Bread & Circuses

July 3rd, 2007  |  Published in etc  |  2 Comments

There are times when, as a member of the tech press, I wonder if I’m in the right game. I’ve largely pushed any site I’ve run away from news and toward features & tutorials because I don’t have the resources to do great journalism in the shoe leather reporter sense. Whatever I think about the tech press, though, we generally avoid efforts to find topics so loathsome that anyone who strays near them can be safely ruined by an “investigative reporter” with an IM account and a camera crew.

Thoreau over at Unqualified Offerings talks about Dateline NBC’s ongoing “To Catch a Predator” series, which has its genesis right here in Portland with the Perverted Justice crew. NBC pays the group between $100,000 and $150,000 per installment in a deal that’s unusual, according to one report citing a former NBC News official, because “it was negotiated by the network’s entertainment lawyers, not by the news division’s legal staff.”

Thoreau’s account of recent episodes indicates that the entertainment division’s imperatives have guided not only the deals, but the segment’s conduct. And because the people being targeted in the series are “predators,” or at least contemplating embarking on a career of pretador-dom, you get the sense that the producers buy themselves some wiggle room by counting on a muted reaction to any abuse dished out to potential child molesters.

“An actor posing as a 13 year old boy asked an adult man to take his clothes off. The man said that he was nervous, and then said that he was going to leave. The kid immediately said ‘Why not? Come on’ before the guy could turn around, and then the reporter entered the room. There was no time to see if the guy would follow through on his stated decision to leave.”


“… on one occasion there was a guy who didn’t even get out of his car. He parked, paused, then started his car and drove off. The cops stopped him and arrested him.”

One former NBC producer is citing problems with the show’s execution in her wrongful termination suit against the network. The story with that coverage also includes some details about a police raid (NBC camera crews in tow), that ended with the target’s suicide. Some of her complaints:

“According to the complaint, Bartel said that the program violated ethical standards through its relationship with Perverted Justice, an online vigilante group whose volunteers pose as juveniles on the Internet in order to lure their targets. By paying the group, NBC has given Perverted Justice a ‘financial incentive to lie to trick targets of its sting,’ according to Bartel.

“She also claims that the network failed to provide her with the names of the group’s volunteers and that the group does not provide complete transcripts of their chats with minors, making it impossible to ‘independently verify the accuracy of those transcripts.’

“And Bartel contends that NBC’s relationship with local law enforcement was unethical, claiming that the network provided the police with video equipment and video tapes and ‘unethically pays or indirectly reimburses law enforcement officials to participate in the ‘Predator’ stings in order to enhance and intensify the dramatic effect of the show.'”

Columbia Journalism Review has a much lengthier consideration of the segments, with some pretty good nuggets on suspiciously recurring numbers:

“When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave a speech about a major initiative to combat the ‘growing problem’ of Internet predators, he cited a statistic that 50,000 such would-be pedophiles were prowling the Net at any given moment and attributed it to Dateline. Jason McLure, a reporter at Legal Times in Washington, D.C., (where I was formerly an editor), asked the show about the number. Dateline told him that it had gotten it from a retired FBI agent who consulted with the show. When the agent was contacted he wasn’t sure where the number had come from, terming it a ‘Goldilocks’ figure — ‘Not small and not large.’ He added that it was the same figure that was used by the media to describe the number of people killed annually by Satanic cults in the 1980s, and before that was cited as the number of children abducted by strangers each year in the 1970s.

and a pretty good summary:

“If humiliating perverts and needlessly terrifying parents is the best use that newsmagazines can make of hours of primetime television, then perhaps they should be allowed to die and the time given over to the blood sport of reality programming. At least no one would dare to call it news.”


  1. pk says:

    July 3rd, 2007 at 1:11 pm (#)

    and the time given over to the blood sport of reality programming

    Actually, I’d say “sports” is where it rates–guilt-free fishing and witch-hunting for the self-righteous.

    Thank god NBC and Alberto Gonzales are thinking of the children.

    And were we ever really supposed to believe that 50,000 people per year were being killed by Satanic cults? I can’t believe there are even 50,000 people in Satanic cults. But I am very naive.

  2. The Blog That Goes Ping » Blog Archive » 50,000: The Number Of Fear says:

    July 3rd, 2007 at 1:49 pm (#)

    […] mph, Columbia Journalism Review discusses “50,000,” the magical number of fear: When […]

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