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Dateline: To Kill a Predator

In one moment, the immensely popular "To Catch A Predator" series - until now a unique brand of soft-core entrapment porn - crossed a line, not merely filming reality, but creating it.
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Well, Dateline: you finally got what you wanted - a live execution, with cameras rolling. Are you satisfied? A man is dead, technically by his own hand: Louis Conradt, an assistant district attorney in a small Texas town, about to be arrested for chatting online with and planning to meet a minor (he thought) for sex. He did not actually leave his house, but he did talk about it online, and in Texas that's enough to constitute a crime. So the cops descend on his bungalow with Dateline in tow, and they get the goods, if not the guy: a loud bang echoes from inside the house as their cameras approach. Moments later, Conradt is wheeled out on a stretcher, his bloody hair waving in the breeze.

In that moment, the immensely popular "To Catch A Predator" series - until now a unique brand of soft-core entrapment porn - crossed a line, not merely filming reality, but creating it. For over a year, the show has been playing cop, judge, jury, and jailer; now, without blinking, it has assumed the role of executioner. And in doing so it joins Nancy Grace and Sally Jesse Raphael in the pantheon of shows that pushes people to the brink, and then over it. Indeed, it one-ups those shows, which didn't have the cameras on when the trigger was pulled. Of course, the Dateline team is appropriately mortified: the suicide was "a devastating tragedy, a shock to all of us," as host Chris Hansen solemnly put it. I'm sure it was.

But to what end? Are children across America actually safer because of this nationwide clean-sweep of sex-hungry "predators"? Because a man who chatted about illegal sex online is now dead? The slick and insufferably self-righteous Hansen pleads innocence. We'll never know, he says, if Conradt knew the Dateline cameras were waiting outside his door. Perhaps not, but I doubt they really care. After all, they got their footage. To the show's credit, it does give five seconds of air time to the deceased's sister, who blames an "out-of-control reality show" and says she will never think of her brother's death as a suicide.

If you have not yet had the pleasure of catching this juggernaut - and make no mistake, pleasure, both thwarted and fulfilled, is a central element of the show - it relies on a simple conceit: steer an ancient law-enforcement technique - the sting - into the depths of internet sex. The result? Fish in a barrel, every time.

The setup is really too easy: the producers, with the help of a website that digs up sex predators, wander into one of those sketchy chat rooms where the talk is all sex all the time, and start flirting with some lonely sad sack with a screen name like bigdaddy14. They get him on the phone, talking to a young man or woman with an even younger voice - an illegally young voice - and set up a time to meet for sex at the fake kid's fake house. The guy shows up and peeks in the door. Roll camera. While the man waits for the kid, Chris Hansen steps out from behind a curtain and extends a disingenuous hand. "Hey, how's it going?" he asks, smiling like a bank executive at a Texas game ranch, aiming his rifle at a dazed tiger. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

Invariably, the man's first response is to act as though there's nothing weird about this situation. He may even accept the handshake. From there it's all just variations on a theme: Chris asks the man why he's there, the man sweats, stammers, dissembles, lies outright. Chris reads portions of the illicit chats back to him (isn't this fun?), at which point the man does one of two things: he tries to leave or he doesn't. If it's the former, he gets a running start of maybe three steps outside the house before a half dozen cops jump out of the bushes, yell a lot, and order him to the ground at gunpoint. This is, of course, the show's money shot - the thrilling, morally uncomplicated climax of justice served, with a heaping side of humiliation. But as the show has become more popular (it originally aired in early 2004, and has now produced maybe a dozen episodes), more and more men have bizarrely chosen the second option: to stick around and talk. In a meta-moment that never fails to amaze, some men even admit to knowing about the show and wondering in advance if this was all a setup, and still they show up. They put their head in their hands, they say they're stupid and weak, they cry, they beg Chris not to broadcast this moment of shame... and then they get arrested too. Dateline has done this show in cities and towns across America, and everywhere they go, they catch dozens of men. See? It's so simple!

And yet.

I have no interest in coming to the defense of men who troll internet chat rooms and solicit sex with minors. But something about this relentlessly smug ritual of humiliation turns my stomach. It is a theater of cheap morality, wrapped in an orgy of self-righteousness, and played out in an endless, pitiful parade of contrition. No doubt, these men are pitiful, if not quite pitiable: lonely men of all ages, races, ethnicities, income levels, and relationship statuses whose private fantasies have slipped over the line. For some it is clearly the first time; for others, clearly the hundred and first. Some seem to understand that they have crossed that line. "The internet and real life are two different things," a 27-year-old diner employee says. Well, yes, but the idea doesn't seem to sink in. Even if one could argue that the borders of the line are intentionally and aggressively blurred by "barely legal" porn sites and chat rooms where no one is who or what they claim to be, in the end it's irrelevant: each of these men has driven himself (hundreds of miles, in some cases) to what he believes is the home of an underage boy or girl, expressly for some non-virtual sex. Seedy business for sure, and illegal, and the men are rightly apprehended. But is Dateline really doing this for the children?

This is TV, after all, and TV survives on formulas, and "Predator" hit on a particularly magic one: "Cops" plus "Candid Camera." I wouldn't be surprised if the producers were expecting a suicide from the start, and were surprised only at how long it took.

If Dateline were in fact interested in protecting children, it would spend less time orchestrating the carnival of shame and more time shedding light on a sickness that needs serious and swift intervention, both legal and psychological. Sure, they make a nod in that direction: With prescription-drug-ad-disclaimer speed, Hansen puts on his deep and serious voice and directs any ill-intentioned viewers to the show's website, for links where they can find help and avoid becoming stars on the show. How many hits do you think those links get?

Next week, the "Predator" team decamps to the Florida sunshine, where two dozen new recruits will get the chance to shake Chris Hansen's hand and then get tackled by six burly police officers. Go ahead, tune in. It's like any good cop flick: you know exactly how it's going to go, and you watch it anyway. I don't know, maybe nailing these guys over and over gives us a feeling of control over the massive and anonymous internet. I also don't pretend to know anything about Louis Conradt. Maybe he was just a guy who liked to indulge his darkest sexual fantasies online, but would never have acted them out. Or maybe he was a vile man who did unspeakable things to vulnerable children. If so, he needed to be stopped and punished. But did he need to die just so we could have something to watch on a Tuesday night?