Voyeurism as Entertainment
“To Catch a Predator,” To Lose a War
Pierre Tristam/Daytona Beach News-Journal, June 27, 2006
Network news was once about authority: Walter Cronkite, Roger Mudd, Ted Koppel, even Dan Rather in his reporter days. But when is the last time a network, as opposed to a newspaper or a magazine, broke major investigative news vital to the public interest like the Abu Ghraib scandal (The New Yorker), the Bush administration’s secret prisons (Washington Post), the NSA wiretaps and international finance snooping (New York Times), the Marines’ massacre of Iraqi civilians at Haditha (Time magazine)? So much fine print journalism is being produced week in and week out, it’s difficult to keep up. But most Americans still get their perceptions of the world around them from the networks. And for network news these days, it’s about deference to authority: When anchor chairs are filled by the likes of Katie Couric and Charles Gibson, it’s more about putting a good face on the news than breaking it.
No wonder the networks’ news divisions are indistinguishable from their entertainment function. One running example stands out as an illustration of the networks’ degradation — and irresponsibility.
On Nov. 11, 2004, NBC’s Dateline aired a segment called “To Catch a Predator.” Reporter Chris Hanson went on the prowl in a New York City suburb with tabloid journalism’s standards — the hidden camera, the ambush, the crucifixion on camera — and with a little help lured 18 men in three days to a house where the men thought they might have sex with a teen they’d chatted with online. The “teen” was actually one of a stash of adults at an organization called Perverted-Justice, a web-based organization that turns the table on would-be predators. A few staffers and many volunteers at Perverted-Justice pose as boys or girls, open themselves up to sexually explicit online chats with adults, then set up stings with the Police, or Dateline, to nab them. NBC’s segment was such a ratings success that Dateline did it again in November 2005, then again in February 2006, then made it a running series, with four shows between April 27 and May 31. At least one of those drew more than 10 million voyeurs—I mean viewers.
After the second, maybe the third show, there couldn’t possibly be any news value for viewers. There was nothing more to learn, though obviously still plenty to leer and peep at. What slight news values the segments had to start with turned to voyeurism, explicit collaboration with police (not in any news organization’s job description) and checkbook journalism: NBC paid Perverted Justice $100,000 last year to help with the show, an ethical violation of journalistic standards that produced barely a peep. The segments went on. Note the dates. November, February and May are three of the four “sweeps” months in television, when the networks’ advertising rates are set based on ratings during those months — and when news divisions line up all their sexually themed “investigations.” Stories of underage sex in any variation are a particular favorite among network executives, whose own predatory instinct during sweeps is a job requirement.
The most glaring thing about Dateline’s “Predator” series isn’t the overkill, the ethically compromised nature of the show’s relationship with police and Perverted-Justice, or even the tawdriness of Chris Hanson playing a pathetic game of gotcha with pathetic individuals. It’s the fact that the whole premise of the series is based on a lie: That there’s “an epidemic of sexual predators in our country,” and that based on “a recent study,” according to NBC, “one in five children online is approached by a sexual predator, a predator who may try to set up a face-to-face meeting.”
Not quite. Dateline, like the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, like other news reports citing the same myth, are relying on a study by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice that found that 19 percent of Internet users age 10-17 “received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year,” but three-quarters of those were from fellow-children or juveniles. Just 3 percent of youth Internet users “received an aggressive solicitation involving offline contact,” and “none of the solicitations led to an actual sexual contact or sexual assault.” An “epidemic” of predators? Hardly. Twenty percent of children online “approached by a sexual predator”? Ridiculous. There’s no question that Internet predators are a reality, and that children and parents need to be aware of the right precautions.
But context, perspective, analysis — those standards of basic explanatory journalism would defeat the purpose of a series like “To Catch a Predator” by making its claims absurd on their face. Yet it goes on, watched and probably believed by millions. The false premise not only survives against obvious evidence. It powers on the show and its popularity, and encourages hysterical and abusive laws.
Sounds familiar? “To Catch a Predator” is the perfect metaphor for the war on terror as the Bush administration has been selling it, and as the American public has been buying it.
And, as you cogently observe about the sudden explosion of "predator" activity, cleverly thwarted by shrewd "law enforcement" operatives sitting around all day in their virtual "chat rooms" pretending to be a fourteen-year-old girl, all duly reported in "the news" and in distorted "documentaries" aimed at those whose weird prurience is apparently stimulated by watching such entrapments on TeeVee...
It seems that it ought to occur to some, at least, to wonder just exactly what the "guidelines" might be for recruiting and training that particular group of "specialists" within the ranks of the "thin blue line" that "protects us all."
It may have been in something by Ayn Rand where I first read it long ago, but it is certainly a principle that should be brought out strongly today, that the aim of every State as it stomps and stumbles along its way toward totalitarianism is to MAKE EVERYONE A CRIMINAL. Everything a "crime" and everyone a "criminal," so that anyone can be made the object of the "two minutes' hate" for any given day, to the perpetual empowerment of the glorious State. Starting with the "hard" (or easy) cases, of course, and proceeding until the "terrorist" or "predator" population grows to huge numbers, requiring ever-increasing "law enforcement" until, before enough sheeple wake up to what is happening, a full-blown terror-State has been imposed, the gulag archipelago is in full operation, and all the preparatory pretenses can then be dropped as no longer necessary. The incisive and astute Paul Craig Roberts, in fact, wrote an article a while back, with exactly the title, "Everyone A Criminal."
I hope that his theme will be brought out again and again by perceptive writers like Dr. Roberts, and yourself. Thanks for an important contribution toward restoring liberty.
Thank you for sharing the same thoughts that many of us have had after viewing that series. I volunteer for a group called Corrupted-Justice.com (http://www.corrupted-justice.com). Our purpose is to expose the lies and deceit of the group Perverted-Justice. We have gathered information for over two years now on this group, offering what we have collected to various lawyers preparing lawsuits against this group.
We have obtained proof that Perverted-Justice has engaged in harassing many, if not most, of the guys they bust. The forum volunteers gather information on each man, including full name, address, phone numbers (home, work, cell) employer’s information, extended family members contact info, neighbor’s names, addresses and phone numbers, Social Security numbers and even DMV and bank records. This gathered information is then posted in the PJ public forums for anyone to view and participate in the harassment of the individual. The neighbor’s names and addresses are used when the forumites send out fliers to the man’s neighborhood which describe him as a pedophile, whether he has ever been convicted as such or not. I’m quite sure Dateline either did not know this side of Perverted-Justice when they teamed up together, or willfully chose to ignore it, in an attempt to make their sensationalistic story. Either way, Dateline should be held accountable for much of the harassment forwarded to these men.
The To Catch a Predator series is a direct slap in the face to the many dedicated Internet Crimes Against Children officers and other legitimate groups or individuals like Julie Posey, who have been trained to do this kind of work. Perverted-Justice volunteers have NOT been trained by an legitimate authority. The training for a volunteer consists of mentoring by the more seasoned PJ veterans in how to basically entrap the fellows, although they eschew the term entrapment, proudly claiming only police can be accused of entrapment.
At best, this group walks a very fine line of legality. Lawsuits have been launched against Perverted-Justice, but with the great cost of civil suits and the desire by the men for anonymity once they have been outed by this group, most have been dropped or settled quietly out of court. There has yet to be a lawsuit that has really impacted PJ’s modus operendi. It is rather groups like ours, with our constant criticism of PJ’s tactics, and the new closer scrutinty by the public (because of Dateline), which has prompted some forum changes for the better. PJ has amended their forums to loudly disclaim the gathering of illegal information, and now warn against harassment of the men. These words are but fluff, as nothing much has changed from the old days, but is now covered up a little better.
If you are interested in more information about Perverted-Justice you may contact myself or our site administrator, Scott Morrow. Scott is also our media liaison and can send you a complete media package. You may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have to disagree with you about the value of broadcasting the public degradation of these perverts who would exploit our children. There have been many attempts by thoughtful caring people to help these sexual deviates over the years. But NO program has been successful in the long run. It is a generally accepted fact that given the chance these people will fail again and again, often with catastrophic life altering results for their victims. My hope is that images of public humiliation looming over their thoughts and perhaps the fear that the thirteen year old just may BE a trap will prevent a few from acting on their impulses.
Yes I did find what you called the ‘Gotcha’ segment too tawdry. Definitely not for me ... but I hope every potential predator sees it and is scared straight.Your criticisms of “the ambush”.. of these “pathetic individuals” or the psychic “crucifixion on camera” sound just a bit TOO sympathetic! Listen Pierre, ask the family of one of the sexually tortured and murdered children what should be done with the repeat offender guilty of that crime. I tell you bud, in the minds of those parents, a real crucifixion would not be out of the question.
Sorry, I don’t see ANYTHING “ethically compromised in nature” in the shows relationship with police or even NBC shelling out $100,000 to help with the show. I find your sneering tone puzzling. What in the world is behind this antipathy?
Your contention that the whole premise of the show is based on a lie, is itself a lie. Fine, you want to dispute someone’s flawed use of statistics ? Go ahead but I could as easily criticize your own analysis. That is hardly the “whole premise of the show”. These Dirt-bags freely admit that they came there to have sex with children !!!! What is your problem with getting them behind bars? There IS no false premise about this show.
Two days ago I went into my 15 yr old sons mailbox online to confront 5 persons who had sent him sexually explicit and inappropriate invitations to other sites. I reported them to our service provider as well. Of the five I believe only one came from another teen. I don’t care to argue statistics. Besides how do you know that those other purported juveniles you mention weren’t predators posing as kids? Without shows like this the likely hood is FAR from “ridiculous”, as you brand it.
The assertion that shows like this promulgate “hysterical and abusive laws” ..... now I brand YOU as being ridiculous!
All that said, I agree with your evaluation of voyeurism on the part of the public who would watch these and any other of the so called ‘reality shows’. I think they are ALL disgusting, glorifying and encouraging the WORST of human nature. Show me one where idealism is honored, where selflessness or altruism is valued, where integrity is advantageous, or where personal courage is given its due!
Thank you for taking the time to pursue this revealing example of why American media has lost any revolutionary function it may have once had. As a progressive journalist and media activist myself, I only regret that at least with me, you are preaching to the choir. I can only hope that enough people in Florida have seen your piece to open some eyes—but I fear that as long as the GE/Disney/Rupert machine runs the show, it will be an uphill battle for all of us. I for one, plan to keep trudging uphill.
Of course you are right .. this is sleazy TV broadcasting at it worst. Although I have not watched the show - I can sympathize with those viewers who approve of having pervert sickos unmasked on TV. There is little or no news value per se - but I wonder if the perverts might be deterred by a vigilante inspired expose’.
Harold S Kramer
Read your article on commondreams.org today about the dateline series. It was good as far as it went, but you overlooked (or maybe it wasn’t relevant) a promo for a show about a convicted predator/pedophile: Mary Kay Letourneau. When I saw that promo and the sympathetic treatment she received, I went over the edge. She is a poster child for what is wrong with our court system and its treatment of sexual predators and pedophiles. If the sexes had been reversed, i.e. male teacher/female student, same ages, same roles, the male would still be in prison. This is justice? Dateline deserves to be roundly derided as the tv version of a scandal sheet. Not only that, but how could any of the ‘predators’ they entrapped get a fair trial?