- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007


Chris Hansen of NBC News has supplanted Mike Wallace as the TV journalist you would least like to see emerge from behind a closed door.

For dozens of men cornered on the “Dateline NBC” series “To Catch a Predator,” the sight of Mr. Hansen dashes their warped dreams of sex with a child they have “met” over the Internet. They are arrested and shamed on national television.

Some of the same subterfuge — minus the shame — was applied in Mr. Hansen’s effort to trace online identity thieves. His second of two prime-time hours on the topic airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on NBC.

“To Catch a Predator” has established Mr. Hansen’s professional identity. In 10 installments over 2 years, the series has become such a part of the culture that online parodies abound. Mr. Hansen’s teenage sons love the one that shows a man with a microphone trailing children around the house saying, “I’m Chris Hansen.” “Dad, I know,” is the exasperated reply.

It’s impact journalism. Mr. Hansen has shed light on a 21st-century crime and, either through the arrests of potential sex fiends or deterrence, probably has saved some youths from being victims. Little else broadcast news divisions have done over the past few years gets such consistently high ratings.

Yet “To Catch a Predator” is also an ethical minefield.

NBC News and the group it pays to chat online with potential predators, Perverted Justice, have been accused of entrapment. Critics say the series promotes humiliation as entertainment, much like the cringe-worthy auditions that begin each season of “American Idol.” When Texas prosecutor Louis “Bill” Conradt Jr. put a bullet through his head after his house was surrounded by police and TV cameras interested in his online sex talk last November, his sister blamed NBC.

Among several ethical concerns is that NBC has become actively involved in the story instead of covering it, says Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute in Florida.

“I fear that ‘Dateline’s‘ motivation is driven by the quest for eyeballs, for ratings, rather than a legitimate journalistic purpose when they perpetually run what in essence is the same story over and over,” he says.

Mr. Hansen, a 14-year NBC News veteran, came up with the idea for “To Catch a Predator” after hearing about Perverted Justice. He’s proud of the way it has brought attention to a little-known crime.

“We debate all of this internally — how much is too much, what is our role, how do we balance compelling television with journalism,” he says. “Everyone’s entitled to their point of view. That kind of debate is healthy. It doesn’t make me defensive.”

The reality of television is that if Mr. Hansen pitched a story about online sex predators and all he had were a few interviews and pictures of fingers typing on a keyboard, his producers probably would pass, he says.

So the formula that persists today was created.

With typers who pose as innocent youths, Perverted Justice lies in wait for predators who visit chat rooms. When they engage in conversation and suggest a meeting, the decoys set up one at a home NBC has rented and rigged with cameras.

The men arrive, often invited inside by a young actress. Then Mr. Hansen appears, holding transcripts of the online conversations. Some men offer pathetic, mumbling excuses about their intentions. Others make a futile dash, unaware the house is surrounded by police.

Mr. Hansen has seen the comically inept — two men walked into a room naked — and the vaguely dangerous, as when a rabbi lunged to grab obscene pictures of himself he had sent online. The most heartbreaking case involved a Florida man who arrived with his 5-year-old son.

Because the decoys wait for a potential predator to make the first move, Mr. Hansen says he doesn’t consider this entrapment. Yes, the subject matter can get dicey, but he says he has never been uncomfortable watching the programs with his 15-year-old son.

The Conradt case was the most serious issue NBC has faced. Mr. Conradt’s sister, Patricia, told the Murphy, Texas, City Council that she didn’t consider her brother’s death a suicide. “When these people came after him for a news show, it ended his life,” she said.

There’s no evidence the prosecutor knew that “Dateline NBC” was involved, Mr. Hansen says. NBC hasn’t shied away from the case, showing the cavalcade of police cars heading toward Mr. Conradt’s house and the sad aftermath in a program that aired during the February ratings “sweeps.” Its inclusion was even promoted in advance.

“If it had happened to my brother, I’d be sad that he had decided to commit suicide,” Mr. Hansen says, “but to say it’s our fault, I just don’t think that’s true.”

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