Or this last exchange between Rob (rkline05) a twenty-year-old from Ohio, and Dateline’s online decoy “Shia,” who poses as an underage girl. After days of chatting, Rob expresses doubts about their age difference and about a sexual encounter, but Shia dismisses his concerns and reassures him:
rkline05: but idk about everything we talked about
shyshiagirl: why not
rkline05: well you sure you wana do all that
shyshiagirl: yeaa why not
rkline05: idk i just wasnt sure you wanted to you
are a virgin and all
rkline05: you sure you want it to be me that takes that
shyshiagirl: yea why not. ur cool
rkline05: i just….. you really sure i feel weird
about it you being so much younger than me and all
shyshiagirl: ur not old. dont feel weird
Rob came to the Dateline sting house and later pleaded guilty for soliciting a minor online.
Entrapment is a legal term best applicable to law enforcement. Perverted Justice says it’s careful not to initiate contact with marks, nor steer them into explicit sexual banter. But as these chats and others make clear, they are prepared to flirt, literally, with that line. Under most state statutes passed to combat online predators, the demonstrated intent to solicit sexual acts from a minor is sufficient to land you in jail regardless of whether the minor is a willing participant. So, as a legal matter, the enticements offered by the decoys are of little importance to the police, or to issue advocates like Perverted Justice. But journalistically it looks a lot like crossing the line from reporting the news to creating the news.
Dateline has run afoul of this distinction before. Famously, in 1993, several producers and correspondents were fired for rigging a General Motors truck to explode in a crash test. More recently the program took heat for bringing Muslim-looking men to a NASCAR race to see what might happen (the program never aired). “Predator” seems to fall somewhere between those two examples. Perhaps its most direct counterpart in recent journalistic history is the famous sting operation mounted by the Chicago Sun Times. In 1978 the paper set up the Mirage Tavern in Chicago and snared a host of city officials for seeking bribes from the “owners,” who were actually undercover reporters. The Mirage was controversial in its day, but it seems tame by comparison to the Dateline stings. Al Tompkins, who teaches the ethics of television journalism at the Poynter Institute, draws a clear distinction between the Mirage and “Predator.” Mirage, he notes, was targeted at public officials who were known to be abusing the power of their offices for personal enrichment. “It was a legit question whether you could have covered the story any other way,” Tompkins says. “You couldn’t go through law enforcement because you didn’t know if police were involved in the corruption.” Tompkins, who has watched the Dateline series, says it looks more like a police prostitution sting than a news investigation.
Dateline has argued that “Predator” serves a genuine public good, but it could be argued that, in fact, Dateline is doing the public a disservice. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave a speech about a major initiative to combat the “growing problem” of Internet predators, he cited a statistic that 50,000 such would-be pedophiles were prowling the Net at any given moment and attributed it to Dateline. Jason McLure, a reporter at Legal Times in Washington, D.C., (where I was formerly an editor), asked the show about the number. Dateline told him that it had gotten it from a retired FBI agent who consulted with the show. When the agent was contacted he wasn’t sure where the number had come from, terming it a “Goldilocks” figure — “Not small and not large.” He added that it was the same figure that was used by the media to describe the number of people killed annually by Satanic cults in the 1980s, and before that was cited as the number of children abducted by strangers each year in the 1970s. Dateline has now disowned the number, saying solid statistics about Internet predators are hard to find, but that the problem seems to be getting worse, a sentiment echoed by lawmakers in Congress.