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.”

In 1996, Mirken joined an ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation suit against a Georgia statute that aimed to outlaw handles, or aliases. The suit argued that without anonymity, gay kids and a host of others “would fear using the Internet to seek information and support.” A week after Mirken and company won that suit in June 1997, the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress to protect minors from online indecency.

But the zealousness of Internet policing continues, and it’s resulted in the arrest of at least one other journalist. Larry Matthews, a veteran radio freelancer, was indicted in Maryland in July 1997 for trafficking in child porn. Matthews was working for National Public Radio, and in 1995 had broadcast a three-part series on the electronic child-porn trade on a Washington radio station. He admits using his Mac to trade images, but says he did so to write his story.

Last July, however, a U.S. District judge ruled that Matthews’s profession wasn’t a defense: “The law,” declared Judge Alexander Williams Jr., “is clear that a press pass is not a license to break the law.” Days later, Matthews pled guilty to two child-porn charges, in order, he has said, to hasten an appeal on First Amendment grounds. “We have the same defense,” said Matthews’s lawyer. “Larry was acting as a journalist.”

But in Mirken’s case, says his attorney, “Bruce didn’t break any law at all.” Still, unlike Matthews, whose story was covered by The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and others—and whose case was taken up by civil liberties and journalists’ groups—Mirken has received only a few small notices in the gay press.

“It’s been like walking into a parallel universe where everything you say is turned against you in some warped way,” says Merkin. But he vows to continue to report on gay kids, “because, I guess, I still have unpleasant memories of my own high school years. I’ve written about three kids who’ve ended up dead by their own hand. So I won’t let it stop me. If nothing else I am stubborn as hell.”

Free at Last?

The announcement by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi that his government would disassociate itself from the decade-old bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head was among last week’s most welcome pieces of news. The announcement provided an apt occasion to shine a light on the fight against murderous censorship in Iran and across the world. But the American media turned the spotlight away.

We did not hear, for example, about the extraordinary turn Taslima Nasrin’s life took last week. Nasrin is the feminist Bangladeshi author who has weathered death threats and lived in European exile since 1994, when her government ordered her arrest for blaspheming Islam. She had been quoted as saying the Koran should be rewritten, comments she has denied making. Last week Nasrin returned to Bangladesh to be with her ailing mother. Hundreds paraded through the streets of Dhaka calling for her hanging.

And just days before Iran’s president declared the campaign against Rushdie “completely finished,” two journalists with the Islamic Republic News Agency, Mohammed Reza Sadeq and Ali Reza Khosravi, were arrested by Iranian authorities. They joined Mahmoud Shamsolvaezin and Hamid Reza Jalaipur, the editor and publisher of the daily Tous, in prison. Two weeks ago the liberal paper was shut down, and this weekend an Iranian exile told the Voice that Shamsolvaezin and Jalaipur may be charged under a law that accuses them of “enmity with God.” Conviction could mean death.

Diana Ayton-Shenker of the PEN American Center says that following the Iranian government’s statements on Rushdie, “international pressure is as necessary as ever.” Indeed, in response to the latest pronouncements, hardliners in the Iranian government and press pushed for continuing vigilance, and two papers insisted that the death sentence against Rushdie would be carried out.

What would it take to hold big media’s attention? Perhaps this: In late March, Reza Ghanilau of the Fakour weekly in Iran was fined a million rials and banned from working for six months. His crime? Publishing front-page photos of Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, et al. Now there’s a crusade American journalists can get behind.