NBC's 'Dateline' in Another Controversy
By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
NBC "Dateline"'s hit "To Catch a Predator" is a television series in which adult volunteers in Internet chat rooms pretend to be young teens who are looking to hookup with adults who desire to have sex with minors.
Volunteers are supplied by Perverted Justice, a controversial private citizen's group that is dedicated to finding online predators. In order to lure suspected predators, volunteers engage in sexually graphic Internet conversations with suspects.
Each episode of the series features men entering the homes of minors with whom Internet discussions about sexual encounters have already taken place. With cameras rolling, the men are confronted by "Dateline" personality Chris Hansen.
In commenting on the public humiliation that is part of such a televised sting, an unnamed NBC staffer told Radar Magazine, "One of these guys is going to go home and shoot himself in the head."
Less than two months after the staffer's ominous prediction someone actually did.
Louis Conradt Jr. was caught in one of "Dateline" and Perverted Justice's sting operations. The Dallas area prosecutor had reportedly solicited sex from a decoy who was posing online as a 13-year-old boy.
When the police arrived at his home, Conradt refused to open the door. Officers eventually forced their way in only to find that in the interim Conradt had taken a handgun and shot himself in the head. An NBC camera crew assigned to film the program was present outside the home.
The universal reaction to child predator crime is one of disgust, outrage and a demand for justice. In serving and protecting the public, police are required to engage in this kind of investigation. But there are big problems with a news/entertainment show getting into the criminal investigation business. Here are two.
First, it is unethical for news organizations to pay sources because it taints the objectivity of the source. Perverted Justice does not supply its volunteers for free. The Washington Post reported that NBC agreed to pay the group more than $100,000 to create the sting operation that "Dateline" uses. Sources at NBC confirmed to the San Francisco Chronicle that Perverted Justice received more than that amount for its role in a previous sting.
Second, journalistic and legal ethics are breached when a purported news organization obscures the distinction between news media and law enforcement. It turns out that, in a prior sting, NBC agreed to have the police deputize Perverted Justice members. This converted volunteers into officers and effectively transformed the NBC production into a law enforcement activity.
We are a nation that believes in Due Process. Trying, convicting and punishing individuals via reality TV bypasses the steps required in criminal cases. Such melded entertainment fare may also interfere with real-life criminal investigations. A prosecutor's discretion, impartiality of potential jurors and presumption of innocence are threatened and may even be destroyed with this type of programming.
When a "child predator" label is placed on an individual on national TV, that person's life is permanently ruined.
If a legislature decides that, after an individual is tried and convicted, public humiliation may be part of an individual's sentencing, that is the prerogative of representative government.
NBC is no legislature. It should not act as a judge or jury either.
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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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