In May 2005, a scandal broke in the pages of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. Popular conservative mayor Jim West was accused of trolling gay chat rooms on the Internet in search of young men. Despite shady tactics on the part of the newspaper—and before the veracity of the accusations was fully considered—West's political career was essentially destroyed.
In A Hidden Life, Frontline producers Rachel Dretzin and Barak Goodman investigate the truth behind the allegations to discover the real extent of West's supposed unethical conduct, as well as the questionable methods employed by Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin and editor Steven Smith.
Based on a tip and some residual speculation concerning a child-molestation scandal in the '70s (which involved a former colleague of West's from the sheriff's department), reporter Morlin hired an outside consultant to pose as a 17-year-old boy on a gay website in an effort to ensnare West.
Frontline's special examines the community of Spokane—which interviewees claim is notoriously hostile to homosexuality—and weighs the charges against West against the motives of Morlin and others as the story built up to a recall vote and West's departure from office. Questions of West's own hypocrisy (he had voted in favor of several pieces of anti-gay legislation) are tempered by a sobering look at the anti-gay agenda favored by the Republican Party of which West was a member.
The Spokesman-Review story culminated in allegations that West illegally employed the power of his office to offer favors to young men he was interested in sexually. In February of 2006 the FBI cleared West of all charges, and after the dust settled, all that remained of the paper's original allegations was an acknowledgement of West's sexual orientation—a fact damning enough in its own right to reduce West's political ambitions to utter desolation. West died of cancer just five months later on July 22.
In a period marked by national scandals involving gay politicians, A Hidden Life casts the stigma against homosexuality in politics in bold relief, and serves as a warning to both the public and the press against leaping to conclusions before all the facts are known.