The "To Catch a Predator" series on "Dateline NBC" has been a smash hit for the network's news division since it launched more than two years ago, drawing a substantial audience and public praise for bringing sex offenders to justice. But the program's tactics have always been controversial, and now they've landed NBC in court. The charge is breach of contract, but the complaint paints a picture of a program willing to cross ethical lines to win ratings.
Former "Dateline" producer Marsha Bartel, who worked at NBC for more than 20 years, was let go last December just a few months after being promoted to sole producer of the "Predator" series. Bartel says the company told her she was being dropped in a general round of layoffs. While there's no question that NBC has been downsizing, Bartel believes she was forced out because she complained to her supervisors that the "Predator" series repeatedly violated the standards of ethical journalism.
NBC has disclosed that it pays an advocacy group, Perverted Justice, to set up the "Predator" sting operations featured on 10 installments of "Dateline" so far. The group's volunteers pose as young teens in Internet chat rooms, looking for adults interested in having sex; when they arrange to meet, the network's hidden cameras are waiting.
NBC insists it's not paying for news, but Bartel's lawsuit alleges the payments violate the network's own standards against conflict of interest. "Contrary to NBC Policies and Guidelines, NBC unethically pays Perverted Justice to troll for and lure targets into its sting," the lawsuit says, "thereby giving it a financial incentive to lie and trick targets." Bartel says that targets sometimes are "led into additional acts of humiliation (such as being encouraged to remove their clothes) in order to enhance the comedic effect of the public exposure of these persons."
The program also works closely with police — too closely, according to Bartel. Her complaint says the network provides police with video equipment and tapes so they can record the arrests they make for NBC to air. She also alleges that NBC pays or reimburses law enforcement officials to participate in the stings "in order to enhance and intensify the dramatic effect of the show." Do these practices make the "Dateline" staff an arm of law enforcement or turn the police into journalists? Either way, they're a bad idea.
To be fair, reporters and editors enhance dramatic or comic elements of a news story all the time, by choosing what information to include and where to place it. But paying or tricking participants in a story to intensify the drama or comedy crosses the line. This isn't "Candid Camera." "Dateline" is supposed to be a news program.
It's also true that undercover journalism is a noble tradition that has exposed serious wrongdoing in the past. "Dateline" itself has used hidden cameras to reveal fraud at car dealerships and child labor violations. But those stories had wide impact, and the video was necessary to prove the case. On that basis, "Predator" doesn't measure up.
"Predator" reporter and host Chris Hansen defends the program and its tactics. In promoting his new book based on the series, Hansen has bragged that of the more than 200 men charged in the investigations, only one has been found not guilty. "I think..it's for the greater good," he told NPR's "Talk of the Nation." But some of the cases are not going to court. A Texas district attorney recently threw out 23 arrests from a "Dateline" sting as inadequate for prosecution. One sting target in Texas fatally shot himself last fall as officers forced their way into his house, while NBC cameras stood by outside.
Hansen says he doesn't feel responsible for the man's death, and he sees nothing wrong with paying Perverted Justice. He compares those payments to the contracts NBC signs with retired generals and FBI agents who comment on the news. But that's a stretch of Rose Mary Woods proportions. The generals aren't setting up wars for NBC to cover.
In a statement responding to Bartel's lawsuit, NBC says it has been transparent about its reporting methods. "Although the reports have been subject to some controversy, audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive." That's great for NBC's bottom line, but it doesn't justify the way the program operates.
No one's suggesting that the would-be predators exposed by "Dateline" are anything other than scummy. But did the network really need to produce 10 programs to make that point over and over again? All the attention suggests the country is crawling with these creeps, but statistics don't support that. Besides, there are plenty of other worthwhile stories going begging for airtime while "Dateline" tracks perverts.
"Dateline" has done some excellent work; its documentary about a first-year schoolteacher in Atlanta won a Peabody award this year. It was compelling television, focusing on systemic problems that affect millions more children than Internet predators. But it wasn't sexy and aired just once, in August, when audiences are traditionally low.
Yes, viewers may prefer to watch "humilitainment" like "Predator" instead of a meaningful investigation. But that's no reason to let your news division produce it and pretend it's a documentary.