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Predator And Prey

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If you want to better understand "To Catch A Predator," the Dateline NBC series we first raised questions about early last year, check out Esquire's long-but-engrossing writeup of the fate of Texas prosecutor Bill Conradt.

Long story short: Conradt allegedly went online, posing as a 19-year-old college student, and struck up a relationship with what he believed to be a 13-year-old boy named Luke. The conversation became sexual, and "Luke" invited Conradt to come to the house where he was staying. Only "Luke," of course, wasn't real, and certainly wasn't 13. And Dateline, along with the local cops, were waiting at the house to humiliate and arrest Conradt.

Only the prosecutor didn't come. And Dateline wanted its man. So they requested that the police quickly provide an arrest and search warrant for Conradt's house. The plan? To ambush interview Conradt, confront him with the IM transcripts, and film him being arrested. Only it didn't go that way. Instead, after a SWAT team stormed his house as part of a poorly thought out police operation, Bill Conradt shot himself in the head.

And that, really, is just the worst of it: Of the 23 men arrested at the decoy house, many of whom clearly showed themselves to be dangerous to children, none received more than the shame that comes from their public exposure. The prosecutor couldn't pursue the cases for a variety of reasons, including the fact that many of the arrests may have been illegal.

As the story notes:

…in all of these "To Catch a Predator" decoy-house arrests, it will come to light that not only was there no warrant but the police had done literally no prior investigation. Instead, they simply camped outside the decoy house and arrested the men who emerged after receiving a prior signal from the Dateline crew inside. The only thing [felony prosecutor] Doris Berry won't quite be able to figure out is whether this means that Dateline had become an agent of the Murphy Police Department or whether the relationship was the other way around.
Dateline argues it is not engaged in a journalistic version of entrapment, despite its partnership with Perverted Justice, a civilian group in which ordinary citizens who have adopted self-aggrandizing fake names pose as children online and try to lure men to decoy houses outfitted with Dateline cameras. It argues that it does not have a problematic relationship with law enforcement, despite the fact that the botched Conradt operation, according to the Esquire piece, would likely never have taken place without Dateline's efforts. And it argues that a producer who says she was fired for complaining about an unethical level of collaboration between Dateline, local police, and Perverted Justice was not wrongfully terminated.

There are those who say all this doesn't matter – that the ends justify the means. By this line of thinking, the Bill Conradt story could be considered unfortunate -- collateral damage. Dateline defenders argue that the exposure of the men is better than nothing, even if the experience makes them savvier the next time around. But perhaps we shouldn't suspend the lines between law enforcement and journalism just because we find those being targeted unsavory. Perhaps we shouldn't let television producers call the shots when it comes to real police operations just because it gives us a vigilante thrill. And perhaps, next time we come across the show, we should just change the channel. Journalism ethics watchdogs probably can't get "To Catch A Predator" off the air, but low ratings are a different story.

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