Topic: Media

Ethics Be Damned: "Dateline" Imitates "Network"

It’s a striking TV show concept, something that might have been dreamed up by Fay Dunaway’s crazed programming executive in the classic film “Network.” Since 2004, NBC’s “Dateline” has aired several installments of a series entitled “To Catch a Predator,” which tricks on-line adult “chicken-hawks” who are trolling for sex with under-aged children into coming to a house where a camera crew and reporter are waiting to confront them. Evil exposed! Justice served! Ratings increased!

But is it ethical?

Answering that question depends partly on the proper standards one should apply to a show like “Dateline.” The program bills itself as a “TV news magazine,” so these should be journalistic standards, not entertainment standards, though “Dateline” knows that the appeal of its “child porno sting” shows lies as much in its amusement value (it’s a bit like “Candid Camera” or “Punk’d” with sexual predators) as its informative content. Looked at as news reporting, these shows appear to cross ethical lines in several important areas:

  • The program creates the event instead of merely reporting it. Isn’t this called “manufacturing the news?”
  • “Dateline” pays the private pedophile-hunting group Perverted Justice to provide the online lures who masquerade as children to gull the adults into coming to the TV camera-infested house. Checkbook journalism, anyone?
  • In some cases, Perverted Justice’s volunteers have been deputized by local law enforcement officials to facilitate the prosecution of those caught by the program. Is NBC now in the law enforcement business?

These ethical slopes are so slippery and so obvious that journalistic ethicists have been tripping over each other condemning it, or as is more commonly the practice among journalistic ethicists, pronouncing it “troubling.” Does NBC care? NahÂ…because the ratings for the segments are through the roof, and because the stated goal of the program (that is, the goal other than to increase ratings, sell ads, boost viewership of other shows, get publicity and make CBS, Fox, and ABC drool with envy) is so unequivocally laudable that any criticism from ethicists is sure to be drowned out by public praise. Listen to Xavier Von Erck, founder of Perverted Justice, talking to the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi: “We look at those (ethical) rules as just silliness. We’ve never gotten an e-mail from a parent saying, ‘What about journalistic ethics?”‘

Yes, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t get those e-mails if you were tarring and feathering those pedophiles, Paul. It would be hard to find in recent print a more ringing endorsement of “the ends justify the means.” Let’s play a game: what famous figure might Von Erck be quoting when he says, “We look at those ethical rules as just silliness”? Richard Nixon? Al Capone? Jeffrey Skilling? James Fry? How about fictional characters? General Jack D. Ripper? Rooster Cogburn? Vito Corleone?

Perverted Justice, like many self-righteous groups, has serious ethical problems of its own. Prior to its “Dateline” involvement, the group did not work with law enforcement, making it a pure vigilante group that was more interested in harassing and embarrassing the adults seeking sex with minors than getting them off the information superhighway. The group’s activities have even spawned a Perverted Justice watch-dog group, the website Corrupted Justice, which persuasively claims that:

  • Perverted Justice crosses so many ethical lines in snaring its prey that its evidence is usually useless in court.
  • It has frequently misled non-pedophiles into its traps, and deletes records of its many erroneous “busts.”
  • It has used minors as on-line correspondents with suspected pedophiles.
  • Perverted Justice does minimal training that itself does not comport with law enforcement standards, making its volunteer staff unqualified to recognize when its activities have veered into entrapment or harassment
  • The group’s claims of convictions are inflated and deceitful, because a large percentage of the ultimate convictions of Perverted Justice’s targets are for other offenses, like drug possession.

Perverted Justice’s primary response to these criticisms has been to accuse Corrupted Justice of being “pro-pedophile,” which is like accusing criminal defense attorneys of being “pro-crime.” It would seem that Corrupted Justice is concerned with openness, honesty and fairness, admittedly among those values that Van Erck regards as silly.

But journalists are officially supposed to work by those values, and in working with Perverted Justice “Dateline” has gone beyond treading on ethical thin ice to plunging through it. It is manufacturing the news, because NBC is paying vigilantes to instigate a criminal act that “Dateline” films and televises. It is checkbook journalism. And by allowing their partners in “To Catch a Pedophile” to be deputized, “Dateline’s” supposedly neutral reporters connected themselves to government law enforcement. This is a conflict of interest that compromises news judgement and credibility. It is all unethical.

But damn, it’s hot television! And when all is said and done, that’s really all the TV networks care about. It would be kind to attribute “Dateline’s” ethical blindness to their good intentions of nabbing internet sexual predators, but it is hard to deny the truths that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky “Network.” After all, would Faye Dunaway have let a few silly ethical rules get in the way of those monster ratings?

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