Until recently, a TV station could hype an erroneous news story about a raunchy controversy, grab a few viewers at 11:00 p.m., and titillate them with scandal—without any re-percussions from anybody. But lately, thanks to the internet, the mainstream media is finding it harder to get away with hack reporting.
Case in point: On November 17, KOMO 4 News ran a "Problem Solvers" segment about the Center for Sex Positive Culture, a private sex club with 2,500 active members and a sister organization that teaches classes on having better sex. News anchor Dan Lewis announced that Allena Gabosch, the organization's executive director, "is seeking state and federal money to finance part of her sex organization."
Cut to KOMO's Marlee Ginter—the aforementioned "problem solver"—taking a tour of a windowless sex room. "I went to the club on one of its busiest nights. I saw people naked, fondling, flogging," says Ginter. Then, lilting her voice: "And even having sex."
But the problem for this "problem solver" was supposedly with the center's funding. The organization's club is a 501(c)(7) nonprofit. Its tax exemption, Ginter argued, is the equivalent of a government giveaway.
"She obviously found a way around the system," says a random woman in Ginter's report—included, presumably, to demonstrate public outrage about the center's finances.
However, Gabosch tells The Stranger, "We do not get money from the government or from tax dollars" to fund the club or the organization's sex-education wing. Indeed, IRS rules for (c)(7)s state that "a club should be supported solely by membership fees, dues, and assessments," which are not tax deductible. And the sex-education wing of the organization is a separately funded 501(c)(3), which also receives no government funding.
In her report, unsurprisingly, Ginter never cites IRS rules. Instead, she focuses on sexual taboos like bondage beds. In an apparent effort to prove the state is failing to regulate the club, she interviews Tabitha Blacksmith, a spokeswoman for the Charities Program of the Washington Secretary of State, which only tracks nonprofits' contributions. Ginter asks, "So you guys won't even determine... you're not a charity, you're a sex club." Blacksmith explained to Ginter that was outside the state's purview.
"We don't have anything to do with [verifying] the (c)(3) or (c)(7)," Blacksmith told The Stranger a week after the interview. "That's the IRS."
According to IRS rules, in order to qualify as a 501(c)(7), organizations must maintain "personal contact, commingling, and face-to-face fellowship. Members must share interests and have a common goal directed toward pleasure, recreation, and other nonprofitable purposes."
By the IRS's standards, in other words, it practically has to be a sex club.
But Ginter never brings up the tax rules governing groups like the center—probably because citing what those rules actually say would undermine the premise that there is a "problem."
The morning after KOMO's sexposé aired, Stranger editorial director Dan Savage launched an online assault on KOMO for its "sex-negative posturing" and called on readers of Slog, The Stranger's blog, to e-mail complaints to Ginter. The post was linked on numerous websites. Meanwhile, the video of the segment went up on YouTube.
KOMO pulled the piece from its website the next day. But the controversy was a dozen blog posts and thousands of YouTube views from being over. "KOMO's Marlee Ginter Might Be Sucking Off Goats," two headlines read—a reference to Ginter's insinuation that the center "might be" getting money from the government. After all, it was just as true that Ginter "might be" blowing goats as it was that the Center "might be" getting government funding.
Within a day, that headline became the second Google result for Ginter's name.
Is dragging an individual reporter's name through the manure too harsh, considering Ginter was simply using sensationalism to boost ratings—the same as any other TV news organization? Tom Huang, an ethics and diversity fellow at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and think tank, thinks it might be justified.
"Sometimes [targeting an individual reporter] is unfair in certain stories, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't happen," Huang says. "The alternative media can push the traditional media to do a better job.... Potentially, it might make editors and reporters more cautious about how they report stories."
At the Center for Sex Positive Culture, the hubbub over the smear piece has been a boon. Radio coverage has featured Gabosch, and members have been "donating to [the center] all week" through KOMO's Problem Solvers webpage. Members "have been very supportive and reenergized about the center," says Gabosch. "This whole thing has turned out to be great for us in the long run."