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Profiting from the panic: The Online Predator Scare
There is money to be made from fear—and business has been good for those hawking the online child predator threat.
Exploiters of the scare range from the Internet-policing groups who ferret out suspects and share information with authorities (and sometimes, for a fee, with journalists) to vendors of software intended to help parents monitor and restrict web use. Some of the biggest beneficiaries are TV companies that feature salacious segments on how predators stalk the web in hopes of arranging live liaisons with their young prey. Of course, it’s all in the spirit of public service and protecting the children, right?
… NBC show that gets the top award for ceaseless flogging of the theme.
If you wanted to watch something besides football last Super Bowl Sunday, you could tune into MSNBC’s “Predator Bowl”—12 hours of wall-to-wall episodes of NBC Dateline’s popular (if critically scorched) To Catch a Predator. The show features men who have talked dirty on the Internet with actors posing as minors. The men are lured by the actors to supposed live liaisons, where Dateline anchor Chris Hansen grills them about their motives and reads their smutty letters back to them—and, voyeuristically, to the viewers. Each episode ends with the subject being tackled by waiting police.
The show was always a mess from the point of journalism. It created news rather than reporting it, it surrendered its independence by working hand-in-glove with police agencies, and it paid sources. (NBC paid hundreds of thousand of dollars to the online policing group Perverted Justice for information and help in setting up stings.) Moreover, the show’s week-in and week-out pounding on the same theme suggested it had less to do with journalism and public service than with pandering for ratings through salacious exploitation.
But appeals to journalism ethics left NBC News executives unmoved until one of the show’s stings resulted in the suicide of a target: a former Texas prosecutor who had allegedly engaged in online sexual conversations with one of Dateline’s “minors.” When the subject failed to show at the arranged rendezvous/sting, he was tracked by police and NBC to his home. As they arrived, he shot himself to death (New York Times, 6/26/08).
In addition to the suicide, for which NBC paid an out-of-court settlement, there were embarrassing reports that many of the “cases” in which Dateline had been involved had been thrown out of court, reportedly because NBC’s and Perverted Justice’s involvement interfered with proper police evidence-gathering procedures (20/20, 9/7/07; AP, 6/28/07).
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