Journalist Cyberstung

You might think busting a journalist would make the press howl. But for one investigative reporter—a leading advocate for gay youth—an arrest for allegedly arranging to have sex with a teen was greeted with a resounding hush.

Bruce Mirken, a 42-year-old San Francisco-based reporter, was charged in Sacramento two months ago with two counts of intending to engage in lewd conduct with a minor. He was apparently nabbed as part of an Internet sting: a Sacramento vice detective posing as a troubled teen corresponded with Mirken and eventually arranged to meet him in a downtown Sacramento park. When Mirken arrived on the morning of July 24, he was busted. A court hearing is scheduled for this Thursday.

Mirken says the charges are "utter nonsense, completely false." His explanation is simple—he was working. Over the last decade Mirken has built a reputation as one of the gay press's leading investigative reporters, writing regularly for papers like San Francisco's Bay Times, New York's QW, and Miami's Weekly News, as well as national magazines like Out and POZ. Ironically, much of his rep is based on his longstanding efforts to report on the struggles of gay kids—so much so that one of his editors calls him "one of the country's leading voices for queer youth."

Mirken says he's reluctantly following his lawyer's orders to refrain from discussing his case, and Sacramento police refused to comment, though vice squad captain Ernie Daniels did say, "We're very proactively looking for people who want to take advantage of young people." Daniels says the department hopes to catch others using the same techniques.

Mirken's lawyer, Bruce Nickerson, offered this version of the sting: "Bruce met this so-called boy online, and communicated with him for some time. The boy represented himself as lonely, needing help and sympathy. Eventually, he steered the conversation into sex. But Bruce did not agree to have sex; he simply agreed to meet the boy in a public place. And Bruce resisted their effort to get him to bring things to the meeting, things like a condom and lubrication and a hotel room key. Bruce showed up with nothing but himself. He is totally innocent. His sole purpose was to interview the kid and get material for his stories."

Nickerson says the police "just discounted Bruce's journalism background." After his arrest, Mirken's bail was set at $100,000, and his computer and address book were seized.

Longtime colleagues of Mirken's are astonished by his arrest. Stuart Timmons, a freelancer who often writes for gay papers, has known Mirken for a dozen years and calls his bust "simply outrageous. This is just a modern variation of the old law enforcement scam of entrapping gay people. And this is the laziest version yet: some fat cop sitting at a computer." Timmons says that Mirken "is a person with the highest ethical standards. If I had a gay teenage son, Bruce is someone I would want him to know."

In 1993, Mirken wrote a cover story for the L.A. Reader about Lyn Duff, a California teen who sued her mother for sending her to an institution in Utah to "cure" her lesbianism. Timmons says that "for months, Bruce was one of the people Lyn called for help and support. And that is typical of him."

Kim Corsaro, publisher and editor of the Bay Times, calls Mirken's arrest "a complete travesty. I've heard him say zillions of times, 'There's this kid on e-mail who's got a problem.' And he helps them out whether or not there's a story. He's published numerous articles about gay kids, and won numerous awards."

Mirken's reporting about gay and lesbian kids has even encompassed the way the Internet has changed their lives. An article he wrote in December for the Pacific News Service has an ironic resonance, considering his current situation. In "Message in a Cyber Bottle—A Lifeline for Gay Teens," Mirken wrote:

"On a winter night about two years ago I came upon a message in a bottle.

"This was not a note cast into the sea by some shipwrecked sailor, but words sent into cyberspace by a boy who felt lost on dry land:

".'I am a gay teen and I haven't told anybody yet because I am afraid of what they might think. Could somebody please give me some advice?'

"Something about that message, posted on a bulletin board on America Online, hit me like a punch in the stomach…

"I wrote to him and quickly found out that Adam (not his real name) was a wonderful kid… He was 14, lived with his mother in a small town in Alabama…

"Two years have passed since I answered that message, and though we have never met in person I count this kid as one of my best friends. We exchange e-mail almost every day..."

Mirken's article went on to note that the "Internet has proven to be a lifeline for kids like Adam… It is often the only safe place they can go for support. That may seem like a strange thing to say, given the periodic waves of sensational headlines about stalkers, pedophiles and other lowlifes haunting the Internet. While it's true that no human community—online or off—is completely free of losers and criminals, a handful of incidents have been exaggerated out of all proportion."

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