By David Cassel
Posted on August 24, 2007
This post, written by David Cassel, originally appeared TECH.Blorge.com
Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" series has become a target itself for criticism -- by 20/20, Esquire, and an online magazine, as well a former producer, a Georgia judge, a local news reporter, and the relatives of two of the show's targets.
In the news segments, online decoys lure men to a house to meet underaged sex partners -- where instead the men are videotaped and arrested. Last year the Washington Post reported that the decoying group received more than $100,000 from NBC after they "hired an agent to negotiate." The show's former producer now says Dateline violated "numerous journalistic ethical standards," and challenges Dateline's argument that the police are performing a separate, parallel investigation, calling it "a ruse".
According to a May lawsuit which appears on The Smoking Gun site, former producer Marsha Bartel objects to NBC also purchasing the surveillance systems used by the police, and notes that the network even pays or "indirectly reimburses" law enforcement officials for the stings. Saying this blurs lines between television and law enforcement, she also spills details about the show's other apparent lapses in journalism. (For example, Dateline's failing to report the police officers "waving rubber chickens in the faces of sting targets while forcing them to the ground and handcuffing them.")
Other aspects of Dateline's methods are also facing scrutiny since the death of an intended target in November. This month Esquire reports that Louis Conradt, a former District Attorney in Texas, had been repeatedly refusing invitations to visit a minor at Dateline's wired-for-taping house. Dateline and police officers then visited his own house, armed with transcripts of his explicit online conversations. When Conradt didn't answer his door, a S.W.A.T team was sent in -- and Conradt shot himself. (Esquire's headline for their story? "Tonight on Dateline This Man Will Die.")
The magazine notes that just five months earlier, Conradt had attended a conference on investigating child sexual abuse, and reported that his friends wondered if he could have been working when Dateline's transcripts were collected. ABC's 20/20 has confirmed that it's preparing an investigation of the sting-gone-bad, according to an article on Reuters. It also notes that Conradt's sister filed a $105 million lawsuit over the death of her brother last month, "claiming that NBC News had invaded his privacy and 'steamrolled' their way with the help of police to arrest him."
Chris Hansen, the show's host, told the magazine he had no regrets about the way the investigation was handled, a comment echoed by Xavier Von Erck, the founder of the group of online decoys. But the group -- called "Perverted Justice" -- also drew some criticism from the former Dateline producer.
She argues that NBC ignored allegations that minors had been used by the group for its online sting operations -- "committing the exact crime it claims it wishes to prevent, i.e., minors being exposed to pornography." Her lawsuit also quotes a disparaging comment by the show's executive producer about the online volunteers, who allegedly said "We all know they're nuts." When her complaints were ignored, she advised NBC that she would not serve as the segment's producer -- and within three months, she was fired, after having worked at NBC for over 20 years. Her lawsuit notes NBC's explanation was a mass layoff (though she had a contract through 2009) -- but her suit then calls the explanation "a ruse to sort out people to terminate."
The former producer's lawsuit also challenges the rationale for the series, disputing Hansen's statement that "at any given time, 50,000 predators were on the internet prowling for children," saying it's actually contradicted by Hansen's own source. Reuters reports additional concerns about Dateline's coverage from a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute. "While she acknowledged that Internet predators are a legitimate concern, she said that more child-sex predators live in the same home as the children, and that if NBC wanted to do a public service that they should do stories on those situations and ways that communities can keep children safe."
According to the web site Radar, Dateline also faced a lawsuit from the father of one of its targets, who was arrested in one of Dateline's earlier investigations. Last month the father asked a judge to issue a warrant for the arrest of Von Erck, the founder of the group of online decoys. His argument? They enticed his son, Robert Gerald White, into committing a felony -- which is also illegal in Georgia. According to Radar, the judge issued an order agreeing that there was "probable cause" to believe enticement had occurred -- but then refused to issue a warrant for Von Erck's arrest. Since there wasn't an actual minor behind the decoy, no actual crime could have been committed.
Reached for comment by the site, Von Erck issued the following statement. "Thanks for contacting us for comment. Unfortunately, you're not a legitimate reporter, you're just a rather scummy fellow who writes for a tabloid rag.
"Other than being told that you're a scummy hack who resembles a stalker more than a journalist, we don't have any comment for you on this issue or any other issue."
It's not the first time Von Erck has bristled when caught himself in a reporter's crosshairs. Von Erck "is real squirmy when the gotcha cam aims his way," Radar wrote sardonically -- displaying over three minutes of video in which the decoy group's founder mocks a reporter who'd received permission to film one of his presentations.
"I know you're old, and you don't have much life left..." Von Erck says, "but when you walk up to me and get in my face, and tell me I'm getting in your face, then we have a problem."
Later he accuses the reporter of inadvertently spitting in his face -- adding "Please keep your dribble to yourself..." -- and objects to the reporter's attitude. ("That's why you're a local reporter, not national.")
He tells a conference organizer to eject the reporter because he "basically spit in my face -- and he's been trying to disrupt the conference."
And in the ultimate irony, he adds that the local reporter was "trying to harass me."
David Cassel is a technology writer living in Silicon Valley. He first went online in 1990, and has covered emerging technologies for groundbreaking sites like Wired News, Salon, and Suck.