'Dateline' Pedophile Sting: One More Point
Sunday, April 9, 2006
The NBC newsmagazine "Dateline" agreed to pay a civilian watchdog group more than $100,000 to create a pedophile sting operation that the network plans to feature in a series of programs next month, network representatives and the organization's founder said. As part of the sting, the network also went along with police officials' deputizing of the group's members, in effect turning "Dateline's" made-for-TV operation into a law-enforcement action. The segments, taped last month in Ohio, have prompted news media observers and others to question NBC's methods and criticize its practices.
"Dateline's" orchestration of the sting crossed ethical boundaries and could place the network in an awkward legal position, they said.
NBC's senior producer of the segments, Allan Maraynes, confirmed the arrangements but said that the network had no qualms about them. "We've raised the public's consciousness of a very serious issue," he said. "We think we've created a model [for reporting on Internet pedophilia] that accurately reflects what happens in real life."
Since 2004, "Dateline" has aired three reports in the sting operation series, titled "To Catch a Predator." In each report, the newsmagazine worked with a Portland, Ore., group called Perverted Justice, whose volunteer members pose as young boys and girls in Internet chat rooms and wait to be contacted by adult men seeking sex with minors. The volunteers lure the men to a house rented by NBC, where they are caught on hidden cameras and confronted by a "Dateline" reporter. Some of the men are subsequently arrested.
"Dateline" and Perverted Justice have staged stings in Fairfax County, Long Island, N.Y., and Riverside, Calif. During the Fairfax operation last summer, the men lured to the house included a rabbi who worked in Potomac, a schoolteacher from Prince George's County and a physician from the Eastern Shore.
In each of those segments, Perverted Justice received no compensation from NBC, nor were any of the group's members deputized.
But NBC's relationship with the group changed before "Dateline" began taping an installment of the series last month in rural Darke County, Ohio. After the first three "Dateline" stings each drew more than 8 million viewers, Perverted Justice hired an agent to negotiate with the network.
NBC sources said Perverted Justice received compensation in the low six figures for its role in the Ohio sting. The group's founder, Xavier Von Erck, did not dispute that description but declined to provide specifics.
To meet local statutes involving evidence-gathering, three Perverted Justice members who engaged in Internet chats with alleged pedophiles were deputized by Darke County's sheriff, said Richard M. Howell, the county's prosecuting attorney. Technically, deputizing the volunteers made them law enforcement officers during the sting, Howell said.
Mainstream news organizations typically do not pay sources for their cooperation because such payments might unduly influence the source's actions or information. Dateline's tactics on other stories have been questioned recently. On Friday, NASCAR officials accused the news magazine program of trying to "manufacture the news" by bringing a group of Muslim men to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia to see how they would be treated by NASCAR fans.
Moreover, it is almost unheard of for a media outlet to allow its paid associates to act as law enforcement officials, even on a temporary basis, journalism experts said. "I can't think of anything like that," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an Arlington-based group that advises journalists on legal issues. "It sounds to me like a very risky thing to do."
Journalists reject such an arrangement because they might be publicly perceived as being "agents of the government" rather than as independent news gatherers, Dalglish said. "This would certainly have me holding my breath," she said.