Watch Frontline Tonight

Set your TiVo! PBS's "Frontline" is setting a "very critical eye" toward The Spokesman-Review tonight for outing former Spokane mayor, Jim West.

(EDIT: If you missed it, you can watch it online here.)

It will air tonight at 9 p.m. According to the description: "With access to all sides of the story, and a close reading of the mayor's Internet chat transcripts and other documents, A Hidden Life examines a man's struggle for sexual identity, a newspaper's controversial decision to conduct an online sting operation, and the growing tension between a politician's private life and the public's right to know in an age of online chat and instant messaging."

Here's your backgrounder:

Spokane Mayor Jim West (2003-2005) championed an anti-gay agenda during his tenure as one of the most powerful Republicans in the Legislature. He supported a law that would have barred gays and lesbians from working in schools and day care centers. He proposed a bill that would make any teen sexual activities illegal.

According to an Editor's Note by Steven Smith, the Spokesman-Review began investigating West's sexual past in 2002:

At that time, the newspaper was investigating the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Allegations surfaced that Jim West sexually molested young boys in the late 1970s when he was a Boy Scout leader and a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy.

In a June 2003 story, [Bill] Morlin reported that West, then a state legislator and candidate for Spokane mayor, had been close friends in the late ’70s with sheriff’s Deputy David Hahn and Scout leader George E. Robey, who killed themselves amid accusations of child molestation.

While the 2003 stories did not include specific abuse allegations against West, they did generate tips from additional sources that the newspaper has spent the past two years investigating.

Today’s stories are the result.

The Spokesman-Review came to the starling conclusion that "[f]or a quarter century, the man who is now Spokane's mayor has used positions of public trust – as a sheriff's deputy, Boy Scout leader and powerful politician – to develop sexual relationships with boys and young men."

The story exploded across the media scene and devasted Spokane, Wash.

Smith didn't mention their use of a consultant, who posed as a 17-year-old boy on a gay website. They essentially set him up.

From a press release about tonight's program:

"We wanted to know, 'Do we have a mayor trolling on the Internet for underage boys?'" Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin tells FRONTLINE, speaking of the paper's decision to hire a consultant to pose as a 17-year-old boy on a gay web site. The consultant then sought out the mayor to see how far West would go. "The intention wasn't to bait anyone," says Morlin. "The purpose of our investigation was a search for the truth. ... Our code of ethics prohibits me from pretending to be somebody I'm not. ... But we're not prevented from hiring consultants."


In the days and weeks after the scandal broke, West admitted visiting gay chat rooms, but he strongly denied the allegation that he had molested boys. "That's the preconceived notion The Spokesman-Review went into the story with," West tells FRONTLINE in his most in-depth television interview about the scandal. "They were convinced that I had abused young children years ago. In their mind, this was the, the main story. And in fact I didn't." To West, the newspaper's story might have begun as an attempt to reckon with Spokane's abuse history, but it had evolved into a more personal battle with The Spokesman-Review and its editor, Steven Smith. "The only way he can prove he's right is by running me out of office or killing me off," says West.

In December 2005 -- after 189 stories in The Spokesman-Review and the city's first ever recall election -- Mayor West was voted out of office in a landslide. "The demise ... was absolutely Shakespearean," says David Ammons, who covered West's career for the Associated Press. "I would say he was the most important Republican in the state for a while. And now he's exiled in disgrace." West himself later tells FRONTLINE: "If what was printed in the newspaper and said on the radio [were] true, I'd abandon me. I'd say, 'How could I be near this person?' But I knew that it wasn't and the majority of my friends did too."

An on July 22 of this year, West died of cancer, in a truly "Shakespearean" ending, as Ammons put it.

The Spokesman-Review is certainly on shakey ethical grounds, especially since the FBI cleared West of charges that he illegally misused his political power to lure young men into sexual exploits early this year.

Compelling stuff and essential viewing for those interested in media. I just hope I can make it home my internship in time to watch it.

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