What do a lawyer, a doctor and a rabbi all have in common? No, this is not a bad joke. These three men are under investigation due in part to the “To Catch a Predator” series aired on NBC Dateline. Upon finding out about the investigation, the lawyer committed suicide; his family is now suing for $105 million dollars. The doctor’s license to practice was suspended, and the rabbi has been brought up on sex crime charges in federal court.
Airing on NBC, “To Catch a Predator” is a reality TV-based infotainment series. NBC pays a third-party watch-group organization called Perverted Justice about $100,000 an episode to troll chat rooms using hired decoys that pretend to be underage to arrange meet-ups with sexual predators looking for encounters with children. The decoys tell the predators to meet them at a house wired with undercover cameras set up by NBC, encouraging them by saying, “bring condoms” or “we can have a hot tub party.” When the predator shows up at the house, NBC’s reporter, Chris Hansen, interviews the predator with a copy of the recorded chat log between the decoy and the predator, asking the suspect what he planned to do with the condoms or swim trunks he brought. After the salacious interview, the police handcuff and charge the predator with an attempted lewd act involving a minor.
Hansen and NBC claim that the Predator series’ intent is a valiant and newsworthy warning to sexual predators and parents alike. With over 200 sexual predators caught on the series so far and 8 million viewers strong, the series is doing very well in its third season. However, Marsha Bartel, a former producer of the series, claims NBC fired her after 21 years of employment because of her ethical concerns with the Predator series. According to public documents filed in court, Bartel contends that “numerous journalistic ethical standards” and many of the network’s own “policies and guidelines” were breached in the Predator series regarding relations with its partner in crime, Perverted Justice.
The first cardinal sin NBC committed was paying a source for information. Perverted Justice, the backbone of the Predator series, receives a six-figure salary for each episode. The ethical problem with this, as Bartel explains, is that NBC has given Perverted Justice a “financial incentive to lie to trick targets of its sting.” Further, NBC does not require Perverted Justice to provide “complete transcripts from its trolling operations,” meaning neither NBC officials nor police can trust the authenticity of the recorded chat logs. This presents a legal loophole for the predators because verifying the chat log’s authenticity is paramount to their case. In Texas, the district attorney threw out all 24 cases. The prosecutor, John Roach, said in an MSNBC report that the evidence was “tainted by amateurs” because neither NBC nor the police could verify the authenticity of the recorded chat logs.
It would be vulgar if one strips the Predator series down to base reality-TV entertainment – a rubbernecking-from-your-television affair. Airing the inevitable destruction of one man’s credibility in the name of amusement has a ripple effect of unbeknownst consequences on his innocent family and friends. Ignorance of the future is no excuse for apathy of the unfortunate.
With the format of the series producing the same results every show, how newsworthy is the Predator series as a series rather than a one-time investigation? Hansen says in an episode transcript that looked behind the scenes of “To Catch a Predator,” “I think we’re covering a continuing story. And this problem isn’t going away.”
If NBC’s intentions for the series were ratings, NBC would hope Hansen was correct. However, Hansen claims the intent of the series is to warn would-be sexual predators and parents alike of the Internet predator problem. How effective have those intentions been? Are parents better prepared to warn their children against sexual predators? The series does not offer any helpful tips for parents or children. Instead, it builds up tension and fear in the almost voyeuristic interviews between Hansen and the predator – which serve as the punch line. The series crowns viewers as the victors of better living through objectification, allowing viewers to scorn the predators’ lecherous longings from La-Z-Boys. What about the predators themselves? Surely the series is causing them to reform or perhaps find another channel for their compulsions. Ironically, in one episode a predator shows up at the house a second time looking to “meat” up with a minor.
The question remains, is the Predator series’ intent effective as news? In addition, does the outcome of the series override the ethical incompetence inherent in paying and trusting Perverted Justice as an unbiased source? Keep in mind that due to Perverted Justice’s sloppy work, 24 predators in Texas received a “get out of jail free” card, and chances are they’ll be more careful in the future.
Bartel, the former producer of the series, says NBC was “more interested in sensationalizing and dramatizing the Predator series for profit than news reporting.” If that is the case, the question becomes, how ethical is it for NBC to pay its source to consequentially influence ratings and capital gains? Samuel Butler once said, “The most important service rendered by the press and the magazines is that of educating people to approach printed matter with distrust.” NBC has done just that with its abhorrent abuse of the principle that honest American journalists live and die by, all in the name of money.