Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

March 20, 2007

To Catch A Predator: Creating A Problem Where One Doesn’t Exist ?

by Doug Mataconis

By now, I think most of us are familar with Dateline NBC’s “To Catch A Predator” series. A decoy from a group calling itself Perveted Justice chats online with adult men. The decoy pretends to be either an underage boy or girl, and, when someone bites, they take the conversation as far as they can and then setup a situation where the adult comes to visit what they think is a teenager for sex.

But it’s not a teenager, of course, and all of this is being recorded by the cameras of NBC News and narrated by reporter David Chris Hansen. The mark comes to the house, goes inside, and has a brief conversation with an actor or actress protraying the teenager, and then Hansen does his “big reveal” and has a brief conversation with the mark before sending them outside to be arrested.

There are several things about this show that amaze me, and one of them is how many of these men are willing to sit in a room with a television camera and microphone and try to justify themselves, even after being confronted with chat logs that are sometimes several inches thick and quite explicit.

NBC justifies the show by saying that it is informing parents of a threat to their children, but there’s no question that it makes for good television. After all, watching someone’s life fall apart on national television is close to becoming our national pastime.

Quite honestly, most of these men are stupid and probably a little sick, but it’s unclear to me just how much of a threat they really are. If the decoy hadn’t steered the conversation toward coming to the house, how many of them actually would have done so ?

Most interesting, though, is the fact that the vast majority of the men who get caught up in these stings do not have any prior criminal history of harming or threatening to harm children. Frequently, they’ll be found with condoms, alcohol, and pornography in their cars, but it seems rare that any of them are caught with child pornography.

They are clearly guilty of breaking the law, but has the sting really taken a truly dangerous person off the street ?

Douglas McCollam has a long, quite interesting article up at the Columbia Journalism Review about To Catch A Predator and asks whether Dateline really is doing a public service in producing and airing these spots:

Dateline has argued that “Predator” serves a genuine public good, but it could be argued that, in fact, Dateline is doing the public a disservice. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales gave a speech about a major initiative to combat the “growing problem” of Internet predators, he cited a statistic that 50,000 such would-be pedophiles were prowling the Net at any given moment and attributed it to Dateline. Jason McLure, a reporter at Legal Times in Washington, D.C., (where I was formerly an editor), asked the show about the number. Dateline told him that it had gotten it from a retired FBI agent who consulted with the show. When the agent was contacted he wasn’t sure where the number had come from, terming it a “Goldilocks” figure — “Not small and not large.” He added that it was the same figure that was used by the media to describe the number of people killed annually by Satanic cults in the 1980s, and before that was cited as the number of children abducted by strangers each year in the 1970s. Dateline has now disowned the number, saying solid statistics about Internet predators are hard to find, but that the problem seems to be getting worse, a sentiment echoed by lawmakers in Congress.

But actually there isn’t much evidence that it is getting worse. For example, many news reports have cited a Justice Department study as saying that one in five children is approached online by a sexual predator. But as Radford Benjamin of The Skeptical Inquirer pointed out, what that 2001 study actually said was that 19 percent had received a “sexual solicitation” online, about half of which came from other teens and none of which led to a sexual assault. According to the study, the number of teens aggressively solicited by adults online was about 3 percent. A more recent study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that the number of kids getting unwanted sexual advances on the Internet was in fact declining. In general, according to data compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 70 percent of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by family members or family friends.

That doesn’t mean Internet sex predators don’t exist, but Dateline heavily skews reality by devoting hour after hour of primetime programming to the phenomenon. As Poynter’s Tompkins notes: “Is there any other issue that’s received that much airtime? The question is whether the level of coverage is proportional to the actual problem.”

Based on the evidence cited by McCollam, it would appear that the answer is no and that To Catch A Predator is more a perversion of the legal system than a quest for justice.

H/T: Hit & Run

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  • http://thelibertypapers.org/2005/11/22/a-bit-about-kevin/ Kevin

    Doug,

    If the decoy hadn’t steered the conversation toward coming to the house, how many of them actually would have done so ?

    The question is, who intiates the idea of a meeting? If the pervert intiates the meeting, then the decoy did nothing wrong by providing the meeting place. As they say, caveat emptor. However, if the decoy is the one pushing the meeting, then that could be possible entrapment and the sting is bogus from the get go.

  • Lou

    Just to play devil’s advocate here… What crime is being committed? There’s no minors involved. What if I was role-playing with another adult in which one of us was pretending to be underage? Is this a crime? What if we then video taped this and distributed to other adults who were not aware that the underage person was really an adult. Did they commit a crime?

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    The laws against soliciting minors online are pretty draconian. In some states, including Texas and Virginia, the adult doesn’t even have to make physical contact, or attempt to make physical contact, with the person they believe to be underage. In these states, chatting explicitly online with someone they think is under 18 is a crime.

    Whether that should be the case is another question.

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  • Petrina

    “‘If the decoy hadn’t steered the conversation toward coming to the house, how many of them actually would have done so ?’

    The question is, who intiates the idea of a meeting? If the pervert intiates the meeting, then the decoy did nothing wrong by providing the meeting place. As they say, caveat emptor. However, if the decoy is the one pushing the meeting, then that could be possible entrapment and the sting is bogus from the get go.”

    The decoys do not initiate the meeting. The alleged pervert initiates the conversation, the subject of sex, and the meeting.

    And it’s CHRIS Hansen.

  • http://www.corrupted-justice.com CJ Black Widow

    If you would like to know more about the tactics used by Dateline and Perverted-Justice, visit http://www.corrupted-justice.com. We are a group that has voiced opposition against Perverted-Justice for 4 years now.

    CJ Black Widow

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