It was just before 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon last November when a contingent of police gathered outside the home of Louis Conradt Jr., a longtime county prosecutor living in the small community of Terrell, Texas, just east of Dallas. Though the fifty-six-year-old Conradt was a colleague of some of the officers, they hadn’t come to discuss a case or for a backyard barbeque. Rather, the veteran district attorney, who had prosecuted hundreds of felonies during more than two decades in law enforcement, was himself the target of an unusual criminal probe. For weeks the police in the nearby town of Murphy had been working with the online watchdog group Perverted Justice and producers from Dateline NBC’s popular “To Catch a Predator” series in an elaborate sting operation targeting adults cruising the Internet to solicit sex from minors. Dateline had leased a house in an upscale subdivision, outfitted it with multiple hidden cameras, and hired actors to impersonate minors to help lure suspects into the trap. As with several similar operations previously conducted by Dateline, there was no shortage of men looking to score with underage boys and girls. In all, twenty-four men were caught in the Murphy sting, including a retired doctor, a traveling businessman, a school teacher, and a Navy veteran.

Conradt had never shown up at the Dateline house, but according to the police, using the screen name “inxs00,” he did engage in explicit sexual exchanges in an Internet chat room with someone he believed to be a thirteen-year-old boy (but was actually a volunteer for Perverted Justice). Under a Texas law adopted in 2005 to combat Internet predators, it is a second-degree felony to have such communications with someone under the age of fourteen, even if no actual sexual contact takes place. Armed with a search warrant — and with a Dateline camera crew on the scene — the police went to Conradt’s home to arrest him. When the prosecutor failed to answer the door or answer phone calls, police forced their way into the house. Inside they encountered the prosecutor in a hallway holding a semiautomatic handgun. “I’m not going to hurt anybody,” Conradt reportedly told the police. Then he fired a single bullet into his own head.

Standing outside the house with his crew, the Dateline correspondent Chris Hansen said he did not hear the shot that ended Conradt’s life, but did see his body wheeled out on a gurney. Discussing Conradt’s death over lunch a couple of weeks later, I asked Hansen how it made him feel. Hansen said his first reaction was as a newsman who had to cover the story for his network (Hansen filed a report the next morning for NBC’s Today show). Hansen said that on a human level Conradt’s death was a tragedy that, naturally, he felt bad about. But he understood the true import of my question: “If you’re asking do I feel responsible, no,” Hansen said. “I sleep well at night.”

Others aren’t so sanguine. Galen Ray Sumrow, the criminal district attorney of Rockwall County, Texas, who heads the office where Conradt worked as an assistant district attorney, has reviewed evidence surrounding the case and believes it was badly botched. Among the problems he cites are that the search warrant obtained by the Murphy police officers was defective because it had the wrong date and listed the wrong county for service, basic errors that he believes would have gotten any evidence seized from Conradt’s home tossed out of court. He is also mystified as to why the police would force their way into Conradt’s home when they could have tried to talk him out, or just picked him up at work the next day. “He was here in the office every morning,” says Sumrow, who is himself a former police officer and has been prosecuting cases for more than twenty years. “You generally like to do an arrest like that away from the home to avoid things like what happened.” A sworn affidavit supporting the warrant also shows that the information about Conradt’s online activities was given to the Murphy police by Perverted Justice just hours before they went to arrest him. Why were the police in such a rush to pick up Conradt? Texas Rangers are investigating that question, but Sumrow thinks he knows the answer: “It’s reality television,” he says. Sumrow says an investigator told him the police pushed things because the Dateline people had plane tickets to fly home that afternoon and wanted to get the bust on film for the show. He says investigators also told him that film excerpts show Dateline personnel, including Hansen, interacting with police on the scene, supplying them with information, and advising them on tactics. Sergeant Snow Robertson of the Murphy police says accommodating Dateline’s schedule “wasn’t a factor at all.” Rather, he says, the urgency was to keep Conradt from contacting another minor. Dateline’s Hansen confirms that he was to fly out that Sunday, but says such plans are always subject to change and that he hadn’t even checked out of his hotel. He also denies advising the police during the operation at Conradt’s house. “This stuff is not remotely based in fact,” Hansen says.

At a town meeting called to discuss the Dateline sting operations, several Murphy residents expressed outrage that a parade of suspected sexual predators were lured to their community. Neighbors recounted police takedowns and car chases on their blocks, and some said fleeing suspects tossed drugs and other contraband into their yards. In a statement to the Murphy City Council, Conradt’s sister, Patricia, directly implicated Dateline in her brother’s death. “I will never consider my brother’s death a suicide,” she said. “It was an act precipitated by the rush to grab headlines where there was no evidence that there was any emergency other than to line the pockets of an out-of-control group and a TV show pressed for ratings and a deadline.” She added: “When these people came after him for a news show, it ended his life.” In an interview, she was even more direct: “They have blood on their hands,” she said, referring to Dateline, the police, and Perverted Justice.

In a sense, Conradt’s death was a tragedy foretold. In a piece for Radar magazine about the show, the writer John Cook quoted an unnamed Dateline producer as saying that “one of these guys is going to go home and shoot himself in the head.” When I asked Hansen and David Corvo, Dateline’s executive producer, if they were reviewing the show’s procedures in light of Conradt’s death, both said that there was no evidence to suggest that Conradt was aware of Dateline’s presence when he shot himself (though a camera crew was apparently on his block for hours before the police arrived), and that there were no plans to alter how the “Predator” series is handled. “I still feel like the show is a public service,” said Corvo. “We do investigations that expose people doing things not good for them. You can’t predict the unintended consequences of that. You have to let the chips fall where they may.”

The reluctance to tinker with the show’s formula is no doubt attributable to the fact that since its debut in the fall of 2004, “To Catch a Predator” has been the rarest of rare birds in the television news world: a clear ratings winner. The show regularly outdraws NBC’s other primetime fare. It succeeds by tapping into something that has been part of American culture since the Puritans stuck offenders in the stockade: public humiliation. The notion of delighting in another’s disgrace drives much of the reality TV phenomenon, and is present in the DNA of everything from Judge Judy to Jackass to Borat. “Predator” couples this with a hyped-up fear of Internet sex fiends, creating a can’t-miss formula. The show’s ratings success has made it a sweeps-week staple and turned Chris Hansen into something of a pop-culture icon. To date, by the show’s own count, it has netted 238 would-be predators, thirty-six of whom have either pleaded guilty or been convicted. Hansen regularly gives talks to schools and parent groups concerned about Internet sex predators, and he was even summoned to Washington to testify before a congressional subcommittee investigating the problem, where he and Dateline received effusive praise for their efforts. When the comedian Conan O’Brien filmed a bit to open this year’s Emmy Awards that showed him parading through the sets of hit shows of every network, his last stop was a “Predator” house where Hansen confronted him and O’Brien gave a spot-on rendition of the sweaty, shaky dissembling that most of the show’s targets display.

All that is a long way from where “To Catch a Predator” started. The Dateline producer Lynn Keller says she first contacted the Perverted Justice group about the possibility of doing a show in January or February of 2004. Perverted Justice had already worked with several local television stations, including one in Detroit, where Chris Hansen knew one of the producers and had talked with him about a sting operation the station had filmed using Perverted Justice’s online expertise to lure targets. Dateline’s first sting house was set up in Bethpage, Long Island, about an hour outside of New York City. Hansen recalls being nervous that no one would show up and that he might have to explain to the network why he had blown a bunch of money on a flop investigation. “We thought we might get one person,” Keller recalls. They needn’t have worried. Before he could even reach the house for the first day of filming, Hansen got a frantic call from Keller that the first target was inbound. Hansen beat him there by just fifteen minutes.

The Long Island sting netted eighteen suspects in two and a half days. Eight months later, the show set up a sting house in Fairfax, Virginia (at a home belonging to a friend of Hansen’s in the FBI), and snared nineteen more men, including a rabbi, an emergency-room doctor, a special-education teacher, and an unemployed man claiming to be a teacher, who memorably walked into the house naked. The third show, filmed in early 2006 in southern California, drew fifty-one men over three days. But even as the stings expanded and ratings soared, critics inside and outside the network raised serious questions about whether “To Catch a Predator” was erasing lines that even an increasingly tabloid newsmagazine show should respect.

To begin with, the show has an undeniable “ick” factor. The men (and to date they are all men) are mostly losers who show up packing booze and condoms. It is also undeniably compelling television. Each show follows a similar pattern: after asking the mark to come in, the decoy disappears to change clothes or go to the bathroom. Then, in a startling switcheroo, Hansen appears from off-stage and directs the man to take a seat. The men almost always comply, concluding that Hansen is either a cop or a father. The marks then proffer comical denials about what they are doing at the house, which never include their intent to have sex with a minor. Hansen then produces some particularly salacious details from their Internet chat with the decoy (“But you said you couldn’t wait to pour chocolate syrup all over her and lick it off with your tongue”). The mark then switches gears to say he has never done anything like this before and was just kidding around or role playing, which in turn cues Hansen to say something like, “Well, you’re playing on a big stage, because I’m Chris Hansen from Dateline NBC,” at which point cameras enter from off stage like furies summoned from hell. The mark, now fully perceiving his ruin, usually excuses himself, often pausing to shake hands with Hansen — the cult of celebrity apparently transcends even this awful reality — then exits into the waiting arms of police outside who swarm him as if he had just shot the president.

The police busts are the emotional capper to the encounter, one that highlights the show’s uncomfortably close affiliation with law enforcement. On the first two “Predator” stings, the show didn’t involve arrests, an omission that garnered complaints from viewers and cops alike. Though certain individuals from the initial episodes were subsequently prosecuted, the lack of police involvement from the outset made it hard to make cases that would stick. “The number one complaint from viewers was that we let them walk out,” says Keller. Starting with the third show and in the five subsequent stings, police were waiting to take down the suspects. In our interview and in his congressional testimony, Hansen is careful to refer to those arrests as “parallel” police investigations, as if they just happened to be running down the same track as Dateline, but the close cooperation is always evident. At a time when reporters are struggling to keep law enforcement from encroaching on newsgathering, Dateline, which is part of NBC’s news division, is inviting them in the front door — literally. Hansen tried to deflect this criticism of the show by saying that the volunteers from Perverted Justice serve as a “Chinese wall” between the news people at Dateline and the police.

But as we’ve learned from recent corporate scandals, such Chinese walls are often made of pretty thin tissue. In the case of “To Catch a Predator,” Perverted Justice does most of the groundwork preparing the shows and roping in the men. Initially, Dateline’s responsibility was to cover the group’s expenses, procure the house and outfit it with hidden cameras and, of course, supply Chris Hansen and airtime. However, after the third successful “Predator” show, Perverted Justice hired an agent and auctioned its services to several networks. NBC ended up retaining the group for a fee reported in The Washington Post and elsewhere to be between $100,000 and $150,000. Hansen would not confirm an amount but said he saw nothing wrong with compensating the group for its services, likening it to the way the news division will sometimes keep a retired general or FBI agent on retainer. “In the end I get paid, the producers get paid, the camera guy, why shouldn’t they?” says Hansen.

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

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.

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.)

Dateline’s executive producer David Corvo prefers to see the change as a setting aside of older journalistic conventions to focus on new kinds of issues. The “Predator” series, he says, is just another form of enterprise journalism, one suited to the Internet age. But the distinction between enterprise and entertainment can be a difficult one. Dateline hasn’t so much covered a story as created one. In the process it has further compromised the barrier between reporters and cops that is central to the mission of journalism. If humiliating perverts and needlessly terrifying parents is the best use that newsmagazines can make of hours of primetime television, then perhaps they should be allowed to die and the time given over to the blood sport of reality programming. At least no one would dare to call it news.

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Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.