is a personal matter.”

SS: Certainly, I understand that. We believe otherwise. The key issue here — and the mayor acknowledges this, though he draws a different conclusion than we do — but he acknowledges that he’s offered benefits to individuals he’s contacted online. He’s offered gifts, personal favors, introductions, scholarships, and, in the case of our fictional student, an internship in his own office, in return for sexual favors. In our view, that is a misuse of office. It transcends private conduct and moves it squarely into the arena of official conduct, and it warrants investigation and publication.

The mayor is, as you might expect — and he’s quoted in our story as saying this — [thinks] that this is private behavior and that the offering of gifts and benefits, up to and including jobs in his office, does not constitute inappropriate conduct. In the end, citizens will have to decide how they fell about that.

BM: I can only imagine what it was like to go talk to the mayor and confront him with this stuff, and tell him, “Hey, we have this fake identity, we have all this information about you.” Was he uncomfortable? Were you?

SS: Well, I was not there for 99 percent of the interview. We did not want to feel that we were overwhelming the mayor. I met him in the interview room, and thanked him for coming, and shook his hand, and said that we appreciated his willingness to chat with us about something so important. He was calm. Nervous, but not agitated. And he was businesslike.

The interview was two reporters and a photographer. The mayor asked that we not take pictures, and so the photographer stayed in the room but did not shoot photographs; we honored that request. It lasted almost two hours. It was recorded. We have since posted the entire transcript of the interview online, because we want readers to judge for themselves the give-and-take between the reporters and the mayor.

The reporters in the room tell me that the mayor was progressively uncomfortable. He never lost his temper. His agitation never got the better of him. He frequently paused to gather his thoughts. He was surprised by some of what we knew. He acknowledged readily the online issues. He denied flatly the allegations of molestation in his past. And I think our story reflected all of that.

BM: What repercussions are you expecting from this? What’s happened so far?

SS: That’s a good question. And, except for what’s transpired, I don’t have a clue. We, of course, wondered for days and speculated what the repercussions might be, and finally decided that all we could do is print our story and our follow-ups and let events take their course.

The mayor [yesterday] issued a statement, which is just a few paragraphs long. He presented it in a briefing with the press but took no questions. … He issued an email to city hall staff and department heads apologizing for his conduct but vowing to continue in office. He resigned from the Boy Scout executive board in our region. And now we’re waiting to see the political ramifications.

BM: Have you heard from a lot of readers?

SS: We’ve heard from hundreds. We created multiple ways for people to reach us. All of the principals including myself have our phone numbers and email addresses in the paper and online. But we also created a special online forum. We created an email hotline and a telephone hotline for comments and tips. Last I checked, insofar as public opinion is concerned, we’re running overwhelmingly — ten to one, fifteen to one — in favor of our reporting and the work that we’ve done. There are some people who believe that we have invaded the mayor’s privacy, or that we’re dredging up old allegations. And he has been an effective mayor, and there are people who are concerned we may be costing the city an effective leader. But overwhelmingly, I think the community appreciates knowing something today that they didn’t know before.

BM: This whole package obviously has a huge impact on the mayor’s life. You’ve explained why you and the paper felt it was justified. I’m just curious if you have mixed feelings.

SS: Oh, I’m sick to my stomach. And I think I can speak for the reporters and the editors who’ve been involved with this for some period of time. Reporters and editors involved in the sex abuse priest stories around the country I think can probably empathize with our feelings. If you listen to the interviews with our victims, they bring you to tears — damaged people whose lives have been irrevocably harmed.

If you talk to the mayor, in terms of his public persona — [he is] a quiet man. A man I personally liked quite a bit, and … who brought order to what was a chaotic municipal government. A great deal of respect. There’s no satisfaction in these stories. And the last few weeks, as we’ve been moving to publication, every one of us has had to step back and search pretty deeply about what we were doing and why we were doing it.

Earlier this week, I wanted everyone on the team to verbally commit to the story in terms of, “Are we doing the right thing? Is this journalistically defensible? Are we prepared to take responsibility for what may come from this?” And it was only after that conversation that we said we were ready to go.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.