Thursday, August 9, 2007

Guest commentary: 'Predator' gets caught in its own trappings

As "To Catch a Predator" spins off into ever-more-ludicrous dimensions such as "To Catch an i-Jacker," a newspaper columnist ponders what about American culture spawns such voyeurism

by Steven Winn

S.F. Chronicle, August 8, 2007, posted with the written permission of the author

It's a familiar stop on a night of channel surfing. The ballgame's over, the kids are tucked in bed, the dishwasher's whirring - everything's primed for a spell of vicarious "watchdog" justice. It's time "To Catch a Predator."

That's the title of a queasily transfixing series about uncovering and punishing pedophiles that's been airing on the TV newsmagazine "Dateline NBC" since 2004. The network's sister channel, MSNBC, faithfully reruns episodes, just as religious channels recycle the best sermons of their ace televangelists. MSNBC is where many nocturnal channel browsers find these real-life mini morality plays.

Why are we so eager to watch these televised takedowns? Are we witnessing an activist form of TV journalism that bracingly takes grave matters into its own hands? Or are those hands behaving in ways that bear much closer scrutiny, doubt and reflection? A pending lawsuit and an unsettling new piece in Esquire magazine are fuel for thought.

The show's concept is simple: Adults from a group called Perverted Justice pose as children online to attract men trolling for sex. A meeting is arranged by telephone. The purported predator arrives at the meeting place, a house that has been rigged with multiple hidden cameras. With the videotape rolling, the show's clean-cut, youthful-looking star, Chris Hansen, enters and begins his solemn litany of revelation.

Depending on the visitor's response - some make excuses or invent other reasons for their presence, some walk out the door, some confess - Hansen might read from a printed log of the salacious online chat that's preceded the visit. Back in the studio, more evidence is piled on. Sometimes, we learn, the man has sent pictures or videos of his penis to the child he thinks he's going to meet. We might be told about a prior record of sexual solicitations.

Finally, the man is invited to leave, if he hasn't done so already. As soon as he's outside the house, local law enforcement teams rush him, wrestle him to the ground and make the arrest. Off he goes to be booked, arraigned and often, as a postscript indicates, convicted and jailed. One "Predator" show was shot locally, in Petaluma.

There are a number of ways to view the hold that "To Catch a Predator" exerts on the viewer. There is, of course, the power of its apparent authenticity, in high contrast to the numbingly synthetic "reality" that reality TV sells in all its iterations. NBC's "Predator" is like some deadly serious episode of "Candid Camera." Instead of laughing along with the folly of human nature, we're caught up short and cleave instinctively to Hansen's stoic righteousness.

And righteous is what we feel we are right to be. Adults seeking out children and young teenagers for sex carries the unmitigated onus of evil, the stench of the powerful preying on the powerless. Unlike many other crimes - robbery, assault, maybe even murder, which can emerge from a tangled web of human interaction, history and passion-fueled circumstances - sexual predation seems chillingly unambiguous.

For similar reasons, the specific allegations in the dogfighting case against football star Michael Vick and his associates carry a blackly poisonous stain. (Dogs were reportedly bludgeoned, hanged or electrocuted if they failed to perform well in fights.) Animals, like children, are innocent and defenseless, we feel. They require our vigilant unconditional protection.

Watching the parade of alleged pedophiles on a recent rerun of "To Catch a Predator," I felt a stony indifference to the nabbed men's deer-in-the-headlights looks and wheedling prevarications. "People play roles," one said of chat-room life. "People just talk." Another insisted he doesn't need 14-year-old girls. "I can get all kinda girls." A third said he was deeply sorry and would never do it again. In an hour, the show perp-walked 11 men, ages 21 to 49, past the cameras. By the end of it, I felt dragged out and worn down, as if I'd been on some marathon stakeout myself.

In May, in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed by a former "Dateline" employee, Marsha Bartel outlined a series of ethical misgivings about "To Catch a Predator" that some media critics have raised themselves. Among other things, Bartel argues that paying Perverted Justice for its services gives the group "a financial incentive to lie to and trick targets of its sting." She's not the only ex-employee, incidentally, to discuss the show's underlying methods. Former "Dateline" anchor Stone Phillips has said that in many of the contrived Internet chats, "the decoy is the first to bring up the subject of sex."

Bartel's assertions about the relationship between NBC and law enforcement are more disturbing. Contrary to the network's claim of "parallel investigations" with police, she says, "Dateline" pays or otherwise reimburses law enforcement officials, trades its video services for information and for dramatically staged arrests, and illegally provides video feeds to prosecutors.

A piece in the forthcoming September Esquire turns the spotlight on the problem in graphic and grim detail. (Esquire, like The Chronicle, is a Hearst publication.) In telling the story of a Dateline "Predator" operation that ended in a man's suicide by gunshot when the police stormed his house with NBC's cameras poised outside, writer Luke Dittrich portrays a network hungry for real-life drama at any cost and a Murphy, Texas, police department only too avid to play along. When the man, a former district attorney named Bill Conradt Jr., failed to show up at the trysting house as arranged, Esquire shows, NBC pressed police to obtain a warrant for his arrest and force a confrontation at his own home. The last footage shot was of the SWAT team loading Conradt's body into the ambulance.

In a mordant footnote to the tragedy, Dittrich reports that because of various problems, including crime venue problems and the lack of proper warrants, the county's district attorney was unable to prosecute any of the 23 men arrested in Murphy during the Texas "Dateline" encampment.

While NBC doesn't comment on future "To Catch a Predator" episodes, the network plainly feels it has established a vital franchise. Spin-offs include "To Catch a Car Thief," "To Catch an ID Thief," "To Catch a Con Man" and the ludicrous "To Catch an i-Jacker." The latter involves leaving iPods around in public and tracking the people who pick them up. "So what's the lesson here?" Hansen asked a teenager who was caught and hauled before the cameras on a recent "Dateline." "Don't steal," he dutifully replied.

Like the multiple versions of "Law & Order," the "To Catch" series may satisfy a simple desire to see the cleansing social order working properly. But in blurring the lines between law enforcement and entertainment, police procedure and sleazy curiosity, "Dateline" is engaging in a much more vexing business, one that's closer to the car-chase videos of "Cops" than it is to some new form of TV justice.

The series capitalizes on America's fantasy of being on the inside track, embedded, empowered by the media's intoxicating blend of intimacy and might. In the end, as Bartel puts it in her lawsuit, NBC may just be feeding "American culture's interest in public humiliation." It may be irresistible to watch, but maybe the old model is worth rethinking. Let law enforcement do law enforcement, and let the media pay very close attention to how it's doing it.

E-mail Steven Winn

Yesterday’s tmz.com features news and video about the current court case of prominent oncologist Maurice Wolin, recently trapped by Dateline NBC.

My previous post on the Predator series is here.

 
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