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.
But actually there isn’t much evidence that it is getting worse. For example, many news reports have cited a Justice Department study as saying that one in five children is approached online by a sexual predator. But as Radford Benjamin of The Skeptical Inquirer pointed out, what that 2001 study actually said was that 19 percent had received a “sexual solicitation” online, about half of which came from other teens and none of which led to a sexual assault. According to the study, the number of teens aggressively solicited by adults online was about 3 percent. A more recent study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that the number of kids getting unwanted sexual advances on the Internet was in fact declining. In general, according to data compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 70 percent of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by family members or family friends.
That doesn’t mean Internet sex predators don’t exist, but Dateline heavily skews reality by devoting hour after hour of primetime programming to the phenomenon. As Poynter’s Tompkins notes: “Is there any other issue that’s received that much airtime? The question is whether the level of coverage is proportional to the actual problem.”
The answer, it seems, is no, and the explanation of why Dateline has seized on this mythical trend to anchor its venerable news show is that reality TV has so altered the broadcast landscape that traditional newsmagazine fare — no matter how provocative — just doesn’t cut it anymore. “Reality programs came in and newsmagazines no longer looked so great,” says one former producer for NBC News. While newsmagazines are cheap compared to other primetime shows, they don’t have the potential to be gigantic hits like Survivor or American Idol. For that reason, the producer notes, the entertainment divisions at the networks never really liked newsmagazines, which they had little hand in producing and for which they received no credit. At NBC, the former producer says, Jeff Zucker, formerly the president of the network’s news and entertainment group and now the c.e.o. of its television operations, regularly put the squeeze on Dateline, maintaining that the network needed its time slots to either develop new programming or schedule hit shows. “About the only thing they really want newsmagazines to do now is crime,” says the former producer. “If it’s not crime, they don’t think they can sell it. The traditional investigative reporting on shows like Dateline, or 48 Hours, or Primetime Live is no more.” (A notable exception, he says, is 60 Minutes.)