Wednesday, July 25, 2007

\to catch_a predator

Tonight was the 11th “investigation” by “Dateline NBC” regarding online sexual predators. They call the shows “\to catch_a predator.” I’m not sure why the underscore is necessary.

The show follows the same format each time NBC conducts one of its stings. The online watchdog organization Perverted Justice finds the predators and invites them to a sting that NBC films. Dateline’s Chris Hansen represents the network each time the predator is busted. Hilarity ensues.

The format, for those who haven’t seen the show, follows a basic pattern. Perverted Justice volunteers attract the attention of males looking for underage sex partners, develop a rapport with them, invite them to a house that is wired for video and then bust them for being predators. The predators depart, only to be arrested by local police cooperating with NBC. Often Hansen gets to interview the unsuspecting predator before he is arrested. It makes for great TV.

I have no problem with NBC subsidizing a local police department in a sting operation. Most police departments don’t have the manpower or money to conduct a lengthy prostitution or drug sting. So when a network wants to subsidize a sting targeting online predators and create awareness about the problem, it sounds like a win-win for local police departments, right?

Sure, but we all know that even network news departments, like most media organizations, are driven by profit. (CBS didn’t hire Katie Couric because she was the hardest working journalist on the market.) NBC wouldn’t subsidize 11 sting operations if they weren’t a ratings success for the network. Their intentions are not that honorable.

But enough of our nation of 300 million people have found the concept entertaining enough that it’s in NBC’s best interest to repeat the program with new “investigations.” The reality is that we’re not learning anything new. Online predators are still out there three or four years after NBC first tapped into this ratings bonanza. Is anyone shocked by that?

I liken the show to Jerry Springer’s lackluster talk show. People are fascinated by it because it’s hilarious to a certain degree, even if it’s a sad exploitation of society as well. Eventually viewers will tire of the program or NBC will exploit the concept further to keep viewers coming back, evidence of which we’re seeing, but I’ll get to that later. (A producer of the 1970s edition of “Match Game” noted that after so many years viewers no longer found the same double entendres funny. You have to keep pushing the envelope or people will tire of your gimmick. Perhaps the novelty of online predators will wear off, too.) The fact that the show doesn’t air weekly in prime time will probably help preserve its life span for another three or four years, at least.

But the show leaves me with several questions, and a bit of distaste in my mouth, despite the fact it’s funny to watch the stings.

First of all, who are these volunteers who work for this Perverted Justice organization? They’re not trafficking child pornography, they’re not trying to seduce children, they’re simply posing as young boys and girls waiting to be approached by a predator. In the case of Dateline, they’re working for the show. They even get paid by the show for their assistance, which is used to offset the organization’s operating costs, evidently. I don’t have a problem with that, but the group wasn’t formed to go to work for Dateline, and they weren’t paid initially. So why are there people posing as teens and engaging in sexual chat with unsuspecting predators?

If you’re a parent whose child was the victim of an online predator, perhaps you want to help in the fight to stop it. But I can’t believe that everyone volunteering for the organization has been personally affected by the actions of a predator. So why do they do it? I’d like to know, because there are a million volunteer activities we can donate our time to, and people who decide that’s how they want to contribute toward a better society creep me out a little bit. Somebody has to do it, but I’d bet some of the organization’s volunteers get some sort of weird thrill out of it. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps they’re all friends and relatives of victims.

So after a decoy is approached by a predator who initiates sexual discussion, the decoy can then entice the predator to continue the dialogue. Once the dialogue has established the predator’s motive, the decoy attempts to set up a rendez vous at a suburban residence that serves as the base of operations for the sting. Dateline usually provides samples of the chat dialogue, complete with voice actors for the predator and the decoy. These transcripts really aren’t necessary to prove that the predator is guilty of soliciting a minor online – a criminal offense in states where Dateline films its stings – but they seem to be mandatory.

Dateline will usually provide some sort of titillating excerpt from a transcript. Sometimes it’s important for explaining why a predator will say something or bring a particular item with him when he arrives at the house. Sometimes it’s just for entertainment, I’m sure. I don’t really need to know a guy wants to kiss a 13-year-old’s body all over, but sometimes that’s what you hear the voice actor read. As I said, these excerpts can be entertaining, but they also leave me thinking that NBC is pandering to the audience.

Given I have already written what would qualify as a blog by most standards, this blog entry will be a work in progress. I’m trying to blog nightly this week, but this blog could take another two to three hours to finish, so I can’t knock it off in one night, I have realized. Instead of sitting on it until it’s done, I’ll update it nightly and remove this tag when it’s complete. Once this topic is done I’ll get to the remaining topics on my list.

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