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PBS Frontline: 'A Hidden Life'

Rachel Dretzin
Frontline Producer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006 11:00 AM

PBS Frontline producer Rachel Dretzin was online Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the film, "A Hidden Life," which examines the story of former Spokane mayor Jim West and the limits of the public's right to know about the personal lives of politicians. A local newspaper had someone pose as a 17-year-old boy in a gay Internet chat room to seek out the mayor, and then broke the story. Frontline interviewed West, who died of cancer earlier this year, and others involved in the controversy that took him out of office.

" A Hidden Life" airs Tuesday, Nov. 14, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

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Sunnyvale, Calif.: Hello Ms. Dretzin. I just finished watching the program on Tivo and I wanted to jump online to say how impressed I was at the truly fair, unbiased and balanced tone the piece takes. I'm no conspiracy theorist and I have no doubt that most (not all) tele-journalists take pains to approach a subject from all sides. Rarely though have I seen a piece as starkly even-handed as yours. I commend your success at being able to present all sides of the story with equal weight.

Rachel Dretzin: Thank you!

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Athens, Ohio: Being bisexual, I have felt the prejudice coming from both the heterosexual and homosexual community. I can feel compassion for both the youth and the tormented former mayor West. My question is, do you think this story would have this have received as much attention if Mayor West was being inappropriate with female interns?

Rachel Dretzin: I think your question is an excellent one. When we asked it of Steve Smith, the paper's editor, he insisted that the coverage would have been exactly the same if West had been involved with females instead of males. But I think personally that the public reaction is heightened when homosexuality is involved, and certainly the "hypocrisy" issue was very connected to the sexuality of those involved.

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New York, N.Y.: Brilliant, heartbreaking work, Ms. Dretzin. As a gay man generally in favor of outing, particularly in cases involving law makers, I must say this film had me rethinking everything. I admit I had not fully realized the extent to which outing can be used by homophobes. And make no mistake: The newspaper that conducted this smear campaign was motivated by homophobia, plain and simple. The reporters and editors, from the beginning, equated West's homosexuality with pedophilia, and most amazingly seem to continue making that association. Did anyone besides me hear the underlying bigotry of the reporter's comment that West "must have known" his late friend was a pedophile? After all, he seemed to suggest, "they" all know one another! Question: Have you heard from the Spokane newspaper since the documentary was completed? What was the reaction?

Rachel Dretzin: I think in truth that the motivation of the reporters involved was complex. I agree with you that the notion that West "must have known" his friend was a pedophile is troubling. Pedophilia is often defined by its secrecy. I still don't understand what Morlin meant by that statement.

We haven't heard the newspapers reaction to the program yet because they are just getting into their offices (its three hours earlier in Spokane) but Smith has a blog which he posted on yesterday (see the spokesman review Web site) and we assume he will post a reaction to the program sometime today.

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New York, N.Y.: Rachel, Thanks for taking questions. I got the impression that the allegations re. sexual abuse were suspect. The paper in Spokane seemed to have other sources, but it wasn't clear to me what they were. I was left with the impression of negligent and irresponsible reporting, especially since the FBI found no abuse of office. Where do you come down on this question -- were the most heinous allegations ever truly supported? I felt nothing but compassion for this tortured man.

Rachel Dretzin: Here's what we know: Bill Morlin, the Spokesman Review reporter, published a story in June 2003, about David Hahn (West's friend and colleague) molesting boys back in the 70s. Morlin interviewed and quoted a former boy scout named Rob Galliher for that story. Galliher told him he had been molested by Hahn. He didn't say anything about West, but after the piece came out, Morlin told us he had some "sources" advise him to look more closely into the connection between West and Hahn and told him he might find that West was more directly involved. That's what got him started. He spent over a year and a half interviewing former Scouts who had been in West's troop. Although some of them indicated West was "in the midst of an atmosphere" in which sexually inappropriate things were taking place, NONE of them alleged that West had molested them or had solid allegations that he had molested anyone else.

When the paper decided to hire the forensic computer consultant and create the identity of Motobrock, it had no solid evidence that West had molested anyone.

Then, in April, 2005, less than a month before the Spokesman published its story, Rob Galliher was deposed for a lawsuit against Spokane county over the molestation he had suffered at the hands of David Hahn. In that deposition, he said that West had also abused him.

Jim West's lawyers raised the question, which in our opinion is a legitimate one: why didn't Galliher mention West's name earlier? By the time he was deposed in April, he had known Morlin for almost two years (he had been interviewed, remember, for the original article about David Hahn.)

Of course, one will never know what really happened. These allegations are thirty years old and very difficult to prove or disprove. But in answer to your question, we continue to have some serious questions about the solidity of the allegations of pedophilia against West.

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Lansing, Mich.: I hadn't planned on watching the show. I came across it while flipping through channels but was instantly hooked. I was appalled at the smug self-righteous newspaper editor and reporter. There appeared to be no real evidence that the mayor was a pedophile or had done anything illegal. But the paper destroyed the guy. It was a witch hunt. That he may have favored two men he was attracted to with unpaid internships or committee appointments was pretty small beer.

I was struck by the interview with West's ex-wife who appeared to harbor no resentment towards West. To me that was a strong support for his position that he was not a pedophile. Was that your impression?

Rachel Dretzin: We too were surprised by how devoted West's ex wife Ginger was to her former husband. In fact, they remained very close, and she was one of his strongest supporters after the allegations came out in the paper. She told us that she had offered to make a public statement in support of West after the scandal broke and that he had told her he didn't want to drag her into the whole thing.

However, whatever the truth of the pedophilia allegations are, I'm not sure that Ginger's support of West tells us much one way or the other about their veracity. Pedophilia, sadly, is often a very hidden act, and ones closest friends and family often have no idea.

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Alexandria, Va.: I watched that show and was appalled by the short shrift given to the question raised: "What right (or, more importantly, what AGENDA) did the newspaper have to engage in the documented behavior?"

I waited, assured by my years of Frontline experience that any moment the program would begin to address the real issue. I was extremely disappointed.

Why didn't you investigate the investigators to discern the real motivation for their actions?

Rachel Dretzin: We think the answer to your question is fairly straightforward. First, like all reporters, the newspaper probably believed it had the makings of a spectacular story. And perhaps even more importantly, the editor of the paper and the reporters involved believed that West had molested boys back in the late 70s and early 80s. Given the pedophilia scandal in Spokane-- which had gone largely unreported-- the paper was especially eager not to let any crimes of the past again slip through their net. Their belief that West was a pedophile informed everything they did and gave them a moral justification for their investigation. We can argue about how solid their evidence was, but it seemed clear to us that they truly believed the allegations against West.

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Northborogh, Mass.: Rachel, What an incredibly moving and tragic story of Jim West. I watched the documentary last night and what was most disturbing to me was the self-righteousness of the newspaper and the lack of empathy by the gay community. This man, apparently to the end, was never able to come to grips with who he was. The abuse of power was as unsubstantiated as the claims of molestation. Was anyone in Spokane sympathetic to this man?

Rachel Dretzin: Thanks for your kind words about the program. In answer to your question, there were very few people in Spokane who publicly supported West after the newspaper's story broke. He had some very loyal close friends and family members but few of them spoke out publicly in his defense. In addition, many of the city employees continued to support West until the end. We were told by several people that those who supported West, especially those who gave him money during the recall campaign, were publicly singled out on the radio or in the newspaper and therefore intimidated.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Does the "young gay man" ever explain why he took the job on the Human Rights Commission, even after knowing the Mayor's political views on homosexuality?

Rachel Dretzin: First of all, as far as I know, the Human Rights Commission had very little to do with the mayor-- it was an independent citizens commission and was not influenced by the mayor's political views. Ryan was flattered to be recommended for the job. I think he saw it as an opportunity to have an important voice in human rights issues in his city.

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Columbia, S.C.: I was struck by the reporter who suggested the headline "Mayor Goes Down." Is this cynicism typical in a newsroom? Did you think the reporters were after out to get this man?

Thank you.

Rachel Dretzin: I think the suggestion of 'Mayor goes down" as a headline was probably made in jest. And yes, I think in most newsrooms late at night after a long work day people get punchy and all sorts of things are said. What made the scene poignant for us was it's juxtaposition with West, who was at the very same time watching the returns on TV. As for your question about whether they were out to get him, that's for fair minded people to debate.

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Austin, Tex.: I'm surprised that he agreed to be interviewed and participate in the film Rachel. How did you convince him? Say hi to Barak for me.

Rachel Dretzin: Hey there Paul! Good to hear from you. In answer to your question, it took awhile to convince West to talk to us. When we first requested to meet with him, his secretary told us he "wasn't interested." Then we approached his lawyers, who agreed to set up a meeting with West in their offices. Their main concern was that he not say anything that would interfere with the FBI investigation. I think once his lawyers were comfortable West began to consider it. Eventually, he was extremely willing to spend time with us and be filmed.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Ms. Dretzin, Did the illness and/or the death of Mayor West have anything at all to do with the timing of this excellent program???

Rachel Dretzin: No, actually, it didn't. We knew West was ill when we began filming but it was hard to know how near death he actually was. At times he seemed to rally and it looked like he might recover completely. We did attempt to shoot our interviews in as timely a manner as possible since his health was always a bit unpredictable, but his death didn't influence the schedule of the broadcast at all.

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Bethesda, Md.: Rachel,

The newspaper had a clear agenda of outing Jim West, humiliating him, and driving him out of office. I found the actions of the Spokane newspaper driven by nothing more than pure homophobia. They couldn't come to terms with a closeted gay mayor in their community so they took him down. Why didn't Jim West sue the Spokane newspaper for slander and libel?

Rachel Dretzin: As a matter of fact, West was preparing to sue the newspaper when he died. He had hired attorneys and they were in the midst of preparing a case.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Do you know what became of his former wife??

Rachel Dretzin: Ginger Marshall remarried and lives in Seattle. She remained close friends with West up until his death.

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New York, N.Y.: Was it your view that the editors at the Spokane newspaper (liberal?) were out to get Jim West (conservative) because of his hypocrisy or because of its newsworthiness?

Rachel Dretzin: Actually, the newspaper supported West in the mayoral election.

As for why they pursued the story, I think there are two plausible reasons. One: it was a whopper of a story, and two: I think the editor and the reporters really believed that West had molested children back in the 70s. They felt they were on the trail of a pedophile, and that informed all the choices they made.

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Arlington, Va.: I got the clear impression there was more to this story than was being reported on the show -- that the newspaper went to print with what they had, rather than what they had some evidence had happened. I realize there are legal issues involved in these decisions no one wants to discuss, but am I right?

Rachel Dretzin: I assume you are referring to the pedophilia allegations. We're not aware of any solid evidence against West that wasn't in the program and we have certainly given the Spokesman Review ample opportunity to provide it. However, you're right about there being legal issues, and there's also the issue of confidentiality in these cases.

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Charlotte, N.C.: I saw the PBS special and was just stunned at the hypocrisy of that newsroom. The reporter on the story told Frontline that newsroom ethics policy prohibited him from impersonating someone else in pursuit of a story. So how did the staff deal with that? They got around it, found a loophole by hiring an outside consultant who was not bound by that policy.

So then hiring outsiders is OK to get around ethical constraints?

Tell that to Patricia Dunn, the former chairwoman of HP, who hired an outside contractor to spy on board members. No one, least of all the media, has cut her any slack.

The Frontline program was well-done, but did not pursue this severe ethical lapse at all.

Rachel Dretzin: The issue of the ethics of hiring consultants in cases like this one is fascinating. I direct you to FRONTLINE's Web site, where if you click on the link to "A Hidden Life" you will find some really interesting readings on this issue. Several prominent media watchdogs weighed in on the ethics of the Spokesman's actions after the story broke and you can take a look at what they said.

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San Diego, Calif.: I cannot agree that your program was fair and unbiased, because what I saw was an unfair portrayal of the people of Spokane and their reaction to Jim West--it was his disregard for professional ethics that led to his recall, not the assumption of illegal activity, or his sexual orientation. Your program gave viewers the impression that West had been the victim of a witch hunt without any legal substance to it. The real story was that West showed arrogance and disrespect for the people of Spokane, even to the end. We can feel compassion for his as a person, but not for his deliberate choice of using his office for his personal gratification.

Rachel Dretzin: You might be interested in checking out some of the additional material on FRONTLINE's Web site (www.pbs.org/frontline/hiddenlife) where there is more material on the people of Spokane, their reaction to West, and their feelings about gay issues. Actually, we found a surprising amount of openness and tolerance on gay rights in many of the people we met in Spokane. There is a whole section of the Web site devoted to this broader context.

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Chicago, Ill.: It's possible that my views have been colored by the Foley scandal, but it seemed to me that you gave the Mayor a pass -- on both his trolling and his history as a Boy Scout leader. Why would someone with so many conflicts about his own sexuality put himself into such close proximity to young boys and the co-Scout Leader and co-worker (his best friend!) who was a documented child abuser? Your willingness to accept his soft evasions on these issues came off as pretty credulous.

Rachel Dretzin: As a reporter, I think it's important to restrain from drawing conclusions about something as serious as pedophilia without solid evidence that it happened. In my work as a journalist, I have seen the other side of allegations as serious as child abuse: once they are leveled, true or false, they destroy the life of the person accused. West denies that he knew that his friend Dave Hahn was a pedophile; if that's true, it's less suspicious that he put himself in proximity to him. Unfortunately, this happened so long ago it's hard to know what is true. Either way, I think it's important to avoid guilt by association with allegations as serious as these.

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Washington, D.C.: It seems as if West hurt himself more by using the "no comment" strategy instead of just admitting what was now public knowledge, realizing his preference for younger men, for better or worse, looked bad. I think voters maybe getting a wrap of homophobia when its actually an issue of honesty and hypocrisy that really got under the voters skin. Your thoughts?

Rachel Dretzin: That's a good point. In talking to people in Spokane, it seemed like many of them were bothered by just that: not that West might be gay, but that he hadn't represented who he really was to them. They felt they couldn't trust someone who had concealed himself for so long, a sentiment I can relate to. I would only add to that that our impression of West when we interviewed him was as someone who was not confused and somewhat tortured about what his sexuality actually was-- so I'm not sure he was consciously hiding as much as he was privately wrestling.

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Georgetown: I'm another fan of your work -- last night's program was about as compelling as documentary television gets. One of the things that's been suggested by the Spokane newspaper editor is that your superiors at PBS fundamentally altered the character of the documentary, that it was originally intended to be a more general piece about homosexuality and the media, but that they somehow changed the focus after the original reporting had been done. Could you comment on that?

Rachel Dretzin: Yes, I'm glad you raised that. There has been quite a lot of discussion, and misinformation, about the change in focus of the documentary. Here's the truth about what happened: when we began reporting this program, we were interested in a film that would use the West scandal as a sort of starting point and then go beyond it to explore broader issues of homosexuality in a place like Spokane. We spent months in Spokane talking to dozens of people, some specifically about the West scandal and others more broadly about homosexuality in general. As we got deeper into our reporting, the West story itself got more and more interesting to us. It was much more complex than we had originally thought. In a conversation with my executive producer at Frontline midway through our shooting, I told him I was finding the West story to be really fascinating. He encouraged me to shoot both the narrow story of West and the broader story at the same time. So for awhile, we were reporting and pursuing both. However, late in our editing process, after much work trying to make both stories work, the decision was made together with our superiors at PBS that the show would be stronger if it just focused on West. This was not some decision forced on us from on high as some in Spokane have surmised.

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Boston, Mass.: Do you think the Jim West case shows that "outing" campaigns (usually led by gay activists, not by mainstream publications) can actually play into homophobia? Just because a gay man remains closeted doesn't make him a demon.

Rachel Dretzin: I think your question is fascinating and I would direct you to Frontline's Web site (www.pbs.org/frontline/hiddenlife.)_ where the question of outing is explored in more detail and you can find links to some really interesting writings on the subject! You can also watch the program streamed online there.

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Washington, D.C.: What was hidden? That he was Gay or that he was hitting on 17 year olds? Gay or straight you do not hit on 17 year olds!

Rachel Dretzin: You make an important point, one which Steve smith, editor of the newspaper, also made to us: that to many people it is disturbing to think that a 54 year old man would be hitting on someone 17 or 18 years old. Of course, there are people for whom that is enough, without the other issues of homosexuality, abuse of office, or pedophilia.

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Bethesda, Md.: Rachel,

Another great Frontline program, keep up the great work. My question has to do with the outrage I feel towards the Spokane News-Register. The newspaper's editors essentially went on a witch hunt to ensnare the city's mayor by baiting him with a phony chat room personality. One reporter of this newspaper mentioned having an ethical code of conduct that prohibited him from doing this himself but it was okay to hire a consultant to do the dirty work for the newspaper. I find this to be incredibly hypocritical. Are there reporters or editors from other newspapers who have a problem with the Spokane paper's unethical and hypocritical tactics?

Rachel Dretzin: I direct you to FRONTLINE's Web site: (www.pbs.org/frontline/hiddenlife) where you can read the statements of other editors and publishers about what the newspaper did.

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Rachel Dretzin: Goodbye! Thanks to all of you for your terrific questions.

Please check out FRONTLINE's website on this show: (www.pbs.org/frontline/hiddenlife) where you can find lots of additional material on this topic, as well as watch the show on streaming video.

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