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`Dateline' too close to cops?

The newsmagazine's `To Catch a Predator' series alarms many journalism ethics experts.

April 26, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A controversial "Dateline" series about sexual predators returns to the airwaves tonight, bringing with it a renewed discussion about the appropriate relationship between the press and law enforcement.

In the last 18 months, the NBC newsmagazine set up three hidden-camera stings to confront suspected pedophiles seeking out young teenagers in Internet chat rooms, leading to the arrests of more than 50 men. Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said the series has done "enormous public good."

But "To Catch a Predator" has also provoked its share of debate, one that is likely to continue as the network airs four new installments of the series in the coming month.

To orchestrate the stings, "Dateline" collaborated with Perverted Justice, an Internet watchdog group whose members pose online as children to catch predators. NBC recently acknowledged that it paid the organization for its work in helping set up the investigation, in which apparent pedophiles are lured to a house, only to be caught on hidden cameras and confronted with a transcript of their Internet chats.

In most recent investigations, local law enforcement -- alerted by Perverted Justice to the stings -- have been waiting outside to arrest the men when they emerge.

In one operation in Greenville, Ohio, featured in tonight's program, the local sheriff's department went further and deputized members of Perverted Justice so they could use the evidence they gathered.

Xavier Von Erck, the group's founder, compared his organization to a "survey company," adding, "We're going into the chat rooms and seeing if predators are there."

But the show's relationship with Perverted Justice has alarmed many journalism ethics experts, who said that "Dateline" compromised its journalistic neutrality by working with a group that served as an arm of law enforcement.

"By working with a group that has been deputized, 'Dateline' is essentially partnering with local law enforcement," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based journalism school. "Even if the outcome is a desirable outcome, in the long run it undermines their ability to serve as a watchdog."

David Corvo, the show's executive producer, defended the series' approach, saying that "Dateline" wanted to expose the reality of Internet predators without standing in the way of law enforcement. He noted that Perverted Justice was paid as a consultant for its expertise, not as a source.

"We're aware that this whole operation is a little bit outside the norm of journalism protocol, particularly when you have the police that near an operation," Corvo said. "For us, doing this story in a way that demonstrates to people how dangerous these guys are and also allowing the prosecution to do what they need to do outweighs some of the journalism traditions that we've followed -- not the principles, but some of the conventions."

Correspondent Chris Hansen said Perverted Justice actually served as a "Chinese wall" separating the program from local police.

"This is a new crime, and it's requiring us to be somewhat inventive and enterprising in the way we're covering it," he said. "I think we've done it in a very responsible way."

Still, media experts have warned that NBC's cooperation with Perverted Justice may be compromising its ability to invoke shield laws that protect reporters from having to testify.

Hansen said the network has received about 10 subpoenas from prosecutors and defense attorneys seeking material related to the "Predator" investigations. NBC attorneys have been able to satisfy all the requests with material the network already broadcast or posted online, he said.

"Any reporter would resist, for the most part, giving up outtakes or any other material that you or I consider privileged," Hansen said. "I don't see that changing."

There's no question that the series has been a ratings boon. NBC is running the new "Predator" specials on the next four Wednesdays during May sweeps. But Hansen said he was on guard against letting the viewership drive the investigation.

"You don't want to fall into the trip of doing a 'Predator' story every week for the rest of our lives just because it gets good numbers," he said. "We have to be smart and balance what's good journalism and what's captivating television. "

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