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The Paper's Sting: Hiring a Computer Expert to Pose As a Gay Teen Online

On May 6, 2005, the day after The Spokesman-Review's first stories about Jim West, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a short piece on the ethics of the paper's investigation, particularly the creation of an online persona named Moto-Brock to chat with the mayor. Journalism Professor Bill Babcock told the P-I he thought deceptive stings might be appropriate for law enforcement but not for a media organization.

A representative from The Poynter Institute, the media ethics group, felt the paper's practices came close but did not cross the line. (In fact, Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith and his team had consulted with the Institute's ethicists before publishing the stories.)

A few weeks later Editor and Publisher commentator Joe Strupp canvassed "10 top editors around the country" about the sting; none approved of it. Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, said his paper had a rule against undercover work involving false identities.

Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin told FRONTLINE that the newspaper's code of ethics prohibited him from disguising his identity, but not from engaging a consultant to do so. "As long as it's legal, I don't have a problem with it," he said.

Editor's Note: Paragraph 27 of FRONTLINE's journalistic guidelines direct producers to reveal their identities in reporting a story, although some exceptions are allowed, following consultation with the executive producer.

In the face of the unanimous criticism uncovered by the survey, Strupp defended the paper. "[I]t looks like The Spokesman-Review did what newspapers are supposed to do: dig up the facts, expose the wrongdoing, and hold those in power accountable," he wrote.

As the West story progressed, more journalists came around to Strupp's point of view. Douglas McCollam, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, held up The Spokesman-Review's work as an example of "the swashbuckling spirit" missing in much present-day reporting. And the University of Oregon awarded The Spokesman-Review its 2006 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.

 

The Sexual Abuse Allegations from the 1970s

In its first story on West, a front-page article on May 5, The Spokesman-Review reported on allegations by Robert Galliher and Michael Grant that Mayor West had molested them when he was a sheriff's deputy and Boy Scout leader in the 1970s. But Galliher and Grant's accusations of pedophilia began to slip from the paper's pages as its coverage began also focusing on charges of abuse of office, which led to federal and local investigations and the city's vote to recall West.

As FRONTLINE reports (watch the program online), there are questions surrounding Galliher, the paper's main source on West's alleged molestation in the '70s. Galliher never mentioned Jim West when reporter Bill Morlin interviewed him in 2003 for a story about sexual abuse by Sheriff's Deputy David Hahn. Nor did he accuse West when he filed a lawsuit later that year against the county over the alleged abuse. He did, however, name West as a witness to testify in the case.

It was not until 2005 that Galliher accused West of abusing him -- in the newspaper and in an additional claim for damages. Galliher has not spoken to any media outlet other than The Spokesman-Review, and he would not speak to FRONTLINE. He told the paper he was "not quite sure" why he waited so long to accuse West. In part, he said, it was because he feared reprisal from the mayor.

Even less has been heard from West's second accuser, Michael Grant. Grant has not sued the county over his alleged molestation in the '70s. He told The Spokesman-Review he was sexually abused twice by Hahn and twice by West, and that one incident took place at a Boy Scout camp run by West. He also told the paper that West had threatened he would kill his mother if he told anyone about the abuse.

It is not clear how The Spokesman-Review first learned of Grant's allegations against West. In 2003 Grant and Galliher were incarcerated at the Geiger Corrections Center at the same time. Galliher told the paper that Grant had confided in him that West had abused him in a police car. But Grant told the paper it was Hahn, not West, who abused him in that setting.

Spokesman-Review editor Steven Smith told FRONTLINE that he found Galliher and Grant to be credible: "The individuals were in the right place at the right time; their stories were credible; they had told other individuals previously, before our reporting began, about the circumstances of their abuse." (The paper's initial story says that Grant "told no one about being sexually abused at the Boy Scout camp.")

Despite months of continued reporting and publishing about the West scandal by The Spokesman-Review, no one other than Galliher and Grant has come forward to accuse West of sexual abuse.

 

The Ethics of Outing Gay Politicians

A few weeks after the scandal broke, Karel, a columnist for the national gay magazine The Advocate, wrote that he felt The Spokesman-Review had "entrapped" the mayor online and that despite West's obvious misdeeds, the real issue was his homosexuality. "But the question is, When do we condone witch hunts against fellow gay people?" (The paper immediately defended its reporting, insisting the story was not about West's sexual orientation, which in turn prompted a rebuttal by Karel.)

Michelangelo Signorile, a gay activist and radio host who pioneered the practice of outing gay politicians opposed to gay interests, took up the issue a week after the first stories ran. He too expressed concern about the paper's online ruse, but said he felt the mayor's stands against gay rights had invited scrutiny of his personal life.

Signorile also posed an interesting hypothetical: "Let's imagine for a moment that West was very pro-gay rather than anti-gay. ... It's quite probable that gay activists in fact would be critical of the paper, charging that it had overstepped; at the very least they'd not weigh in at all."

New York Times Magazine columnist Randy Cohen, who writes as The Ethicist, also weighed in. Washington State Senator Ken Jacobsen wrote in about a debate among his colleagues over outing a gay legislator (not Jim West) who opposed gay rights. The response: "Your colleague may ethically out an official only if that official's being gay is germane to his policy-making. … My guideline is this: the more aggressively, the more centrally, an official participates in a policy struggle, the more reasonable it is to out him."

Interestingly, The Ethicist argued that a lawmaker's homosexuality is also relevant when that lawmaker supports gay rights, but pointed out, "[I]t is hypocrisy that more often inspires the urge to out; it is denying others the rights to do what we ourselves do that provokes disdain."

Indeed, talk of outing gay politicians has come up most often when those politicians oppose gay rights. In 1996, following the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, Congressmen Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) came out after hearing that The Advocate and the gay newspaper The Washington Blade intended to out him and Congressman Mark Foley (R-Flor.). (Both publications subsequently said that they were not planning to out the men.) Kolbe became more supportive of gay rights, while Foley refused to speak about his sexual orientation.

However, ten years later, when Foley was forced out of office for alleged inappropriate communication with underage Congressional pages, outing became an issue not with gay activists but among conservative and religious House Republicans. Suspecting that gay GOP staffers had protected Foley and were blocking their social agenda, some Republicans circulated a list of aides who were allegedly gay. The national media speculated about a "Pink Purge" in the GOP. Whether or not such talk will continue in the wake of the Republicans' 2006 mid-term defeat, outing as a controversial political tactic seems unlikely to go away anytime soon.

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posted nov. 14, 2006

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