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FRONTLINE Executive Editor Louis Wiley responds to Spokesman-Review Editor Steven Smith's blog postings questioning some aspects of "A Hidden Life."

Viewers of the broadcast and visitors to this site will see that Spokesman-Review Editor Steven Smith and reporter Bill Morlin were prominently featured and given ample opportunity to describe their approach to reporting the story. We have always expressed our appreciation for their willingness to participate in the film and for their openness. We do so again. We also applaud them for collecting their coverage of the West story -- and background materials such as the online chats and full interviews with West and others -- on their Web site.

On the morning after the first broadcast of "A Hidden Life," however, Smith posted a lengthy reply and critique of our program on the paper's "News is a Conversation" blog. While Smith is certainly entitled to his own views about our report, we stand by the accuracy of what we published, and so we carefully reviewed our reporting after Smith said that he had spotted a couple of "fact errors" and important omissions. Here is FRONTLINE's response to the key points Smith raised:

 

Dannyboy's age: Smith insists that "the source who first told Morlin he met West online and had sex with him was barely 18 and just out of high shool at the time they first began chatting online and had just turned 19 at the time of their 'date.' Frontline said he was 20. That is not an inconsiderable mistake given the nature of our reporting."

FRONTLINE interviewed this individual (Dannyboy) who insists that he was indeed 20 years old at the time of his first encounter with West online. He showed us his driver's license to prove it. He says he told Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin his correct age and showed him his driver's license as well. Morlin, when asked by FRONTLINE about this in a follow-up conversation, said, "Maybe it was a math error," and, "I would never change his age deliberately."

We agree that reporting Dannyboy's age correctly is vital given the nature of the story, and we invite anyone to read our interview with Dannyboy, available on this Web site.

 

Robert Galliher: Smith writes: "Frontline said that Robert Galliher's first mention of abuse by West was in a 2005 interview. Incorrect. As we reported, he wrote about the abuse in a 2004 jailhouse letter to a psychiatrist who provided a copy of the letter to the newspaper."

This is what the FRONTLINE script says: "It was not until 2005, as part of another claim for damages, that Galliher first formally accused West of molesting him."

The important point in our view is that Galliher did not come forward until 25 years after the alleged abuse by West. West's name is raised only after being interviewed by Morlin in 2003 for a story about Sheriff's Deputy David Hahn. We had a number of questions to ask Galliher about this sequence of events, but as we reported, Galliher declined to talk to us. The only media outlet he has spoken with is The Spokesman-Review.

Smith also writes: "Frontline says Galliher could not explain why he failed to report West sooner. Wrong. As we reported Galliher said he feared for his safety, accused West of orchestrating a jailhouse beating and had tried to avoid pointing a finger at a powerful politician with close ties to police."

This is what the FRONTLINE script says: "The paper [The Spokesman-Review] quoted Galliher as saying he was 'not really sure' why he'd gone 25 years without naming West, but partly it was because Galliher said he was afraid of West's power." It was the paper itself that reported Galliher's doubts as to why he waited so long, and FRONTLINE did, in fact, reference Galliher's claim that he was afraid of reprisal by West.

Galliher's alleged jailhouse beating by guards occurred in 2003, months before he mentioned West in a letter to his psychiatrist. In his interview with The Spokesman-Review, Galliher claimed that the beating was retribution for the newspaper article in which he accused Hahn of sexually abusing him. The paper also reported, "An FBI investigation apparently concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone criminally for what happened to Galliher in jail."

Galliher claimed that months after the alleged beating West visited him in jail and threatened him to keep quiet. Although the prison keeps records of any visitors to inmates, there is no record of West having visited the jail.

For more on Galliher, see this page on our Web site.

 

The length of the online sting: Smith writes: "The Motobrock deception [Motobrock was the screen-name used by the paper's consultant] lasted less than three months, not the six months described by Frontline." The six-month period cited in our report includes the Moto-Brock chats (February-April 2005) and chats Dannyboy had with the mayor at the paper's behest, which took place in November and December 2004. We considered the attempt to use Dannyboy to confirm the mayor's indentity and behavior to be part of the newspaper's ongoing sting operation, and so we reported the sting lasted six months, from November 2004 to April 2005.

 

Who initiated talk of an internship, West or Moto-Brock? Smith states that "West, not Motobrock, raised the prospect of a job/internship at city hall."

As FRONTLINE reported, that assertion is very much in dispute, despite the fact that the recall election was based on it.

The paper's own Editor's Note on the transcript of the March 8, 2005, chat between West and Moto-Brock reads as follows:

"Editor's note: The final two minutes of the chat are not transcribed here because a technical problem prevented the consultant from recording it. However, the consultant provided the newspaper with a summary of the entire conversation for its records. In the last minutes of this chat, according to the consultant, Jim West offered a potential internship to Moto-Brock."

FRONTLINE asked Smith and Morlin about the missing chat transcript. Smith said flatly, "I can't explain that." Morlin said that because the conversations took place in a Gay.com chatroom, the computer expert had to do a screen-capture of his computer screen to record the conversations as they were ongoing; in this case he was unable to do so before the chat ended.

However, the March 8 chat did not take place in Gay.com; it occurred, according to the paper's Web site, via AOL Instant Messenger, a program which can easily log online chats as they happen. It is not clear, then, why the computer expert was unable to produce the AOL IM transcript of the March 8 chat, or any other chats which occurred as instant messages outside of Gay.com.

 

Who initiated talk of a meeting, West or Motobrock? Smith also writes that "West, not Motobrock, asked for the personal meeting in April 2005."

The chat transcript shows otherwise. Below is the relevant excerpt of the transcript of that chat, conducted April 9, 2005, and taken directly from the Spokesman-Review's Web site:

motobrock34: so what u doing this weekend?
jmselton: have a dinner in about an hour that i really don't want to go to but said i would.
motobrock34:lucky u!
jmselton: tomorrow afternoon i have to be somewhere at 3:30 for about an hour.
jmselton: may golf in the morning tomorrow.
jmselton: or just go to the driving range
motobrock34: want some company?
jmselton: maybe
jmselton: you interested?
motobrock34: sure
motobrock34: would love to
jmselton: really?
jmselton: you have a ram suv?
(emphasis FRONTLINE's)

 

The Washington Supreme Court ruling: Smith writes that FRONTLINE should have mentioned in its report the decision of the state supreme court. Smith writes that "an 8 to 1 ruling declared that West's behavior 'was an improper exercise of an official duty.'"

In addition to writing this in his blog, Smith also brought up the ruling in the paper's Nov. 15 staff meeting, broadcast online. Also, reporter Bill Morlin mentions this issue in a Nov. 16 Editor and Publisher article.

FRONTLINE has examined the court opinion in question and believes both Smith and Morlin have misread the case. The matter before the court was whether or not the allegations against West to be printed in the recall election ballot were, if determined by the voters to be true, "factually and legally sufficient" to warrant West's recall. The quote that Smith says is from the court opinion is in fact a quote from the ballot language itself.

The court did not rule on the facts of the matter or whether West had committed wrongdoing. In fact, the court's majority opinion begins, "First, we note that the role of courts in the recall process is highly limited, and it is not for us to decide whether the alleged facts are true or not. It is the voters, not the courts, who will ultimately act as the fact-finders" (emphasis FRONTLINE's).

For Morlin and Smith to argue that the court's ruling confirmed findings about West's conduct is simply inaccurate.

 

The FBI and City Investigations of West: Smith says FRONTLINE mischaracterized the FBI report which Smith says "confirmed West's behavior as reported by The Spokesman-Review but determined there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for violation of corruption statutes typically used to thwart financial graft."

FRONTLINE noted at the end of the broadcast that "On February 16th, 2006, the FBI closed its investigation, finding no evidence to charge West with abuse of office."

Neither Smith's quote, nor FRONTLINE's summary line, is entirely fair to West. Below is a longer quote from the U.S. Attorney's office press release (pdf file) announcing the end of the investigation:

"The central allegation was that the mayor ... [provided] city hall jobs or internships in exchange for sex. The investigation uncovered no evidence that had occurred. A review of city records reveals that virtually every person who applied for an internship with the city was offered a position. There was no indication that West had improperly assisted any potential employees or interns."

FRONTLINE believes this FBI finding is significant because whatever the ethics or propriety of West's behavior, there was no proof that West improperly favored certain interns or gave them their positions in exchange for sex. Perhaps we should have included this information in the broadcast.

Also on our Web site, but not in our broadcast, are both the paper's and West's reactions to the FBI's findings, and the city's own investigation, which concluded on Nov. 18, 2005 that West had violated state law and city policy. No charges, however, were ever filed by law enforcement authorities as a result of the city's investigation.

 

Coverage of subsequent abuse allegations against West: Finally, Smith writes, "The Frontline story suggested the newspaper dropped its investigation of West's past history of abuse after initial reports. That is not true."

The broadcast never makes the claim that the newspaper dropped its investigation of West's past history. The script reads as follows:

"In the months after the story broke, Steven Smith speculated that more victims of abuse by West might go public. But none did, and the pedophilia story began to slip from the paper's pages. ...
"But the paper did not stop publishing articles on the scandal -- 189 in the eight months after their first story. Many of them focused on charges of abuse of office and political hypocrisy."

A glance at The Spokesman-Review's coverage online will bear out this trend: As the story progressed and West's alleged abuse of office became the focus of the recall election, the paper's stories tended to cover that aspect of the scandal.

After the paper printed its first story painting West as an abuser and a predator, a few individuals did come forward publicly, but not with claims of sexual abuse by West. And FRONTLINE recounted one man's story that abuse was taking place on the scout camping trips and "everyone" knew. We also published the questioning of West by the newspaper in which the paper suggests West was targeting particular boys for special trips, a charge West denies in the exchange.

The one newspaper story we agonized over was a claim by a man who came forward publicly after the first story. He said he had told West he had been abused by David Hahn on a camping trip and that West did nothing about it. West consistently told FRONTLINE and The Spokesman-Reviewthat he knew nothing about Hahn's abuse until Hahn killed himself. Since the newspaper supplied only the man's first name in reporting the story, there is no way to independently corroborate this claim. We decided not to include it.

 

Taking a broader view of our program and the case of Jim West, FRONTLINE thought there were a number of important lessons, only some of which raised questions about why the paper published what it did. We don't agree with Spokesman-Review columnist Frank Sennett who saw our report as being about Jim West's "redemption" or his "final victory." Rather, we feel it's about the very human choices made by the mayor and the newspaper, and the complicated questions that often lurk beneath the banner headlines.

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posted nov. 14, 2006

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