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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Public Service or Sick Entertainment?

Recently, I was tipped off to an in-depth article in Esquire magazine that went behind the scenes of Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator." If you're not familiar with the prime time series you can get the lowdown here, but basically Dateline (hosted by Chris Hansen) teams up with an independent "watchdog" group to catch sexual predators in online chats with minors.

Then Dateline hires an actor to pose as the minor, talk with the offenders on the phone and set up an in-person meeting at a house leased by Dateline. The decoy house, as it is known, is wired with all kinds of microphones and cameras so not a single moment is missed when Hansen confronts the people who come to the house thinking they're going to have an encounter with a minor. After the interview, the predator is arrested upon leaving the decoy house by local law enforcement who have been previously informed by Dateline about who to look for, when and where.

While Dateline sells the show by saying they're helping to take dangerous people off the streets, I think the whole premise is gory. It provides the audience with the chance to watch someone be set up and humiliated, plain and simple. Although I have no sympathy for these criminals, I don't think it's the role of the news media to conduct sting operations involving sexual predators and then televise them as investigative reporting and a public service. I mean, if it was really about catching dangerous people then why aren't they arrested after engaging in the online sexual solicitation of minors? After all, that is the actual crime. Why the need for a decoy house? Because it makes for dramatic, some would say "good," television.

Well, that drama was turned up a notch when a man from Texas, a felony prosecutor no less, was involved in the online chat sting. Bill Conradt used very explicit language in chatting with who he believed was a 13-year-old boy and after several phone conversations Conradt agreed to a meeting. However, he never showed up. Dateline's actor called the man several times trying to entice him into coming to the decoy house, Conradt continued to say he would be there, but he never followed through.

Conradt had already committed a crime, so police, and Dateline, decided to confront the man at his home. This is where the waters get very murky. While it was necessary for the police to go to the Conradt's residence for the arrest, why was it necessary for Dateline to be there? Conradt did not take Dateline's bait to show up at the decoy house, so shouldn't their involvement have ended there?

Well, Dateline was at the house and so was the SWAT team. Once Conradt realized he was caught he decided to take his own life while still inside his home. Suddenly, the light began to shine very brightly on Dateline's "To Catch a Predator."

20/20 did a story involving the show and, like the Esquire magazine article, painted a very dark picture of the incident where Dateline didn't just tag along with police or conduct it's own independent investigation - 20/20 pointed out that there are allegations (from people who worked on that particular episode) that the show actually may have influenced police procedure. A former police officer who provided security for the Dateline crew even goes so far as to say that the arrests that are caught on tape are set up to give the most dramatic visual effect and not to insure the safety of the police officers themselves.

This all just doesn't sit well with me. Not only do I not see this show as a form of public service, but I find it dangerous that a camera crew can influence who gets arrested, when and where. (By the way, Dateline aired the Conradt story - SWAT team, ambulance, medical helicopter and all - weeks ago. Apparently they didn't feel any responsibility when it came to how things turned out. I mean, the guy was a criminal, he doesn't deserve to be treated like a human, does he? They certainly didn't air the episode to expose Conradt publicly as a threat to our children - he was already dead by then.)

There are so many facets to this story, and I've written so much already, that I can't possibly get into them all. However, I encourage you to read the Esquire article and really think about how far is too far? Are we really doing a service to ourselves or our children by watching these kinds of shows or are we being sadistic voyeurs who are feeding into the lowest of the low in television news and entertainment?

I don't want sexual predators anywhere near my children either, but I really don't think "To Catch a Predator" is the answer. After all, about 90% of sex crimes against children are perpetrated by someone the children know, so it's really more important to know about the people who your children come into contact with everyday rather than the random guy down the street or on the Internet. And if Dateline isn't providing us with any answers, then why are they on TV again?

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