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NBC's "To Catch a Predator" Faces Lawsuits, Mounting Criticism

David Cassel: Former producers of the show reveal how it blurs the line between television and law enforcement and other apparent lapses in journalism ethics.
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.
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.