On the surface that certainly seems reasonable, but it ignores a few relevant points. First, Perverted Justice is a participant in the story, the kind of outfit that would traditionally be covered, not be on the news outlet’s payroll. “It’s an advocacy group intensely involved in this story,” says Robert Steele, who teaches journalism ethics at The Poynter Institute. “That’s different from hiring a retired general who is no longer involved in a policy-making role.” Second, it is clearly a no-no, even at this late date in the devolution of TV news, to directly pay government officials or police officers. Yet in effect that’s what Dateline did in at least one of its stings. The police in Darke County, Ohio, where Dateline set up its fourth sting in April 2006, insisted that personnel from Perverted Justice be deputized for the operation so as not to compromise the criminal cases it wished to bring against the targets. After some discussion, NBC’s lawyers agreed to the arrangement, which the network shrugs off as less than ideal but an isolated circumstance.

Further, though Hansen and Dateline reject allegations that they are engaging in paycheck journalism by paying Perverted Justice — arguing for a distinction between paying a consultant and paying a source for information — the line looks a little fuzzy. For example, Xavier von Erck, who founded Perverted Justice, says via e-mail that the operation had come to a point where it could “not bear any further costs relating to the shows. Hence, we obtained a consulting fee.” In turn, local law enforcement groups have stated that without the resources provided by Perverted Justice they couldn’t afford to do the criminal investigations they’ve mounted in conjunction with the “To Catch a Predator” series. See the problem? But for NBC’s deep pockets, no “parallel” police actions would take place. And are they really parallel? One lawyer I spoke with, who asked not be identified because her client’s case is still pending, claims the man was entrapped and said she has every intention of subpoenaing members of Dateline’s staff to testify if the case goes to trial. “They are acting as an arm of law enforcement and are material witnesses,” the lawyer said. “They definitely crossed a line.”

There is also the question of whether the series is fair to its targets. Let’s concede up front that this is an unsympathetic bunch of would-be perverts. But are they really that dangerous? Hansen himself divides those snared in the probes into three groups: dangerous predators, Internet pornography addicts, and sexual opportunists. But by Hansen’s own calculation fewer than one in ten of the men who show up at a sting house have a previous criminal record.

But the image projected by the “Predator” series is clearly meant to inflame parental fears about violent Internet sex fiends. The show has invoked the specter of famous child abduction cases like Polly Klaas. The very term “predator” calls to mind the image of the drooling, trench-coated sex fiend hanging out at the local playground with a bag full of candy. Reading through the chat transcripts posted on the Perverted Justice Web site, however, it seems clear that a lot of the men snared aren’t hard-core predators. Many express doubts about what they’re doing and have to be egged along a bit by the decoys, many of whom come off as anything but innocent children. Consider a few of these exchanges. In the first, the mark (johnchess2000) is talking to someone he believes is an underage girl (AJ’s Girl). She has agreed to let him come over to watch a movie:

johnchess2000: anything you want me to wear or bring?
AJ’s Girl: hmm
johnchess2000: wow your thinking for a long time
AJ’s Girl: lol sowwy
AJ’s Girl: u beter bring condoms
johnchess2000: wow. condoms???
johnchess2000: wow. your thinking big huh? ;0
johnchess2000: ;)
AJ’s Girl: :”>
johnchess2000: wow so you like me that much? :)
AJ’s Girl: maybe
johnchess2000: maybe?? why did you say condoms?
AJ’s Girl: :”> i duno
johnchess2000: haha. be honest
johnchess2000: you must like me a lot then huh?
AJ’s Girl: yea
AJ’s Girl: ur cute

Or this exchange between Jason, a twenty-one-year-old fireman and the decoy, a girl he thinks is thirteen:

jteno72960: so what kinda guys u like
katiedidsings: hot fireman 1s
jteno72960: ok what else is sexy to you
katiedidsings: tats
jteno72960: i have 2 inside my arm
jteno72960: will u kiss them for me?
katiedidsings: ya>
jteno72960: what about on the lips
katiedidsings: ya
jteno72960: i love to kiss
katiedidsings: me 2
jteno72960: really what else
katiedidsings: i dunno watevr u wantd 2 do
jteno72960: well what have u done
katiedidsings: evry thing
katiedidsings: wel not evrything
katiedidsings: but alot of stuff
jteno72960: well what did u like
katiedidsings: from behind

Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.