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steven smith

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As editor of The Spokesman-Review, Smith led the newspaper's aggressive reporting on the West story. More than 180 stories exploring allegations of illicit sexual behavior, abuse of power and political hypocrisy were published by the paper in the eight months after the first story appeared. In this interview, Smith discusses the paper's reporting and answers questions concerning the methods and propriety of the investigation. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted Nov. 11, 2005.

... What kind of mayor was Jim West?

I think the verdict may still be out on that as we sit here today. The sense was that he was a very effective mayor. We've had a string of mayors maybe not as effective as people hoped for. Jim West came in with high expectations and pretty solid performance initially, but we have to keep in mind he's only been mayor about a year and a half, and some of the city's major fiscal problems were just now beginning to bloom. ...

Was he popular?

"Popular" is maybe not the right word. I don't think Jim West would even himself say that he's a popular or enormously likable sort of fellow. I don't think anybody would say he has a lot of political charisma. I think he represented political positions that were popular in the community, ... and I think people respected Jim West on a lot of levels. ...

... What were those positions?

Jim West is a political conservative and has been proud to be a political conservative, and this is, generally, a relatively politically conservative community. If the west side of the state -- Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia -- is blue, we're red. ...

... Historically, what was his position on social issues?

He's a social conservative, so he's pro-family values. He's been very anti-gay rights, and on those particular issues, he represented a more draconian position than even the mainstream of his own party, on occasion, and I think that is what contributed to some of the political outrage that followed our revelations last May.

He has opposed gay rights at every opportunity, not always politely or kindly. He most recently was opposing the extension of partner benefits at the city of Spokane, a measure that the City Council adopted; he was threatening to veto. His legislative record in Olympia is filled with initiatives designed to deny rights and protections to gays and lesbians, and some fairly draconian sex legislation that would have affected even young heterosexual teens. It's a fairly conservative track record.

He said on The Today Show that that's what his constituency wanted. ...

That's not exactly what he said on The Today Show, and I think this is what rankled folks in the community. He said that those positions represented the will of the people of Spokane, and I don't think that that's necessarily the case, and I don't think that the majority of Spokane residents believe that's the case. He was elected as a social and fiscal conservative, but this is not as wildly anti-gay a town as that remark portrays. ...

“We don't like being part of the story, but in our view, we were doing our jobs, and if that makes us part of the story, so be it.”

Who do you think he was playing to then?

... At that point in time, I think he was trying to build up support from his traditional constituency. I think he was trying to explain away something that's not particularly explainable, which is, how he could live a life one way and vote and act the other? Basically, what he was saying is that it didn't matter how he personally felt; he was going to be anti-gay because that's what the voters wanted. That struck me as a fairly shallow, political excuse at the time.

Was he, politically speaking, a very promising figure in the state? Did he have a future?

That's a good question. He talked in some of the chats that we recorded about eventually running for governor. That's a pretty tall order for a conservative from eastern Washington, and so it's really problematic whether he could ever have really achieved success at statewide office. ...

He was a leader politically, a strong leader?

West was absolutely a leader politically. At one point he was the Senate majority leader. He had influence in his party; he had influence on state legislation; he had influence on the budget; he worked with governors and with national political representatives to push through legislation. ... He was enormously powerful.

What is his background?

You might want to ask that question a little more of [Spokesman-Review reporter] Bill Morlin, but he's a Spokane native. I believe his father was a postal service inspector. He served in the Vietnam War with the 82nd Airborne; I understand he served with some distinction. When he came out of the service, after receiving his college degree, he became a police officer, first in Medical Lake and then a Spokane County sheriff's deputy. He left the sheriff's department at a really young age, 24 I believe, to run for sheriff against a pretty powerful incumbent. He lost that race, but that launched his political career, and he was elected to the Legislature a short time later.

What is the paper's history with him?

The paper's history is generally pretty benign. ... When he ran for mayor, we endorsed him ... -- not necessarily a match of his views to our views editorially, but a sense that in the issues that count for a municipality, he could get the job done.

So it was friendly?

"Friendly" is the wrong word to apply to the relationship of a politician to a newspaper. "Respectful" might be an appropriate way to put it. ...

When did you first hear that West might be gay?

I came to Spokane in July of 2002, and probably within the first three or four months that I was here, I was told that Jim West was in all likelihood gay. ... I know the subject came up in some of the social circles with which my wife and I initially became involved in our move here to Spokane. ... So it was no secret.

Did it ever cross your mind to report on it?

No, not in the sense that I think you're discussing. ... The sense, I think, in the newsroom ... was that the simple fact that he was gay was in and of itself probably not a story; that our job isn't to out closeted gay men. And the political hypocrisy was an angle that was viewed, certainly by my predecessor, as not being sufficient to justify the story. I've heard that from other editors around the state who were also vaguely aware of these same rumors.

So outing someone -- there's a high bar.

It's a very high bar. Politicians, elected officials, have some right to a private life. ... The disconnect between his private life that he was trying to keep private and his politics, I think most editors look at that and would think very seriously before they're going to write that story.

It's not just that he's conservative, though. He supported measures that, as you put them, were draconian in terms of gay rights. That was not sufficient, in your mind?

It certainly wasn't sufficient over the past some years. ... I have to tell you, I don't know, even as we sit here today, if we would have done the gay-hypocrisy story in and of itself if that's all there was to do. I think we'd be somewhat reluctant to do that.

What do you think that Spokane -- because this was an open secret -- made of their conservative mayor being gay?

The folks who I heard this from early on didn't much care that he was gay, which tells me something about the tolerance level in the city that maybe the mayor would now deny, and didn't much care about the political hypocrisy. People were able to in some ways compartmentalize that, maybe in the same way that Jim West was able to compartmentalize that. I think people were looking for performance from their government officials, and a person who delivered deserved their support, and a person who doesn't deliver doesn't deserve their support. ...

... When and why did the paper decide to undertake this investigation?

Well, the initial investigation wasn't about Jim West at all. It really goes back to 2001, 2002, early 2003, and it involved Bill Morlin building on previous work the newspaper had done on the priest sexual abuse scandals, learning about the suicide of a sheriff's deputy in 1981, a fellow named David Hahn, and learning and understanding that that suicide was tied to child sexual abuse involving Hahn through the Boy Scouts and through the Spokane County sheriff's department. ...

It was in reporting that story that he learned that David Hahn was a close friend of Jim West ... Obviously, as Morlin is reporting on David Hahn, he begins to ask questions about what Jim West knew of Hahn's activities. ... We ran Morlin's story on the David Hahn cover-up in the early summer of 2003, and in that story West was a peripheral figure, essentially quoted as saying that he knew nothing about David Hahn's activities, that he was surprised, shocked, appalled, etc.

It was in the days following the publication of that story that Morlin's sources told him that if he potentially dug a little deeper, he'd be able to draw a tighter connection between West and abuse that West might have committed himself in that time frame. ...

Twenty-five-, 30-year-old allegations of pedophilia, they're very difficult to prove. ... Why did you go down that road?

It's very difficult to prove. Even in contemporary cases it's difficult to prove, because it's essentially a one-on-one crime. ... We understood that we were going after crimes that were well beyond the statute of limitations, that could never be adjudicated in a court of law.

But we also understood that there are ways to fundamentally corroborate such stories. ... If you do your job correctly, you can establish a pretty solid case that these incidents did occur. And it's our view that even though they happened 25 or 30 years ago, ... we felt this community was haunted in many ways by the ghosts of this abuse scandal from the '70s and '80s involving the church, the Boy Scouts and the sheriff's department of Spokane County.

... What were the allegations against West? ...

Initially we had no allegations. We had been told by our sources that if you continue to dig into the Hahn abuse and related circumstances, you might find men in their 30s or 40s who will step forward to say that they were abused by West. ...

The initial component of the investigation really involved Bill Morlin ... looking at Scout rosters, talking to law enforcement officials, talking to victims of the priest sexual abuse scandal, to find connections that might lead him in the right direction. It was that process over time that surfaced the two individuals who ultimately came forward to actually accuse Jim West of abuse.

Were you convinced that their allegations were solid?

Absolutely. I wouldn't have put it in the paper if I didn't think it was true.

What convinced you?

The reporting that we did around it: 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. Their story tracked with what we knew [about] Jim West and Jim West's activities.

They were very credible. But it's also fair to say that Jim West's contemporary activity on the Internet in a sense supports the old allegations, and the old allegations in a sense support what's occurred in contemporary times online. So that added, I think, another level of credibility. ...

... They both accused Hahn. Who introduced the name Jim West?

[Robert Galliher, one of the accusers,] introduced the name Jim West in an affidavit in a court case in which he's a plaintiff filing against Spokane County and the sheriff's department for abuse suffered by Hahn. ... The second individual was somebody who we were told had been a victim. We went to the Whitman County Jail, where he was incarcerated, and had to essentially pry the details from him. He was not comfortable talking about it and is not party to any lawsuit. ...

... What was the first wind you got of the online activity of the mayor?

... In the fall of 2004, as he was seeking some of the older victims that he believed existed, Morlin was told by one of his sources that there was an 18-year-old boy who had told this source that he had met Jim West in an online chat room, had communicated with him over time, had had a date with him and had engaged in consensual sex. ...

... What did [Dannyboy] tell him?

The young boy had essentially told Bill ... that earlier in 2004, he had met an older man in a chat room on Gay.com -- a social connections Web site serving the gay/lesbian community around the United States, mostly gay men -- and that they had communicated for some period of time, and the older man had been pressing for a personal meeting. They had finally agreed to meet sometime in June of 2004.

They'd had dinner at a local Red Robin restaurant; the young man paid. They'd gone for a drive in the older man's Lexus convertible and had found themselves late at night behind the Spokane Country Club in a parking lot, where they engaged in sex. The young man told us that initially he didn't know who the older man was, but the older man identified himself to the young man as Jim West, the mayor of the city of Spokane.

And this man was 18 at the time you encountered him or 18 at the time he encountered the mayor?

He was barely 18 at the time he had encountered the mayor. The story he's telling us is about four or five months old at the time. The experience happened in June of 2004; we're first talking to him in the fall of 2004.

Editor's Note: Dannyboy told FRONTLINE that he was 20, not 18, at the time of his encounter with West. He also disputed the paper's characterization of his sexual encounter with West. In a follow-up interview, Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin denied changing Dannyboy's age intentionally.

What was your reaction? Were you surprised?

I didn't believe it. I frankly thought it was a crazy story. It didn't make sense to me. ... I understood that the young man had not initially recognized his date as the mayor and that his identification was primarily based on the older man's assertion that he was Jim West, and it occurred to me that it might be somebody posing as the mayor to maybe inflate his position and his power in order to lure the young man into bed. It just didn't track for me that the mayor would be doing something so, frankly, stupid.


Incredibly risky. ... However, there are some corroborating bits of evidence that suggest this might be a true story. The mayor does own a blue Lexus convertible. The screen name of the older man ... was Cobra82nd, and Jim West had served in the 82nd Airborne and flown in Cobra helicopters in Vietnam, so there were some aspects of the story that made a certain amount of sense. ...

What was the next step?

The next step was to try to determine, who was Cobra82nd? ... At this point in time, we're actually dealing with two screen names. If you go into the Gay.com site, you can pull profiles of the individuals behind the screen names, but in this case the two screen names -- Cobra82nd and TheRightBi-Guy -- the profiles were very vague. ...

We asked the young man to go back and initiate conversation. ... He did re-engage once or twice to no discernable effect. So we were still dealing with the question, is this Jim West? ... And in our minds, one of the questions was, [is he pursuing] potentially underage young men, because after all, the frame of our initial investigation was child sexual abuse. ...

... Again, in my view, these stories were supportive of one another. If we have allegations that Jim West abused young boys 25 or 30 years ago, and we have an indication that he's pursuing young boys now, then each of those elements supports the other. ...

... So you thought that the picking up of an 18-year-old pointed to the possibility of child molestation?

To the possibility -- that was our initial thinking. What I try to tell people is not to confuse the reporting with the story. Journalists often have to chase the most outrageous rumors and outrageous stories, ... but faced with evidence that the mayor might be engaged in these activities, it would have been irresponsible of us not to investigate further.

Had you not turned any of this evidence up that these guys were under 18, would you have gone forward?

That's a terrific question. ... If what we're dealing with in the end is a dirty old man chasing young but legal, to use that terminology, sex partners, is that a story? That's arguable. But as it turned out, the story takes a right turn on us midway through the investigation. While we never confirm sexual activity with underage boys, what we find ourselves dealing with is abuse of office and official corruption insofar as the mayor appears to have been offering rewards and benefits and even jobs in return for sexual favors. ...

So you now are in contact with this forensic computer expert. ... Who makes the decision to go forward and create an identity?

Ultimately it has to be my decision, and it has to be the decision of the editor. It came to me from Bill Morlin, the reporter, and his supervisor, Carla Savalli, the city editor; Gary Graham, the managing editor, was involved in the conversation. Essentially what I was told was that there is no way we're going to be able to say with absolute certainty that the target of our inquiries is Jim West unless we're able to draw him out, ... and the only way that we're going to do that is to go into Gay.com as an individual the mayor might want to connect with and draw him out through conversation to the point where he tells us who he is.

To reach that point, I have to be convinced that we've exhausted every other conceivable means of obtaining that information. I believed that that's the case. I also recognize some people may feel that it's not the case. But having been through this conversation from roughly the fall of 2004 through the first part of 2005, I think we dotted every "i" and crossed every "t." ...

Did you realize [how momentous] this decision [was]?

I realized it was a momentous decision for us in this project; I'm not sure that any of us understood that it might have ramifications beyond The Spokesman-Review and this particular project. We knew that it was going to be controversial, but frankly, we've been surprised from day one at the kind of national attention that the story has received. I think our reporting practices have also been scrutinized in ways that maybe we didn't anticipate. ... I'm comfortable with it in retrospect, insofar as it produced a truth, but I don't think it would be appropriate for me to ever be comfortable, perfectly comfortable, with deception as a routine practice. ...

... Did you have to wrestle with ... the prurient interests we all have in this stuff mixed up in this soup?

I'm not sure I wrestled with it in quite those terms. I found myself approaching this as a parent: ... Do I want to know if the mayor of my community is online seeking to have sex with my 18-year-old son? ... Would it be important to me if it were a male 54-year-old mayor trying to have sex with my daughter on her 18th birthday? ... It was not ... strictly trying to determine if the mayor was breaking the law, but trying to determine if he was doing something that he shouldn't be doing. I think that distinction is meaningful, and it's why I think in the end, there's probably a story here even if the mayor is only going after young men of legal age.

Did you consult anybody before you made the decision?

... I talked with a couple of my fellow editors who have been through difficult ethical conversations. ... Gary Graham did some work with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, talking with their ethicists about what we were doing, but that was a little bit closer to actual publication. ...

... What's striking, reading through the chat transcript, ... is how active a role Moto-Brock played. ... Did you have any nervousness about the tone of these e-mails?

I have enormous nervousness about the chats. ... What we're trying to do is elicit behavior which we have every reason to believe has occurred, but not generate new or unusual behavior. So Moto-Brock, as you read the transcripts, responds in a legitimately youthful way, which is ... why it's a role that an expert can play and a journalist might not be able to. But I think in every instance, we're following the lead of the mayor on these conversations. That's my view of it. ...

... Did you have faith, totally, in this expert?

I had faith in Bill Morlin. ... It's important to keep in mind that this unravels over a period of weeks and months. ... I would read a transcript and just roll my eyes and clutch my stomach and talk to Bill about, what have we learned from this? Where are we going? Was it necessary to say this? What does that mean? Over a period of time I felt and still feel comfortable that we were doing the right thing.

... In almost every online conversation that we have records of, the internship conversation is brought up by Moto-Brock. The only one in which the mayor brought it up is missing. Odd. ... How do you defend it?

All I can say is that the internship was the legitimate subject of the story. The mayor raised it; he offered it; he pursued it. And as we subsequently learned, he's done it before, and he would have done it again.

But there's no record of it.

I can't explain that.

Editor's Note: According to Bill Morlin and The Spokesman-Review's Web site, the computer expert was unable, for technical reasons, to capture the mayor's initial offer of an internship. Instead, the expert wrote an e-mail to the paper summarizing the offer.

There are also those who say he offered internships to any smart high school student.

There is no question that Jim West saw himself as a mentor to young men over time, and there are scores of young men who attribute their success to Jim West's participation in their lives. But none of that makes it right to occasionally deviate from that laudable activity into the activities that we reported. ...

... Why did [the investigation] go on so long?

Well, it went on as long as it was necessary to obtain the information we needed, which was the positive identification of Jim West as being the person behind the screen names. ... The day we obtained that evidence, Moto-Brock died, went to that big Motocross in the sky. ...

What was the evidence you ultimately got?

The evidence ... came in two forms. April 9, [2005], the mayor identifies himself to Moto-Brock as Jim West and sends Moto-Brock, our consultant, a photo of himself, and he uses his City Hall e-mail address to do that. We're able, in a subsequent exchange, to obtain an IP address. ... In the event of litigation, that's the IP address that traces it to the mayor's computer.

Secondarily, and this was something that I agreed to because I still wasn't convinced -- other people have access to the mayor's computer -- we agreed to a meeting. ... Our reporter, consultant and a photographer were there to confirm the mayor's arrival. With that evidence, I was convinced that it was Jim West, and that's when Moto-Brock died.

So this was a date?

Yes, it was a date at a local golf course. ... The mayor arrived, took two buckets of balls, went out to the driving range, waited for 20 minutes for Moto-Brock. Moto-Brock didn't arrive. The mayor was frustrated, kicked a bucket of balls across the course and left, and immediately began e-mailing Moto-Brock: "Where were you? Where were you?" ...

... The night before you decide to publish, what happened?

We surfaced the alleged victims of past abuse late March, early April of 2005, and the identification that we were seeking through Gay.com developed on April 9 and 10. ... The last step ... is to interview the mayor. ... Our goal was to interview him on a Friday afternoon, spend Friday night and Saturday polishing the stories, and publish on Sunday morning.

But on Wednesday the mayor called me in the afternoon. He had become, I think, somewhat nervous and agitated over the nature of the interview. He essentially offered the opportunity to speak with us right then and there, on the spot. We weren't entirely ready for him. We debated whether or not we should accommodate his desire to meet that Wednesday, ... and ultimately I had to make the decision that if the mayor wants to talk, we've got to listen.

So we had our key interview with the mayor on Wednesday, May 4. As he left the building, we huddled and decided that rather than give him additional time to pre-spin the story, we would publish the morning of the 5th, and we worked well into the night on the 4th to make that happen. ...

... You were outside during the actual meeting.

That's right. I left. It's not appropriate for supervisory editors to be in the room during that kind of a sensitive interview. ...

Did you see the mayor after the interview?

No, I did not. He left the building hurriedly. I got a report fairly quickly from Bill [Morlin] and [reporter] Karen [Dorn Steele] as to how it went. ...

What did they tell you?

He was devastated; he was agitated; he was sad. They described a sense of disconnection. They really felt that they had leveled quite a blow. And while as journalists we had accomplished our purpose, we were not insensitive to concerns for his mental well-being. We were afraid, as he left the building, that he might do some harm to himself.

... What did you do about that?

That's a decision that I didn't make lightly and I suppose is open to some ethical second-guessing. ... I called the chief of police, Roger Bragdon, at his home. ...

What was his reaction?

Stunned silence initially. ... It's my understanding now, strictly in retrospect, that he talked to a member or two of the City Council, let them know that it was happening. They did, in fact, dispatch somebody to check in on the mayor. Subsequently the mayor called that Thursday afternoon, the afternoon after the story broke, and thanked me for that concern, although he said it was unnecessary; that he was fine. ...

... You had another conversation with the mayor a few days after the story broke. ... Tell me about that.

Yes. The last meaningful conversation I had with the mayor in the time since the story was published occurred the Sunday after publication. ... The call lasted 40-some minutes. In that time he was highly emotional, agitated, occasionally sobbing and crying. He talked about how his life had been a living hell, leading two lives, a public life and a private life. He denied being gay but said that he was certainly sexually confused. ... He denied again abusing young boys in the past, and he's consistently denied that. He talked about his online activities as being something he probably shouldn't have done, but again, he denied misusing his office.

It was a very personal call, and frankly I didn't say much. But I did take notes -- that's my job -- and came into the office that day ... and contributed to a story on the phone call, because in fact, the mayor said some things that helped us, I think, explain to readers some of the context for his behavior. ...

... Do you feel like he was playing the gay card, cynically?

No, I don't think there was anything cynical about that conversation. I think that conversation was the real and legitimate, honest-to-God Jim West. It was unguarded. It's not a call that ... his lawyers would have wanted him to make. ... Within 24 hours it was clear to me that he had gathered himself, that the politician had reasserted itself. He'd gotten some legal advice and some political advice, and his ultimate survival strategy began to take shape. But that Sunday morning call, that was the real Jim West.

He's a man that doesn't let his guard down much.

No, and I still don't quite understand why he made that phone call; I'll never really understand why he made that phone call. But I think it's a key to understanding the story.


Because it's a glimpse inside this very compartmentalized individual who was able to separate several aspects of his life and his identity. ... I think that's some insight into the part of his character that produced some of this homophobic philosophy. But I'm no psychologist, and frankly I can't psychoanalyze it, but I just have a sense that there's something deeper in that conversation. ...

... The mayor has made this pretty personal. ...

... The mayor is fighting for his political future in a recall election, ... and in our political culture you win by attacking your opponent. In the recall, the mayor's opponent is himself, and he can't run strictly on his record. Even his acknowledged behavior, in my view, violates community standards. ...

The politician's handbook says you have to turn on the media. ... I think the mayor has made it personal because I think he believes that as a newcomer to Spokane, as the new editor of The Spokesman-Review, ... I'm somewhat vulnerable. Editors are not sympathetic figures in the community, and if a politician can't run against an editor, who can he run against?

What has he said?

He's said that this is some sort of personal vendetta, which makes no sense on the surface. But it doesn't need to; it's a political charge that he can make. He's argued that our journalistic practices were unethical, that he's the victim of a "brutal outing," and he lays that at my doorstep.

In that sense, that's fair. The key decisions with which he takes issue were decisions made in my office, and I'm perfectly comfortable with that. He's said some things about my own character which I find a little bit distressing, but my view of that is that if we unload an elephant gun on the mayor, we've got to be in the position of taking return fire. If we're not comfortable taking return fire, then we're in the wrong business.

He's also very sick.


You guys have destroyed his political career. ... How does it feel?

It feels terrible. It's hard to describe to nonjournalists the mixture of feelings that you feel about a story like this. On the one hand, ... there is enormous pride in the journalism we've done. ... But we're also human beings, and I'm very cognizant of the fact that we've caused Jim West enormous personal pain, that we've probably destroyed his political career, and that we continue to batter him with new stories and new revelations and new information at the same time he's battling for both his political career and his life.

Having said that, I have more sympathy for young men that I believed he sexually abused. I have enormous sympathy for young gay men in our community who I believe were stalked and victimized by a sexual predator, whether or not they were of age. And I'm enormously sympathetic to our community, which has, I think, suffered at his narcissistic refusal to leave office and move on and let the community move forward.

... He's become more religious. ... What do you make of it?

Well, fairly early on, the mayor declared that he had, in the wake of this personal crisis brought on by our reporting, that he had found God, and that God had forgiven him his transgressions, and that this was an important part of his own recovery and that he was at peace with himself. Among the very first things he did in the days following our story was to attend church services and prayer breakfasts.

What I make of it? I refer to the politician's playbook. Play number one is to attack the media in sex scandals; play number two is to find God. I think it's predictable. It may be sincere -- it's not for me to say one way or another -- but it's certainly not surprising.

Is there an audience for it in this community?

Absolutely there's an audience for it. We have, as any community does, sincerely religious people who do believe in forgiveness. ... There are folks who certainly give the mayor the benefit of the doubt, and they have embraced him as somebody who has returned to his religious roots as a result of this personal crisis. There are quite a few others, of course, who think of it as strictly political hypocrisy, and I don't think it's proven to be a particularly potent response to the recall effort.

... When did you realize how big this story actually was?

We always knew it was a big story, certainly a huge story for the city of Spokane. ... We knew it was huge locally. We knew it would be big in the state because Jim West was a state figure. We knew the folks in Seattle would be interested, and in Olympia.

What we didn't anticipate -- and again, this is a naivete that I'm a bit ashamed of -- ... but I never believed or thought for a moment it would be a national story until the day after publication when the phone calls started coming in. That took us completely by surprise, and it's a bit embarrassing.

How did you prepare your team for this?

Well, we did establish some protocols within the team as to how we were going to communicate to readers and to the citizens of Spokane and to the Spokane media, and in the end we just sort of extended those protocols as best we could to deal with the flood of national attention. The two reporters who were significantly involved, Karen Dorn Steele and Bill Morlin, were not going to be available to do anything but work on that story. ... I would represent the journalism of the newsroom, to answer the kinds of questions that we did expect, particularly from within the industry, about our reporting techniques. ... But all of that was in the context of a fairly manageable level of inquiry, and it really got out of hand quite quickly.

What happened?

It was an enormous flood of inquiries from, frankly, all over the world for which we weren't prepared. I know I made a couple of very quick missteps. I said yes to a couple of cable shows that I wish I hadn't. On one particular cable show, 24 hours after the story broke, we were sandwiched between the runaway bride in Georgia and Michael Jackson on trial. Very quickly that became unacceptable to us.

We huddled again a couple days after the story and established new ground rules for the national media: We would deal with respectable news organizations; we'd avoid the tabloid shows and the tabloid journalists; we would talk to anybody who asked ... questions about our journalism; we would avoid drawing conclusions; we would not make accusations or go beyond what we had reported. That worked out pretty well.

Tell me ... what it was like in the newsroom.

Actually, it began the night before. Our reporting team had been isolated from the newsroom for two or three months; we'd moved them to a different building. The newsroom knew we were working on a major project, but they really didn't know what it was about, nor did they know when it was coming. The night before it was published, when we literally made the decision on the fly to publish the next morning, I called a staff meeting, ... and I sent out an e-mail to all the rest.

You could hear the jaws drop from well outside the building. There was stunned silence. There was shock. There was amazement. There was a certain amount of pride that journalists have when they feel that they're attached even peripherally to good work.

The next day, it was just a madhouse. The phones were ringing off the hooks. The receptionists are trying to answer calls. We're getting calls from readers. Some love us; some hate us. We're getting calls from the media. ... I'd be hard pressed to really give you much detail of those first couple of days. I just remember none of us got any sleep for about three or four days.

... What do you think the national appeal of this story was? ...

I think it's part of a 24-hour cable culture and the news cycle and the interest in certain prurient aspects of our lives. This is an important story in Spokane because the mayor is a fundamental part of the fabric of the community. Nationally, it's an old man seeking sex from kids, and that caught people's attention. And the political hypocrisy was something I heard a lot about.

I think the culture wars that we're engaged in nationally, this story kind of connected with that, and so there was a lot of interest in the gay and lesbian community. And we have a tendency in our business to self-perpetuate our own stories. Then there was the sex, and all of that just came at exactly the right time -- like I said, sandwiched between the runaway bride and Michael Jackson. ...

... The danger that this would confirm people's worst assumptions about homosexuals -- ... describe that and the role the paper plays in it.

We were concerned about that from the very beginning of this project. It was very important to us ... to try and draw the distinction between pedophilia and sexual orientation. ... So we tried to draw those distinctions in our reporting. We dealt with people in the gay and lesbian community in the days following publication to try to explain some of those distinctions.

In the end, all you can do with this kind of journalism is try to address the larger number of people in the community who are open-minded. ... There are some in our community who we will never reach and whose worst feelings about gay people or Jews or African Americans will always be borne out by news they read in the newspaper. You simply can't aim your journalism at them; it's pointless. ...

... You told us ... the [local] reaction to the story was muted. ... Why do you think that was?

In the days just after the revelations in our newspaper, I think the community was shocked and stunned. In that time frame, the reaction was somewhat muted. ... The reaction, as the summer progressed, became a bit more intense as it became clear that there were aspects of Jim West's behavior that he had acknowledged that really violated some sense of community standards of behavior; whether they were illegal or not really wasn't the issue. At the same time we began to experience a bit of a backlash on our own journalism, although that was never of major significance.

You had a personal theory that they weren't worked up about it because it was a gay boy.

I still believe that there's a certain missing community empathy for these young, closeted gay males who were on the receiving end of the mayor's attention. ... I've always felt that if the mayor were pursuing young girls, ... the community outrage would have been enormous: "He's after our daughters." I think it's a little more muted because people don't really understand or have difficulty empathizing with young gay males.

You wrote an editorial which was rather controversial. ... Tell me about that.

Well, I did write an op-ed piece sometime about mid-June in which I criticized particularly the religious and educational leaders of our community for not reacting more strongly to the circumstances that we were reporting. ... In retrospect, I wish I hadn't written it, not because I believe that I was wrong, ... but it shifted the focus a bit from our reporters and their work to me. And I think it gave the mayor a target in the person of the editor of the newspaper. ... I wish somebody else had written it, but I certainly stand behind what I wrote. ...

Talk about the recall effort. ... What do you think is going to happen?

Well, the recall is set for Dec. 6 of this year. It's been a long process. The recall system in Washington is very complicated; it's taken months and months to reach the point of an actual vote. Our polling shows that the mayor is in deep trouble. If the vote were held today, he would lose by 2-1, maybe as much as 3-1. And I think he understands that. It's a hole that he probably can not dig himself out of, no matter what strategy he adopts.

Is he trying?

Oh, he's trying very hard. He's trying to raise money to mount an effective campaign. He's using the advantages of his office: making the public appearances that he can make; gaining whatever free TV time he can through various announcements or events. So he's trying very hard. I don't know that he's going to be successful, but he's a veteran campaigner, and he knows how to campaign.

Why don't you think he'll step down?

I never thought that he would step down. ... He will fight to the end; he will never give up. He is a tenacious battler. It is not in his nature to concede. ... He was going to fight this out to the very end from day one.

Even now, when the polls are overwhelmingly against him?

It's a form of political narcissism. I think it's destructive to himself; I think it's destructive to the community. In situations like this, you begin to understand the true political character of an individual. I think a person who truly loved his community would not put the community through the last several months. Instead, the self-interest of the politician has trumped the spirit of public service. I think it's a real tragedy.

The paper is still fighting the mayor. ... What are you trying to do, and why?

Well, the investigation is not complete yet. There are still a number of outstanding questions related to the mayor's activities, questions that can only be answered if we have access to legitimate public records that tell us what the mayor has been doing in his office and on his computer. ... We believe there's more there, and we intend to find out what that is.

Do you have any theories about what's out there?

We have some solid ideas, but a sense of what's out there isn't the same as knowing what's out there or being in a position to report it. We've established a very high bar for this investigation, and we need solid, concrete evidence to support our theories and beliefs. And we'll obtain that evidence ultimately through legal action in obtaining the records that are rightfully the public's.

But isn't enough enough?

No. Truth is the point, and this isn't about beating the mayor into submission. This is about making sure that the community knows what's happened, how it's happened, and why it's happened, so that we can a, put it behind us, and b, make sure it doesn't happen again.

The question of journalists being part of the story, ... how do you answer to that?

We don't like being part of the story, but in our view, we were doing our jobs, and if that makes us part of the story, so be it. The story is an important one, and it needed to be told. It needed to be told by us, because if we hadn't told it, no one else would have. If the downside of that is that we get involved peripherally in this political campaign, if a little mud is slung our way, if we take a few shots, then we can live with that. But in the end, I believe we performed a public service, and I think the citizens of Spokane think we performed a public service.

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posted nov. 14, 2006

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