Dateline's Predators

NBC's catch and release program


Dateline NBC's hit spin-off To Catch a Predator may be the first TV show to become a hit by setting up real-life stings. Members of the vigilante group Perverted Justice pose as minors in Internet chat rooms and attempt to lure men into meeting them for sex. The result—part Candid Camera, part Cops—has made host Chris Hansen a pop culture celebrity, inspiring Saturday Night Live and the producers of countless YouTube videos to spoof his on-camera confrontations with suspected perverts.

In May 2007, former producer Marsha Bartel filed a lawsuit against NBC alleging that she was fired for insisting that the show correct its violations of "numerous journalistic ethical standards." Bartel says Dateline relied too much on Perverted Justice; she claims, for example, that the group would show the program's producers only selected excerpts from chat logs. Bartel also says Perverted Justice volunteers would plead with suspects to meet them in person, even after the suspects initially declined.

According to Collin County, Texas, District Attorney John Roach, the involvement of Perverted Justice activists made the chat logs from their stings useless in court. Police engaging in such stings have to follow a strict protocol, always making sure the suspect initiates any sexually explicit chat, to prevent an entrapment defense.

In June prosecutors in Murphy, Texas, announced they had to drop charges against all 24 suspects arrested during To Catch a Predator's stings. The 25th suspect was Louis Conradt Jr., a prosecutor in a neighboring county. When Dateline's cameras came to his door to confront him, he shot himself fatally in the head. Conradt's boss, Rockwall County District Attorney Galen Ray Sumrow, told the Columbia Journalism Review that film clips show Dateline personnel instructing police on tactics. He believes police rushed Conradt's arrest instead of talking him out of his home to ensure the show got good footage before the crew was due to fly out that afternoon.