NBC’s To Catch a Predator takes another hit in Esquire
Spokeswoman denies manipulation allegations


2007 Houston Chronicle


A TV news organization often criticized for ethical lapses takes another hit in the September issue of Esquire magazine.


Luke Dittrich’s story says the staff of Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator manipulated and controlled law enforcement officers during a sting in Murphy in north Texas, blurring the lines between reporters and police and resulting in the suicide of a former district attorney.


Editor David Granger is calling on NBC to cancel To Catch a Predator before someone else dies.

“The show puts aside the need for due process,” Granger said in a recent interview. (Esquire, like the Houston Chronicle, is a Hearst publication.) “Whether these men are convicted in a court of law or not, they’re convicted in the court of public opinion. Our country has not succeeded and prospered for two centuries by exploiting people who have no recourse. It’s just wrong.”


Since 2004, there have been 11 editions of To Catch a Predator. The legwork is done by a group called Perverted-Justice.com, which is paid an undisclosed sum by NBC. Members of the online group — sometimes described as watchdogs, sometimes as vigilantes — pose as underage teens or decoys on the Web. When they get a nibble from a suspected pedophile, they try to lure him to a house rented by NBC and rigged with hidden cameras.


Once inside this trap, adult actors who look years younger than they are greet the suspects and disappear. Then host Chris Hansen appears on the scene to take the men to task. It’s riveting TV, no question. The cameras zoom in as the men realize they’re caught and about to be arrested.


Many would argue that justice is being served in the very public “gotcha.” Some of the men come bearing condoms and booze. Their intent is clear.


The case of prosecutor Louis Conradt last fall was somewhat different. He did commit a crime when he communicated in a sexually explicit way online with someone pretending to be a minor. As a prosecutor, Conradt knew his Texas law.

The Esquire investigation shows, however, that after two weeks of vidchat, Conradt stopped communicating with the actor who was pretending to be 13. He didn’t answer the decoy’s computer messages, and soon stopped taking his phone calls.


For whatever reason, however, the Dateline staffers decided not to wait for Conradt to come to them. Instead, they urged police to arrest the prosecutor at home. The magazine article describes the police camping out on his front lawn, then breaking into the house with a search warrant riddled with mistakes.

Officers saw Conradt as they crept down a hallway. According to their reports, he retreated into a room off the hall and said loudly enough to be heard that he wasn’t going to hurt anyone. Moments later, he shot himself in the head.


Esquire’s Granger does not endorse, protect or defend pedophiles. At the same time, “exploitation in any form is offensive,” he said. “Predators don’t deserve to be exploited for the sake of entertainment and possibly, ratings.”


Most TV news magazines have struggled to attract and keep audiences in the past few years. To Catch a Predator, however, does well. The average viewership has been 8.1 million viewers.


In the Conradt case, Granger said, the TV staff worked so closely with local law enforcement officials, they practically were running the operation.


Collin County District Attorney John Roach echoed that thought when he told Esquire the police involved in the Murphy sting were manipulated like potted plants.


It’s important to have a fire wall between reporters and law enforcement officials, said Thomas Donaldson, professor of ethics at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Otherwise you have media companies making money by supposedly bringing people to justice.”


NBC’s Hansen was not available for comment. Spokeswoman Jenny Tartikoff defended him in an e-mail.

“The notion that Chris Hansen or anyone at Dateline could or would ‘control’ or ‘manipulate’ the actions of law enforcement personnel is preposterous.”


Xavier Von Erck, director of operations for Perverted-Justice.com, also corresponded by e-mail: “The idea that anything led to the suicide of Conradt other than his want to avoid potential penalties for soliciting a 13-year-old boy sexually is outlandish. We encourage all interested to read the Conradt chat-logs and verification call recordings. Once you do that, you then immediately know why Conradt shot himself rather than face the criminal justice system.”


Von Erck compared the Esquire piece to great crime fiction — with an emphasis on the word fiction. The reporter, he said, wrote exactly the story he wanted to write irrespective of the facts in the case.


Since To Catch a Predator started more than three years ago, 286 men surfaced in the investigations, and 256 were arrested. At present, only 118 of those men have either pleaded guilty or been convicted by a judge or jury.


In Collin County, prosecutors released the 23 men caught in the Murphy sting. The officials criticized NBC and Perverted Justice for failing to follow legal procedures.


In return, Perverted Justice has lambasted the prosecutors on its Web site, which is loaded with lewd Internet excerpts.


“It’s very troubling,” said the writer, Dittrich. “What the show did was muddy the waters. In the article, I tried to help readers distinguish between TV justice and real justice.”


Dittrich acknowledged that he was mesmerized by the show when he watched it, but that he wasn’t sure To Catch a Predator appealed to viewers’ healthiest or most noble appetites.


“It caters to something base in us,” he said. “For some reason we all like to watch people punished and humiliated.”