By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Bob Steele, an ethicist with the nonprofit Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism education group, said the arrangement puts NBC in "potentially dicey legal territory" because the distinctions among law enforcement, the news media and a paid agent of the media are blurred. Journalists typically are protected by "shield laws" that place news-gathering materials off-limits in legal proceedings, he said. With the network so closely linked to the government, however, "this could weaken the legal argument [for protection] in future cases," Steele said. "It's very troubling."
"Dateline" did not seek the cooperation of local authorities, or even alert them, when it set up its sting in Fairfax, said Mary Ann Jennings, a Fairfax police spokeswoman. That caused a public relations headache for Fairfax officials; when the "Predator" segment aired in November, county officials had to explain to outraged residents why the police could not immediately arrest the men who showed up at NBC's rented house in Herndon seeking sex with children.
Jennings explained that local laws require police to have extensive computer records of people soliciting minors for sex. In a number of cases, she said, records kept by Perverted Justice's members were either incomplete, ascribed to anonymous sources or were not made available to authorities.
"As appalling as this was to most people, we couldn't just go out and arrest everyone," Jennings said. "Until we could get into the computer records, we couldn't prove [a crime]. . . . The standards of what works well on TV are not necessarily the same as what [works] in court."
Von Erck said that his group turned over "everything" to local officials after the sting was completed. (Police in Fairfax and other jurisdictions subsequently made several arrests stemming from the sting, but neither Jennings nor Von Erck knew the exact number.)
To avoid similar problems, Maraynes said, "Dateline" worked more closely with officials in Riverside and in Darke County. In Ohio, where local law-enforcement officials invited Perverted Justice and NBC to conduct a sting, "a quirk" in local laws necessitated deputizing Perverted Justice members, the producer said.
"It was a compromise, in a way," he said. "They [Darke County officials] said: 'We may not be able to make the cases against these guys. What if we deputized them?' We felt we were doing the socially responsible thing [by agreeing to it]. We didn't want to be seen as obstructing a case." NBC's attorneys approved the idea, he said, adding, "We don't believe this will ever come up again."
Von Erck compared "Dateline's" cooperation with Ohio officials to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward's reliance on an anonymous government source during the Watergate era. In any case, Von Erck said: "We look at those [ethical] rules as just silliness. We've never gotten an e-mail from a parent [after a 'Predator' report aired] saying, 'What about journalistic ethics?' "
Even so, "Dateline's" producers were leery of being too closely associated with police. During the Ohio sting, the network would not allow sheriff's deputies to be in the same house as its journalists and Perverted Justice's members. Maraynes said NBC took that step because "we didn't want [police] to be perceived as part of our decision-making process, and they weren't."
Darke County, which has a population of 53,000, had about half its 20 deputies monitoring the three-day sting, Howell said. The operation resulted in the arrest of 18 men, all of whom were charged.
Maraynes disputed the notion that NBC's agreement to pay Perverted Justice amounted to paying a news source. He called Perverted Justice "more of a consultant than a source. We were using them for their expertise in these pieces." He said "Dateline" would reveal to viewers that the group was paid when the Ohio segments are scheduled to air next month.
Von Erck said his group's members have helped identify hundreds of alleged pedophiles through Internet stings. The group, which began in 2002, also claims to have provided police with information that led to 100 arrests and 50 convictions in 25 states. "We turn up great evidence that stands up in court," he said.
But that claim is disputed by the group Corrupted Justice, whose mission includes counteracting the work of Perverted Justice, and is based near Ottawa. A spokesman for Corrupted Justice said much of Perverted Justice's efforts are counterproductive because most of the people it exposes suffer no legal consequence and remain free to prey on children. Perverted Justice's members also have mistakenly identified and harassed innocent people but are not held accountable because they operate anonymously, typically using computer screen names, Corrupted Justice spokesman Scott Morrow said.
"The fact is, these people are amateurs," Morrow said. "They're volunteers, with no official training, no training in law enforcement, no training in the rules of evidence, no idea about maintaining evidence so it can be used in court. They shop this stuff around, and most of the time local law enforcement tells them, 'We can't use it.' "
Morrow said NBC's involvement with Perverted Justice is particularly troubling: "They're manufacturing the news, rather than just reporting it. They're not only working with untrained, anonymous vigilantes, but now they're paying them, too." He said NBC could do stories on what police departments and the FBI are doing to hunt down pedophiles without resorting to "questionable" tactics.
Maraynes expressed no reservations about the elaborate preparations "Dateline" makes for each segment. Among other things, network producers rent a house for as long as two weeks and pay the travel and housing expenses of Perverted Justice's volunteers. "This is enterprise journalism," he said.
The idea for the series, he said, came to him after a Philadelphia TV station, working with Perverted Justice, aired footage of alleged pedophiles being lured to, but not into, a decoy location in 2004. Maraynes said he liked the general idea of identifying such would-be felons but that the setup needed some tweaking.
"I thought, 'What if we created the illusion that there was a child inside the house and our reporter was waiting inside?' I thought it would be more interesting if we created a waiting room and could see who these people were. I said, 'Let's see what happens.' "