By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 2/17/2006 10:04:18 AM ET 2006-02-17T15:04:18

It was never a “gay story.” It wasn’t even about sex, really. Instead, Steve Smith says, it was simply “a story about misconduct by a public official.”

Steven A. Smith is editor of The Spokesman-Review, the daily newspaper in Spokane, Wash. Last year, his paper published a bombshell investigation: The mayor, a hard-line conservative Republican with a long history of outspoken anti-gay rhetoric and support for measures to restrict the rights of gay men and lesbians in Washington, was himself gay and had trolled for male lovers among teenage participants in gay online chat rooms.

The report led the voters of Spokane to recall the mayor and, by explaining how the newspaper had nailed down the story, ignited debates over journalistic ethics in newsrooms and classrooms across the country. In setting out to prove that Mayor James West was the man behind the aliases on Gay.com, The Spokesman-Review hired a forensic computer consultant to pose as a teenager to lure West into setting up a meeting.

Reluctantly embracing deception
One of the guiding principles of American journalism is that reporters should almost never conceal who they are or what they are doing. But Smith makes no bones about it: “The expert was authorized by us to deceive Jim West,” The Spokesman-Review editor told an overflow crowd of journalists, students and others Thursday night at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer — whose own star columnist, Robert L. Jamieson, called the newspaper’s tactics “slimy.”

At issue was not West’s apparent hypocrisy in opposing gay initiatives while being closeted himself. (“Damn straight,” Smith replied when asked whether the Spokesman-Review would have pursued the story so aggressively if West’s targets had been female.)

Instead, it was that West had used his official position to offer city jobs to his unqualified paramours, and it was that he targeted minors.

Smith acknowledged that he agonized over the story for months. “No single project with which I have been involved has led to so many questions on a daily basis,” he said.

Federal prosecutors closed their investigation of the former mayor Thursday, saying a nine-month FBI inquiry had not found enough evidence to charge West, 54, with abusing his office. A private investigator hired by the Spokane City Council concluded otherwise in November, finding that West had violated state law and city policies regulating the use of official computers.

Speaking to reporters Thursday in Spokane, West welcomed the federal announcement, according to The Associated Press. He called the federal inquiry “the only investigation without an ax to grind” and refused to rule out filing a lawsuit against Smith and the Spokesman-Review.

“There was a mob mentality that was created by the local newspaper,” said West, who was recalled from office in December by 65 percent of the voters. While he has acknowledged making mistakes, he has insisted that he did not break the law.

Snared in the Internet
The story illustrates how unwitting trails left in the online world can open the door on secrets people may prefer to keep hidden. For gay people, that reality can be particularly acute, as gay men and lesbians build ever-stronger — and ever-more-public — communities on the Internet.

West parlayed his stature as one of the state’s most powerful Republicans into what he called his dream job, mayor of his hometown. He was elected in 2003, after a 21-year legislative career in which he rose to state Senate Republican leader, running on a conservative record that often tipped over into anti-gay rhetoric and votes.

His own orientation, while widely rumored, was never reported, and it would likely have remained unconfirmed except for his online activity. The Spokesman-Review developed the information during the course of a three-year investigation into allegations of abuse by Catholic priests, Boy Scout leaders and sheriff’s officers, during which the newspaper began getting numerous tips about West, who was a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy and a Boy Scout leader in the 1970s and 1980s.

The newspaper reported that in a lawsuit against the county, two men had given depositions alleging that West molested them in the 1970s, when they were minors. West, who was not named in the lawsuit, has categorically denied those accusations, which investigators have neither confirmed nor denied.

At the same time, the newspaper also learned that West, using his city computer, may have been approaching male minors on Gay.com. It authorized its forensic computer expert to pose as a student to lure West after Smith concluded that there was no other way to conclusively prove that West had done so.

“We had suspicions but no evidence that a crime had been committed,” Smith said, and without unassailable evidence, that angle of the story would never have been printed. The newspaper printed the transcripts of of its consultant’s online discussions with West, and it posted online nearly all of the materials it compiled in its investigation so readers could judge its reporting for themselves.

“That’s one of the subtexts for this whole discussion. The online world changes so many things that we’re used to ...,” Smith said. “Hiding in the bushes is much more difficult.”

The editors of some prominent newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, criticized the Spokesman-Review for misleading West. Others supported the newspaper, and Smith said Thursday that he had no doubts that he did the right thing.

“This was conduct that could threaten the well-being of young people our community,” he said.

Disclosure: Reporter Alex Johnson is a member of the board of directors of the Society of Professional Journalists chapter that organized Steven A. Smith’s discussion. In that capacity, he introduced Smith but otherwise had no role in organizing or presenting the event.

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