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What are your thoughts on this story --- your views of the newspaper's investigation? Mayor Jim West? Where does one draw the line on the issue of a politician's private life and the public's right to know?

Dear FRONTLINE,

I have followed the debate between Rachel Dretzin and Karen Dorn Steel of the Spokesman-Review in Editor and Publisher. One charge of Ms. Dorn Steel that I think was not fully answered is that your piece maligned Spokane. I do believe that when your story leads off with a comment from a gay school teacher that gays are marginalized in Spokane, you should also present some evidence on the other side. For example, the Spokane City Council passed an ordinance extending employee benefits of city workers to domestic (including same sex) partners. This measure was opposed by Jim West. Opponents of the measure tried and failed to get enough signatures to place on the ballot a proposed referendum to repeal this measure. Another example is the openly gay city council member who was appointed to his position and then lost it by a whisker in the next election. To be sure the margin of defeat was such that his sexual orientation may well have tipped the scales against him. But it is a far cry from what one of your readers said about Spokane; namely, that there are a majority of religious extremists and a small minority of free thinkers. Actually, Spokane has low church membership (as does the Pacific Northwest in general) and a large dose of western live-and let-live philosophy.

Spokane, WA

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

Click here for more about Spokane.

Dear FRONTLINE,

As someone who participated in this documentary and was involved with the entire situation first hand, there are many things that have troubled me since first watching this Frontline piece. The first is that they changed their goal mid-way through. The reason myself (and many others) gave so much access to our lives was because we were cooperating with the story of middle-america and how a city deals with faith and sexuality in such a politically charged climate- that's what Frontline promised us. They personally promised me (the very word 'promise' was used both verbally and via e-mail) that West would only be a small focus of the program. It seems to me as if they committed the sin they seem to be accusing the Spokesman Review of committing... falsely portraying their motives to reach an end goal. The second thing that really troubles me is how Spokane really received a very bad and inaccurate portrayal. Watching the scenes, pictures, and images they CAREFULLY chose to represent Spokane...it seemed like a TINY GRITTY DIRTY BACKWATER 'town' ... I never once saw the beautiful, vibrant, growing, and urban city I know. It was as if this crew from New York City came here expecting a small town and even though it wasn't they MADE IT ONE. Its sad and Spokane deserves more.Third I was really expecting something NEW... Frontline's reputation is for uncovering things no one else can...shining light where others don't. And after more than a year they not only didn't turn up anything new, but instead they succeeded in leaving 70% of the actually coverage and story out to fit what seemed to be a predetermined goal. Not only was there nothing new, but there was less than we started with.I agree with holding the Spokesman Review accountable and really being critical of their methods (that debate could go on forever)... but then its as if they didn't hold West to the same standards. I have no anger towards West (may he rest in peace), but his non-answers got a pass. His 'no reaction' comments about a 54 year old dating an 18 year old... ridiculous and inexcusable. ...or how he would 'probably' wouldnt vote for his anti-gay legislation today. Again, its VERY troubling to me.Finally their creative timeline REALLY bothers me. Conveniently placing the information I brought forth nearly DEAD LAST in their timeline instead of the MONDAY after the story broke when it actually happened. Leaving out the information brought forth about West by other witnesses, ignoring the city investigator who found that he had broken the law and violated city codes. Ignoring the citizen driven recall COMPLETELY...and West's lies through all of it. Whether West was a pedophile I still don't know, but he was clearly an unhealthy predator who lied over and over again willing to do and say anything for his political reputation. They gave him a free pass and that's not only unfair, but unethical if you call yourself a reporter. Still I return to this: Frontline wasn't there for everything. They started covering this story when it was nearly over. They have never lived in Spokane, they do not know its history, its people, or its culture. They tried and failed to capture the essence of a story that played out in over a years time. There was no hero in this story- West was in no way a "tragic hero" as Frontline has tried to portray him, nor was the Spokesman Review a hero. Frontline should have stuck to the facts.

Ryan Oelrich
Spokane, WA

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

"A Hidden Life" producer Rachel Dretzin responds:

We regret that Ryan feels the way he does about the documentary. Over the year we spent reporting and shooting the film, we came to know Ryan well, and he is a person of intelligence and integrity. It's a disappointment, to say the least, that he is unhappy with the final product.

That said, we do want to address some of the complaints Ryan has about the film, most importantly his feeling that he was lied to or deliberately misled. That simply was never the case. When making a documentary over the course of a year, significant changes in focus do occasionally occur. Unfortunately, for complex reasons that only became clear late in the editing process, we made a decision together with the editorial team at FRONTLINE to refocus the film on the West scandal, which had always been a very important piece of the project.

We don't recall ever making any binding statements to Ryan about the film's focus, but most importantly, what we said at the time we said because we fully believed it to be true. As we have reminded Ryan in private correspondence, we spent many weeks of our time and many thousands of dollars shooting material about the broader landscape in Spokane, an investment we never would have made if we didn't intend it to be in the film. Much of that material is referenced on FRONTLINE's website.

As for Ryan's other criticsms, we stand by the program as a fair and honest portrayal of a complicated story as we saw it. In an hour-long documentary, not everything can be included, and inevitably, a producer's choices about what to include and exclude will not satisfy everyone. However, we made every effort to be fair to both sides.

Dear FRONTLINE,

Disturbingly the Spokesman-Review crows about how proud they are of this story and the tactics employed in obtaining it. In thier online forums and blogs they vehemently defend and explain away the multitudes of nay sayers who rail against such tacky journalism. Editor Smith refuses to answer specific questions raised by Frontline yet itemizes errors he claims were part of your program. His current posture on Dannyboy conflicts with the Dannyboy dialogue posted on this website. It's interesting also that Dannyboy tells us that the Spokesman-Review was supposed to provide him a preview of this story and did not. The day before Frontline aired this program Editor Smith denounced PBS and Frontline as "disengenous" for doing the exact same thing.The West saga was a public lynching orchestrated start to finish by a glory seeking meanspirited newspaper. They found out Wests sexual secret and eagerly presented it in the ugliest possible fashion. They celebrated Wests demise and still bask in a deluded glory. In the end all West was ever guilty of was being a closeted gay man very cautiously seeking other gay men. What is a real story and one that needs to be fully exposed is the one about the newspaper that killed a good man and competent Mayor for being homosexual.

Dave Tolle
Post Falls, Idaho

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

FRONTLINE has posted a response to what Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith claimed were "fact errors" in our report. Click here to read the response.

Dear FRONTLINE,

"A Hidden Life" was to me, a sad comment on how the media can ruin someone's life, career etc. It seemed a witch hunt by Mr. Smith to try 'entrapping' a man. He persecuted this man through innuendo and FALSE reporting. Since when are we guilty through association with another-who does perpetrte a heinous series of crimes?If it's illegal to chat about sex on the internet; this is the first I've heard about it. Mr.Smith's Spokane Newspaper ought to be the ones ashamed of their behavior. As for the gay community's response...unbelievable! As a part of this community, I have seen so many friends (esp. men) go through depression,feeling suicidal! Where is the compassion for one of our own who had a hard time accepting his sexualty!

Kaylene Shepard
Salt Lake City, UT

Dear FRONTLINE,

This is the second time I have watched this installment and the second time that I feel saddened by the whole Jim West affair. I'm a gay man who's been out since I was a teenager and feel a certain contempt for West's actions but I certainly will say that the producers portrayed West sympathetically; not entirely undeserved. Did the Spokane Review pursue this story too zealously? Perhaps, but the most salient point for me was pointing out the hypocrisy of a prominent, closeted politician.

One thing West didn't say, perhaps because he didn't even himself realize it, is that the reason he probably sponsored and supported anti-gay legislation is that it was important for him to show that he was a reliable 'straight' man who could be counted on to crush any pro-gay initiatives. What did he care? He had no intention of living openly so none of this restrictive legislation would have affected him.

That being said, I was very saddened by his death; I honestly wished I could have reached out to him. Very, very sad story.

Patrick Pineault
Riverside, California

Dear FRONTLINE,

Dear Frontline,

A HIDDEN LIFE is the type of excellent journalism I have come to expect of Frontline. This story of a Right Wing mayor outed by an newspaper after going onto an online gay chat site seems to be reported so dispassionately that one finds it difficult at first to take a side. Obviously Jim West was a hypocrite, but after he stood up to the onslaught and fought back I began to wonder. What forces move us in our lives, what currents push us into choices that, if we could stand back with the wisdom of years or events (as in Jim West's case), we would see more clearly what the consequences would be for us and others further downstream.

Ultimately I felt sorry for Jim West. I recognize that his choices hurt other gay men and women, but I understand how he got there. I felt the paper had a hard choice in this story, one they probably could not ignore, but one that they could have done a better job seeing all sides of and ultimately, understanding. But that may be, like it was for Jim, too much to ask. I also think once they had the bit in their teeth nothing so prosaic as the truth was going to deter them or make them think again.

As one commenting reporter put it, this story is "Shakespearean" in its depth and pain, not as corrupt or depraved or even as hypocritical as it first seemed. Jim West seems a man whose path was destined for tragedy, who even in the end was lying to himself and yet who seems underneath it all to be basically a decent guy in search of companionship and understanding.

Joel Markwell
Atlanta, GA

Dear FRONTLINE,

A tragedy. Even at the end Mr. West seemed unsure whether he would vote to allow gays the right to teach in Spokane. His appointment of his young online romantic interest was self-serving. His trolling the internet for love from a fellow young enough to be his grandson, and his failure to see the inappropriateness of this, were an indication of his weakness. I admire the young man for coming forward and telling the truth of this. Neither the young man nor the newspaper editor caused the tragedy. Mr. West did it to himself and his whole life created a stumbling block for other gay persons in his community.

Jo Rocke
Sellersville, PA

Dear FRONTLINE,

I find the overriding goal of the Spokane Newspaper was to get a good, juicy story and their defense and "high-minded" comments of their civic responsibility rang very false; what goes around, comes around, they must now live with their smug, self-satisfied selves.

Baltimore, Md

Dear FRONTLINE,

What a good, and disturbing story. I liked the way that Frontline kept their opinion out and allowed us to ask ourselves questions about the newspaper editors. At first I took them at their word, though I was questioning some of their methods. Many times I found myself yelling at my computer screen (where I watched the whole show and read the commentary and extras that you provide)--"that is wrong!"

I found it interesting the response of the gay community and Ryan Oerlich towards Jim West--which really had nothing to do with West, but with trying to maintain a good image for themselves. As another commentator said, Ryan is young. It seemed as if his outing of West came from his fear of feeling as if he could be outed as a man who took something illegally offered, the internship. He thought of his future. He could have just resigned. Instead, what power he had, to put the final nail in the coffin in. Wouldn't that make anyone afraid of going on an online chat--the only outlet in a conservative city? Yikes! If you can't trust the other people on the site...And interesting his interview on the site says that he realized he was not special to West, but that other men had been offered internships. And that this contributed to his reason to out West. Well, his reaction smacked of being scorned--he outed West because he was not the "only one."

The gay community also looked to themselves--understandably--but missed the opportunity to pull West to their side and help him realize that being gay could be positive in other ways (though keeping his Mayorship might be a problem). It was interesting to hear West talk about the church he attended, the only community who would pull him in, and that too is sad. He's pulled in by a community that still wants him to change, but they offer him only what he thinks is owed him: a place to be contrite about his sin. They don't offer acceptance either.

Finally, though, what's disturbing about the FRONTLINE story is that it further projects the important need to stay in the closet, and I, too, am in it. This convinces me that coming out is as dangerous as staying in. The person I love is also Jim's age, grew up in that same environment. I could never let him watch this program; it would confirm his nightmare: That people just want to destroy you when they find a way in because they are afraid and they believe what they've been taught not what the Bible says.

I think a person's sexuality is his or her business. Hiding is not a sin. In this day and age, hiding may be the only method of keeping privacy in such a confession-riddled world. He did a great service as mayor--could he have done it as a gay man in Spokane? Probably not. Ryan's fantasy about a gay mayor exploded in real life with the recall. Gay mayors work in some tolerant cities, but in others, like the one I live in, that could never happen. What of the work a person can do for a community without wearing his sexuality on his sleeve? Since when do we all have to be card-carrying gays--why not keep that to ourselves? The problem isn't the closet; it's the intolerance from the right and the unmasking from the left.

Lubbock, TX

Dear FRONTLINE,

As a gay man nearing 50, the Jim West story has particular resonance for me. The uniquely excruciating loneliness of the closet remains poorly understood by the general public, its mechanisms and consequences explored only rarely and indirectly -- even in this excellent documentary -- by the mass media.

Despite the glib yet widespread impression that anti-gay discrimination is largely a thing of the past, the closet continues to tyrannize. People like Bill Morlin convince themselves that things like "abuse of office" are their true target and that their actions have nothing whatever to do with homophobia. Yet the closet remains sturdy and chillingly effective precisely because of the actions of people like Bill Morlin.

It is crystal clear that Morlin - and of course many others -- believed from the outset that West was a child molester (faux evidence: he's gay, he ran a scout troop, he had a friend who committed suicide amid accusations of molestation) and that he was looking for sex with minors on Gay.com (faux evidence: we believe he's a child molester, and he's on Gay.com).

Whatever "truth" Morlin believes he was searching for with his sting operation, his enthusiastic prosecutorial attack on West during the taped confrontation with the "book" of chat transcripts reveals no truth more clearly than Morlin's own. "I felt really sorry that he had carried around this secret all these years and that we were bringing him to grips with the hypocrisy of his own life." In a story riddled with hipocrisy, it's hard to find a more jaw-dropping example than Morlin's crocodile tears for Jim West. As if secrecy and it's consequences - loneliness so unbearable it led someone like Jim West to risk everything on Gay.com - are not the intended result of ignorant, hateful assumptions (gay people are child molesters, internet sex is scandalous, legal intergenerational sex may be legal but it's really perverted) held by Bill Morlin and his ilk.

I'm not a political supporter of Jim West and I despise the unfortunately common hypocrisy of closeted politicians who vote against equality for gay people. But I understand the closet. And I rejoice whenever the finger is turned, however slightly, away from the victim and toward the true perpetrator. Thanks Frontline, for producing evidence of a real search for the truth.

Lawrence Eaton
San Francisco, CA

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was in The Spokesman Review building last night for the first time (at least in many, many years) to celebrate a new publication for teens. Instead of feeling awe about everything it takes to publish a major newspaper, my mind turned to the sordid -- and mostly unsubstantiated -- claims that this paper had made against Mayor Jim West, accusing him of sexually abusing young boys. While I walked the halls, I wondered about the backslapping that must have taken place in that building in order to insulate Steven Smith and Bill Morlin from having any remorse for their horrible journalism as they sullied the community and destroyed a human being.

My own interaction with Steven Smith and Bill Morlin helps me to understand what happened in that building when Jim West was crucified at their hands. After I read The Spokesman-Review on the morning that the Mayor West story broke, I wrote to the paper complaining that there was no factual basis for most of the slanderous things that they had written. Steven Smith wrote to me personally and said that he was sorry I felt that way, but he believed the stories were true and that was enough for him. He has since gone around the country defending his belief. Since when, however, does a journalist's belief, let alone the subjective belief of an a editor-in-chief, come before objectivity, especially when publishing the most salacious personal accusations possible? Many months later, I had the displeasure of talking with Bill Morlin on the phone about a different matter: PETA had been publishing untruths about some local companies. Bill Morlin acted like a true muckraker, at least with me. He bullied while giving undo credence to the sensational and showing little regard for the truth. The sad thing is that these two have continued to work in my community, almost unscathed.

The media obviously doesn't censure itself well; however, when editors and journalists mess up as badly as Steven Smith and Bill Morlin, occasionally they get their due rewards.

When I arrived home last night, I found a letter from The Spokesman-Review's circulation department on my desk, inviting me to subscribe. I thought about using the self-enclosed, no-postage-necessary envelop to send them a note stating that I will think about subscribing after Steven Smith and Bill Morlin have been fired. It dawned on me, however, that maybe they had already left the paper, so I typed a few search terms into Google. What I found surprised me. Finally, a major media organization has had the integrity to show the full story, including the ethical lapses of Steven Smith and Bill Morlin. Thank you, Frontline, for telling the story of their abuses that have been haunting me all these months.

While there are many, many ironies about this story, let me point out another one. On Steven Smith's blog, he has slammed people from outside of the area for questioning him while calling for people in Spokane to stand up against him. Is there any wonder, in a small one-paper city with a self-righteous, out-of-control editor-in-chief who can crucify people at will, that there are not many locals who want to make any of these people their enemies?

Paul Merchant
Spokane, Washington

Dear FRONTLINE,

I live in Spokane, Washington. I subscribe to the Spokesman-Review and I often listen to Spokane's only local radio show, "Mark Fuhrman". As the world now knows due to the paper's relentless lurid and accusatory headlines which continued for weeks on end, Mayor West did not have a legitimate chance to defend his reputation. He was already marginalized and judged by Spokane's limited media outlets. The "Mark Fuhrman" show lead the charge after the paper's initial story conducting a frenzied and continuous defamation of West including reading on air the names of people providing money to his defense stating they were supporting pedophilia. Since the recall I have discussed the Jim West story with people in my community. The people that personally knew him as a boy scout, neighbor, class mate and politician have no negative recollections including two of my friends who were boy scouts in West's troop. Unfortunately Spokane and its citizens will never have the chance to reflect and learn from the West recall. The paper's owners are entrenched into the local commerce controlling not only the region's only newspaper, but also a local TV station, and a huge conglomerate of businesses and properties. Nothing of any consequence has been written and the above-mentioned radio show which jumped on the "hate" bandwagon is now silent on the issue. This story is locally getting "pushed under the rug".

spokane, wa

Dear FRONTLINE,

Dear Frontline - For nearly 12 years I was employed as a journalist; during that time there were several occasions in which I and my newspaper broke stories about local politicians, thus (I suppose) precipitating the scandals which brought an end - or seriously damaged - their careers. None of our reports were conducted in the manner as this newspaper did; not because internet technology was in its infancy at the time, but because we had the good moral and ethical sense not to do such things.

Watching your piece, I was reminded of an observation I made long ago: journalists are people who generally are suspicious of authority, yet newspapers are all run by journalists. Newspaper editors, then, must learn how to exercise authority over their staff or they will inevitably run into trouble.

I believe that the editor of this newspaper involved himself too deeply in the "investigation" of this matter. While an editor should serve to guide his reporters on their methods and safeguard the liability of the newspaper, the reporting of such matters must rely on the field work of reporters. That is reporters employed by the paper; not reporters by proxy. It is inconceivable to me that any newspaper should employ an agent to conduct primary reportage. Your feature did not mention the fee that the supposed expert was paid for his services, and I think that is a relevant matter.

Hired guns are frequently employed by one side or the other in civil or criminal trials, but their expertise is governed in such venues by established rules of law, bolstered by precident. What's more, the opposing side has a right to challenge not only the expertise of the witness, but also his methods. The mayor was afforded none of these protections when he was summoned to the newspaper with the demand that he immediately justify his actions - not to the public - but the editor. And no, the two are not the same.

I was highly disturbed watching your feature and am quite upset that the profession I loved and pursued for so many years has degraded to this point. It appears to me that this newspaper staff began with a bad justification for a news article and pursued that rationale, inventing new justifications along the way.

Now they are stuck with what they have done and, amidst widespread criticism, continue to rationalize their ethical breech.

Atlanta, GA

Dear FRONTLINE,

Concerning the Jim West story on PBS:It hardly seems to me that either PBS or the Spokane daily comes out of this smelling like a rose.

Paul Callahan
New York, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Dear FRONTLINE,Only coming out last year myself I understand the difficulties a gay person faces.I have lived in Spokane all of my life and continually I'm amazed at the amount of ignorance and lack of acceptence this city has for LGBT people. I can understand why Mr. West chose to keep his sexuality private, because it was a private issue. But many at the Spokesman Review thought differently and chose to use Mayor West's private life as front page news. I'm sure if we looked into some of their private lives we could find things to write about too. Mayor West wasn't perfect and made some bad choices, but did more good for this city during his time in office then we have seen in years.

David Wakefield
Spokane, Washington

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

Click here for more on Spokane and its gay community.

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was at a loss as to why most of the letters you have posted were negative against the Spokesman, and positive for West. After reading your small print, I now see the reason, you don't post all letters, you choose the ones you want, and obviously you are choosing the letters that are negative for the newspaper. The people of Spokane were given a choice of voting Yes or No, and 65% voted West out. This was our City and it was our choice. For the people who are commenting from other states, we don't butt in and tell you what you should do, so leave us alone. We made out own intelligent decision and we had our reasons for voting him out. Don't blame the Spokesman Review.

Coral Bergin
Spokane, WA

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

FRONTLINE does not publish all responses to Join the Discussion, but we do aim to present an accurate sample of the responses we have received, both in the content of individual replies and number of responses on each side of a given topic.

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posted nov. 14, 2006

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