To catch a ‘Dateline’ ethical nightmare

To catch a 'Dateline' ethical nightmare

by Mark PleissNews Editor

It all began when I went on a blind date with this girl I had just met on the Internet.

According to her eloquent use of language, she was 18, blond, “shapely” and had a taste for small-town-Iowa collegiate journalists (she must have seen my mug shot).

She told me to meet up with her at her parents’ house; of course, they were out of town.

When I arrived, a cordial voice told me to come in. I found her sitting seductively in the kitchen, when it finally dawned on me: There was no way she was 16, and even 14 would’ve been a stretch. At this realization, I surreptitiously slid my 30-pack of Keystone Light and carton of Marlboro Reds under the sink as I sidled away.

But then suddenly Dateline’s Chris Hansen descended from the rafters, asking me to sit down, but I ran in terror and was quickly nabbed by the Indianola Police.

How could this happen in my own sweet, homey town?

Then, much to my fortune, I woke up.

Unfortunately, for another dozen-or-so men in the Long Beach, Calif. area, this was no dream.

Stoic Chris Hansen and his army of cameramen, decoy Lolitas and indolent police officers whipped up another batch of ethical nightmares disguised as journalistic prowess last Tuesday when it released yet another installment of its famous “To Catch a Predator” series on NBC.

The show has historically achieved high ratings, along with providing NBC with material to rerun hundreds of times until the next chapter appears.

“Predator” supporters will tell you the show provides important real-life information to kids and parents about the dangers of being online and the “predators” that are “out there.”

In this way, perhaps they’re doing a great job in following the basic journalistic obligation of providing information to the public so it can make informed decisions about everyday life.

But in more micro terms, perhaps they’re committing every journalistic sin possible.

For instance, journalists aren’t supposed to pay off sources for information. “Checkbook journalism,” as it’s called, inevitably affects levels of truth, and it typically leads to stories of ill repute for instance “To Catch a Predator.”

A story in The Washington Post, along with various other news mediums, reported in 2006 that Dateline had paid Perverted-Justice, a civilian watchdog group, over $100,000 to help put the show together.

You can but a lot of perverts with $100,000.

Other issues are just as damning. Journalists are supposed to objectively report the news, so when Hansen not only works along with the cops who are creating the news, but then interviews the “predators” with the condescending, you’re-going-to-really-pay-for-this look, one might say he’s crossing the line.

The issues aren’t obscure philosophical thoughts, either.

An interesting story “To Catch a Predator” never reported was what happened last November in Terrell, Texas, when Perverted-Justice and Dateline tipped off the local police that Louis Conradt, a prominent county prosecutor, had a sexual conversation with someone posing as a 13-year-old boy.

The police, without investigating the situation, showed up to arrest Conradt with a bad warrant that never would have held up. While at the door, the police heard a single gunshot as news crews descended upon the house.

Hansen confessed he didn’t hear the shot, but he saw the body wheeled out.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Hansen said he felt bad about the situation, “but he still sleeps well at night.”

We must also inquire into the families of these “gentlemen of ill-repute,” as well. I see little issue in destroying the reputations of child molesters, but their faces often reflect dozens of other people who may or may not have anything to do with the situation.

Despite all of this, I still watched “To Catch a Predator” last week, simply because it’s fascinating television, not because it’s award-winning journalism. I hope the country recognizes this.

And I won’t be meeting any more Internet girls, either.