So, big surprise, Dateline NBC's pedophile party raked in nearly 8 million viewers last week. It seems people can't resist watching a show that lures would-be molesters into the camera's eye.
For "To Catch a Predator," Dateline joins with the fuzz and a watchdog group called Perverted Justice. They go online and pretend to be underage girls in order lure scum into a house outfitted with more cameras than La Guardia while cops wait in the wings to arrest them. Of course, they don't cuff them until correspondent Chris Hansen has a sit down with the perp. Oh, confrontation journalism, thy name is TV.
I'll admit I avoided this latest perp walk, but I have tuned in for past editions (one in May attracted over 10 million viewers). The show is like the reverse of America's Most Wanted. It's all payoff and no preamble. You don't need to bother with the hunt - it's America's Most Perverted, delivered right into your home with the soothing knowledge that these sick puppies get booked as soon as Hansen has his way with them. No one will deny it's riveting television, but so is "When Animals Attack" in a similar kind of way. Or heading to the $1 drink/5 cent wing night at the hometown bar just to watch fights break out. Come on, Hansen! Tell him he's a pervert!
NBC News has found itself having to defend its pervert hunt these days, since it seems that many of its fellow journalists think the program is merely a sensationalized ratings grab that irrationally stokes the idea that:
A) The Internet is a dangerous, scary and evil.
B) Tens of thousands of dirty men use it to do dirty things to kids.
C) This is investigative reporting.
There's no question that Dateline views this as real investigative public service journalism. They're helping the cops nab some very nasty men, and getting boffo ratings to boot. That'll please the news suits and the network VP. They take this segment very seriously and work very hard on it.
Dateline senior investigative producer Allan Maraynes told the Dayton Daily News that they "believe we're doing the socially responsible thing ... and the journalistically responsible thing."
Unfortunately, they've played the fear card too heavily, and the production of the series also raises some ethical issues. The danger is that Dateline has become so invested in this ratings success that its journalistic judgment has been compromised. Then there's the question about the series itself.
Clearly, I don't like it. I think it's the kind pseudo-investigative journalism that is all too common on major network newsmagazine programs and local evening newscasts. The fact is that the police and Perverted Justice don't need the involvement of the show to catch these criminals. Dateline takes part, but they're not really investigating anything. What are they bringing to the table except some seed money, cameras and the promise of millions of viewers? It's not journalism, it's just TV.
Basically, they're there to follow along with the cops and Perverted Justice, add a hand, and be there for the gotcha moment. Dateline is along for the ride, not the one in the driver's seat, and that in itself is cause for concern.
The program does scare the bejeezus out of viewers and I'm not so smug as to dismiss the threat of online predators. But Dateline has made some serious missteps including broadcasting completely bogus stats to help jack up the fear factor. Last month US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stated that, "It has been estimated that, at any given time, 50,000 predators are on the Internet prowling for children."
As the Legal Times reported in a story spotted by the indispensable Romenesko, the AG's press aide says the questionable figure "... is actually pulled from [NBC newsmagazine] 'Dateline' and other media outlets."
Dateline has now stopped using that figure, but it's out there and it's total bullshit. They used it because it's a shocking figure and now it has given us our own gotcha moment with them.
The other concern raised by the latest edition of "Predator" is that Dateline paid Perverted Justice over $100,000 to participate this latest sting operation. Reputable news organizations don't pay for stories, and they don't compensate sources. This policy is even more critical during investigative work. (Dateline's Maraynes told the Washington Post that Perverted Justice acted as "more of a consultant than a source. We were using them for their expertise in these pieces.") It was also reported that three members of the group were deputized by the Darke County's sheriff, thus turning them into law enforcement agents. Put the two together and you have Dateline paying sources and law enforcement for a story. I doubt Dateline would be willing to enter into such a tenuous ethical arrangement for something that didn't bring in viewers by the stadiumload.
Dateline could be just as effective if it tracked down one serious case, dove into court documents and law enforcement files, spoke with the victim's family and the accused, and put together an inside look at one compelling case.
Instead they engage in a hyped up version of a ride along, have a blast shaming scum bags on national TV, pass out a few checks, and watch the ratings climb. "Predator" takes a tremendous amount of coordination, man-hours and money for Dateline to do, yet it's nothing more than shock theatre journalism and a saddening waste of resources and airtime.
Heck, this kind of gotcha journalism doesn't even require a big network budget. I was recently introduced to perhaps the best local gotcha reporter working in North America today, thanks to a link posted on Deadspin, a sports blog.
His name is Carl Monday and he is "Cleveland's Investigative Reporter." See Carl Monday confront a man who masturbated in a public library. (One highlight of that particular segment: Carl Monday referring to the man as an "unemployed porn site user.")
See Carl Monday track down drunk drivers and follow them into the bathroom. See him harass homeless men stealing scrap metal to sell for food, booze and drugs. The commenters at MetaFilter are having a field day with Carl Monday, with one noting that the scrap metal segment included a scene in which the reporter chased down one man who looked back and yelled, "Get away from me Carl Monday!"
Carl Monday seems like a throwback to me. He could almost be part of the Channel 4 News Team with Ron Burgundy.
But fame is never far behind a hidden camera. Every journalist knows that. And so the station has given Carl Monday his own online archive and blog. He's a one man gotcha journalism machine, churning out the kind of ratings juice that TV news departments pimp come sweeps time. Dateline should feel embarrassed that he's eating their lunch month after month at a fraction of the cost.
I do however think there is one fascinating element to this kind of journalism, something that raises a question worthy of thought and consideration. That being, why do the people confronted in these stories simply stand there and continue talking to the reporter?
In Dateline's series, many of the predators grab a seat at the kitchen counter. You almost expect them to wrap their hands around a cup of coffee and dish the neighborhood gossip with Hansen. Some remain mostly silent, others engage in the back-and-forth, and a few storm out. Yet too few seem to be struck with the notion that remaining on camera, let alone answering questions, is not a wise thing to do.
Carl Monday spent several minutes on the front lawn speaking with the library lap taffy man. The young man just stood there denying that, in the words of Carl Monday, he was "having sex under the table at the library." Finally, he admitted his crime and tried to explain himself. Then his father came outside and tried to kick the crap out of Carl Monday. (I smell a local Emmy, Carl Monday!)
I've often wondered the same thing while watching people submit themselves to interviews on The Daily Show. From college professors to activists and scientists, it's a mystery why they put up with it. I asked Stephen Colbert about this when I interviewed him last year.
"The camera lobotomizes people," he told me. "It cuts out the judgment part of their brain."
Perhaps the same thing happens to journalists.