This is TALK OF THE NATION, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Dateline NBC's series "To Catch a Predator" uses actors who pose as teenagers, under-aged kids, to lure older men into what they think will be sexual encounters. And it's surprisingly easy to find such men online - by the show's count, hundreds so far - dozens of whom have either pleaded guilty or been convicted.
NBC News doesn't run the stings, that's the work of Perverted Justice, an online watchdog group. And once the meeting's all set, the would-be molester is surprised by the show's host, Chris Hansen.
(Soundbite of television show, "To Catch a Predator")
Mr. CHRIS HANSEN (Host, "To Catch a Predator"): Did you have a hard time finding the place, or…
Mr. DENNIS(ph): Yeah, man.
Mr. HANSEN: You got lost, huh?
Mr. DENNIS: Yeah. Who are you?
Mr. HANSEN: Who are you?
Mr. DENNIS: I'm Dennis.
CONAN: After an often awkward and humiliating conversation, the man leaves and is then swarmed by police officers who've been waiting outside. "To Catch a Predator" raises some uncomfortable questions about the number of sexual predators online for sure, and about journalism, too. The program pays its sources and works closely with police. Some critics worry that this show isn't fair and that it doesn't cover news, but creates news. Of course, many other critics praise it as an important public service.
Later in the program, a closer look at the newest casualty numbers for Iraqi civilians. But first, predator TV. What do you think: voyeurism or busting predators, crime fighting or entrapment? The number to give us a call is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com.
We begin with Dateline NBC correspondent Chris Hansen, the host of "To Catch a Predator," and he joins us by phone from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. HANSEN: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: I know you've done more than half a dozen of these stings in various parts of the country. What is it like walking into that room time after time?
Mr. HANSEN: Well, each time, you know - the first time you go out there, you know, your heart's in your throat a little bit. It's a little anxious. But more often than not, we have the element of surprise on these guys who come in. And as we see time and time again, most of the guys actually sit down and talk. It's almost as if they want to get this off their chest.
Some of the guys have even seen the program before, and it's almost like: oh, you're that guy, this is that show, you want me to sit over here.
CONAN: They've seen the show before. I guess it isn't much of a deterrent.
Mr. HANSEN: Well, I think for some people it is, and we see this in the chat rooms when the guys are talking to the decoys. Often they will say okay, is this Dateline, or even: Tell Chris Hansen I said hello.
But you have these guys who I think have a compulsion or an addiction that overrides their ability to say, okay, I may get caught here. And I think other guys figure well, you know, the police can't be everywhere, Dateline can't be everywhere, what are the chances I'll get caught?
CONAN: And one of the questions that's been asked by your critics is about proportionality. This is certainly a problem, one you've certainly exposed. Nevertheless, is it worth going back time and time and time again? There's so many other great stories out there in the world. What makes this worth hour after hour after hour of primetime television?
Mr. HANSEN: Well, certainly it's compelling television. I mean, you know, it is what it is. But we re-evaluate this every time we do it. We ask ourselves these same questions that the critics ask of us. And thus far, it's been, you know, our position that this is a continuing story, and it warrants further attention.
Now, you know, will we continue to do it as frequently as we have over the past year and a half? We'll have to see.
CONAN: We're going to have a gentlemen, one of the founders of pervertedjustice.com, on later. But I wanted to ask you about NBC's relationship with this group, which, after I guess the first couple of episodes, said you know, we're not going to provide this service for free, other people would be interested in doing this television program. And essentially they negotiated a fee - which has been reported to be something like $100,000 to $150,000 per episode. I know NBC doesn't confirm or deny that number, but that's what it's reported to be. Is it usual for reporters to be paying their sources?
Mr. HANSEN: Well, you know, you have to look at is an entity beyond a source. I mean, we pay retired generals, for instance, to give us insight on the Gulf War. We pay retired FBI agents to give us insight into serial killers.
Perverted Justice allowed us use of its decoys and its personnel for three investigations. And it got to the point where - Chris Hansen's getting paid for doing this; Chris Hansen's producers are getting paid for doing this; and Chris Hansen's cameramen are getting paid for doing this. You know, at some point, we just didn't think it was fair to ask Perverted Justice to do it without getting paid.
CONAN: As I'm sure you know, critics have pointed out there's a difference between paying a general who's neither, apparently, for or against the war or for or against certain conduct of the war - is dispassionate - and paying an advocacy group, which comes into this with a distinct point of view.
Mr. HANSEN: Well, we're paying for their expertise. We're paying for their decoys and their ability to do this kind of work, which is something that not very many people can do.
We are very transparent about this in our stories. The first time this issue came up, you know, we laid it all out on the table during that particular investigation.
CONAN: We're speaking with Chris Hansen, a Dateline correspondent for NBC News, who works on the "To Catch a Predator" series on Dateline NBC. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and why don't we start with Alan(ph). Alan is calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.
ALAN (Caller): Hey, I just wanted to point out, you know, Chris Hansen just said that these people have an addiction or, you know, an obsession - and I don't think that's always necessarily the case. A lot of these people are -it's the first time they've ever responded to anything like this. And I think there should be a national dialogue about why, in particular, so many American men seem to be attracted to very, very young people - or are so excited by very, very young females in particular.
When they are confronted with the dialogue that they were typing in the e-mails, in the chat rooms, the people posing as the youngsters are saying extremely vulgar things. They're not saying ooh, ick, get away from me. They're saying what do you want to do to me? Where do you want to touch me?
And these guys are very excited by this, and I just think it's an entrapment. I think it's - these people are in these chat rooms. They're set up purposely to entice these people, to get them extremely sexually aroused. And I think that's what, you know, this leads to is, you know, more about why are people so interested in these very young people?
I don't think we should be writing everyone off as a pedophile, or someone with an addiction, because of this. I think it's entrapment. And it's just a very -it just opens up a whole world that - of judgment that isn't necessarily always true and always the case.
CONAN: Chris Hansen?
Mr. HANSEN: Well, I respect what you're saying. However, you know, we don't label these guys as pedophiles. Pedophiles have a very specific definition -people who are interested in prepubescent sex. What we're talking about here are potential predators.
And if you take a look at the protocol that's used, the potential predator always has to make the first move. In other words, the decoy is in a chat room with a profile up, which contains a picture that is unquestionably underage. So first off, the potential predator has to make the first contact. And then, in virtually every case, the subject of sex is brought up by the potential predator.
Now, have we had men come in for the very first time? I think we have. But without exception, almost, these guys tell me it's their first time, and I just can't believe each one of them is telling me the truth.
CONAN: Alan, thanks very much for the call.
ALAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Joining us now is Douglas McCollam. He wrote about the "To Catch a Predator" series in an article called "The Shame Game" in this month's issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, and he joins us today from the studios of member station WWW - excuse me - WWNO, I've got to catch the number of W's there - in New Orleans. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. DOUGLAS MCCOLLAM (Contributing Writer for Columbia Journalism Review): Well thanks for having me.
CONAN: In your - in your story you conclude your story by writing: The distinction between enterprise and entertainment can be a difficult one. Dateline hasn't so much covered a story as created one. In the process it has further compromised the barrier between reports and cops that is central to the mission of journalism. If humiliating perverts and needlessly terrifying parents is the best use the news magazine can make of hours of primetime TV, then perhaps they should be allowed to die and the time given over to the blood sport of reality programming. What is your basic objection here? And I wanted to give you a chance to say something and give Chris Hansen a chance to respond before he has to go.
Mr. MCCOLLAM: Well sure. I think the most troubling aspect of the show, or one of the most troubling aspects of the show, is its close cooperation with law enforcement. Originally, in the first two programs, they didn't have arrests. And I think that was troubling to viewers. They desperately wanted these guys picked up. And so they changed the format. They started working with police and I think that all journalists, or anyone interested in journalism, has to be troubled when you see too much close coordination between a news division - or respected news division, like NBC News - and law enforcement. So it's not so much a reporting of the news as sort of a creating of a sting operation like the police themselves might do.
CONAN: And Chris Hansen, I don't know if you've had a chance to see that story in the Columbia Journalism Review as yet.
Mr. CHRIS HANSEN (Host of NBC Program Dateline Series "To Catch a Predator"): Oh absolutely. And, you know, look, Douglas is entitled to his point of view. However, you know, having been there and been involved in these stories, there is a separation between the police and our operation. We do what we do. Perverted Justice provides us with the chat logs. We do the interview with these guys. They leave. Perverted Justice has provided the information, requested by the police from them, and then the police who are running their parallel investigation take action after that. You know, do we review this? Did we have to put a lot of time into it? Yes. But when you compare the first two investigations, where these guys walked off - to what is happening now where, you know, they are facing justice - I think, you know, it's for the greater good.
CONAN: And I…
Mr. HANSEN: At the end of the day, you know, this is absolutely an investigative technique that is new. But we had to come up with a new way to cover what we felt was a new and troublesome crime. And this is what we did. At the end of the day, it's not that much different from the undercover, or hidden camera, or sting-like techniques that we used in India to expose child slave labor in the silk industry; or in Bangladesh, to expose conditions in factories; or in Cambodia to expose sex tours.
CONAN: And we just have a few seconds left…
Mr. HANSEN: Sure.
CONAN: …but parallel investigation - the cops would have been there anyway? Clearly not.
Mr. HANSEN: No clearly not. The police have, in most cases, contact Perverted Justice and have said: Look, we're interested in doing something like this. We need your expertise. We set up our investigation separate to that of the police.
CONAN: Chris Hansen, thanks very much. We know you're busy, just about to catch a flight. We appreciate your asking the time to speak with us today.
Mr. HANSEN: My pleasure. Thanks for having us.
CONAN: Chris Hansen, a correspondent for NBC News and host of "To Catch a Predator" on Dateline NBC. Doug McCollam is going to stay with us at the studios of WWNO in New Orleans. I got it right that time. We're going to take a short break. If you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan, back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about the Dateline series, "To Catch a Predator", which is on NBC TV, and the debate over whether the show provides a public service or raises troubling issues of ethics. Still with us is Douglas McCollam. He wrote the article called "The Shame Game" in this month's Columbia Journalism Review. It looks at the journalism behind "To Catch a Predator." As always, you're welcome to join us. Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And Douglas McCollam, I have to ask you - we didn't get a chance while Chris Hansen was on the line, but there have been dozens of men who have either confessed to or been convicted of crimes as a result of this investigation. Surely that's not insignificant.
Mr. MCCOLLAM: It's not insignificant that - you know, the purpose of my article was not to defend the men that are involved in these things. They're pretty unsavory lot, as a whole. My focus was really on whether or not this was the sort of operation that journalists or news divisions should be involved in, even as opposed to, say, a group like Perverted Justice, which is sort of an Internet watchdog group. I think that that's - I think that, you know - that's perfectly within their rights to partner with police and do that. The question is: Should Dateline NBC be working in close cooperation with Perverted Justice and the police and paying Perverted Justice as part of the bargain.
CONAN: And so the fairness of what's done here to catch the men, that's not an issue for you? It's the fairness of what happens when suddenly there are TV cameras rolling?
Mr. MCCOLLAM: Well I think it's more that the techniques used are appropriate for the police for a sting operation, but traditionally not the kind of things we see in journalism. Chris is right to point out, though, there are undercover operations that go on and there's some very famous journalistic undercover operations that have happened in the past. But I think that journalists always view that with a little bit of caution - or a lot of caution - and usually use it as a last resort, when there's simply no other way to report the story. And I don't think that's certainly the case with Internet child, or underage sex solicitation. There are other ways to do the story.
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Karen(ph). Karen's with us from Columbia, South Carolina.
KAREN (Caller): Hi, thanks.
KAREN: The program is really a horrible necessity. The biggest obstacle in the American public to this entire issue is the belief that predators are somehow identifiable because they look nasty and horrible, and you can see them, and you immediately know that they are predators. This show reveals that they are extremely ordinary people. That's the positive contribution. The show, however, over-sensationalizes this moment of confrontation. And in that moment Chris Hansen asks people, over and over again - Why did you do this? Didn't you know this was wrong? And they sit there and obviously either lie or deny what they're doing. We're left with no explanations for the motivations and expectations for this kind of behavior, from a shockingly - to the ordinarily public - huge, huge number of American men.
The first guy you had to call in - Alan - asked the question: Why are so many American men mesmerized by this particular kind of sexual contact? If you hear what they put in their postings they tell a lot about what they want, what their expectations are. When they're asked to confront that reality, they can't do it and nobody else on the show goes any further. The show makes the contribution but (unintelligible) make so much more of a contribution. And it doesn't. And I'm really disappointed in that.
CONAN: Doug McCollam, I wonder if you had a reaction to that.
Mr. MCCOLLAM: Yeah, it raises a couple of points. One of my other problems with the show is I think that perhaps it gives the impression - by virtue of the fact that it revisits the issue over and over and over again, and is such compelling television - that this is sort of a growing trend or growing menace. But there's very little data to support that. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children did a statistical survey in 2005, where it sampled 15 hundred children between 10 and 17 who use the Internet. Of this 15 hundred, only two had been sexually assaulted as a result of some sort of contact online, and both of those were - one was a 15-year-old girl and one was a 16-year-old girl who had agreed to meet and go to social functions with someone online.
So I'm not - believe me, I'm not saying the problem doesn't exist - it does exist and it is serious. But the question is, does the show give an outsized fear of what is going on. And, you know, a good example of that came when the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, set up a task force to look into this. And then when he had the press conference to do it, he cited this number of 50,000 Internet predators going after children online at anyone time. When a reporter checked that out, and asked where that number had come from, it had come from Dateline.
And when they found the FBI consultant who Dateline cited as the source, he called it a Goldilocks number - not too big and not too small. And a number that had been used in other scandals, like the preschool sex abuse scandal in the 80's, and the number of people - children abducted by strangers every year. So I think that the show creates this impression that there's a huge wave of this going on, and I'm just not sure the statistical information backs that up.
CONAN: Again, not to deny that it's not going on - it is (unintelligible).
Mr. MCCOLLAM: It is going on.
CONAN: Effectively saying a scaremonger.
KAREN: May I make a comment in response to that?
CONAN: Go ahead Karen.
KAREN: The question of whether it's increasing, sort of, again, moves our attention away from the fact that it may not be increasing, it may have always been this large. Nobody discussed child sexual predation. Nobody discussed rape, until about 30 years ago - with any integrity or accuracy. We have an opportunity to talk about why this happens, and we don't get that information. Again, with great respect from the Columbia Journalism Review, he's moving our attention again. We don't want to look at this.
We're constantly berated with information that the people who prey sexually on women, and children, and boys are some kind of weird, strange, perverted whack jobs who are easily identifiable. The closer the media comes to the reality of what actually happens, the more we want to move our eyes - because it is just horrific to look at. And I think, quite frankly, an awful - a huge opportunity is being lost by the people at this program. And quite frankly, Alan isn't helping us, again, move our eyes back to the real dilemma. Thanks for the information.
CONAN: Karen, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Xavier Von Erck is the founder of the group Perverted Justice, which is the online watchdog group that lures suspected online predators into the stings run by Dateline. He joins us from his home in Portland, Oregon, where he's snowed in. I'm sorry your suffering the ravages of all that snow, but thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.
Mr. XAVIER VAN ERCK (Founder of pervertedjustice.com): Thanks for having me on.
CONAN: And how did this group get started?
Mr. VAN ERCK: We got started because typically, in America, the problems you deal with are the problems you see. We are a group of chatters ourselves. And in the rooms, we knew our chatter - and you're in there, you know, almost on a daily basis - you'll see guys come in and say: are there any 15-year-old girls in here who would like to make money? You'll see individuals come in, brazenly, in front of everyone in the chat room - openly soliciting any minors that are potentially in there. After about six months I'm thinking - of thinking, you know, the police will arrest these guys and they'll come in and these guys won't be around anymore, and seeing the same guys over and over again, we started - decided to start the organization.
CONAN: So this wasn't a - nobody in your family, nobody you knew was victimized?
Mr. VAN ERCK: Almost everybody in America knows someone who has been victimized, either by a stranger predator or a predator within their family, but I hadn't known anyone myself who had been victimized by an Internet predator. Unfortunately, throughout the years of doing this, we've met many who have been.
CONAN: And when did the TV part come in? Was that the idea from the beginning?
Mr. VAN ERCK: No the idea from the beginning was that we might have a newspaper interview someday. We started out very grassroots. And you know, over time, over the next couple of years, we had a couple of local television stings. Dateline had seen one of them in Detroit, Michigan and had contacted us about doing it on a bigger stage.
CONAN: And at what point did police become involved? Was that only until the Dateline series started?
Mr. VAN ERCK: We had been getting arrests before we'd ever talked to Dateline NBC, but obviously the work with Dateline NBC had put our work public, so the police were able to see the shows, and see the guys show up, and see the fact that, you know, the work we did had results. And that's why it was the third episode you saw police involved and started arresting them outside of the house.
CONAN: Mm hmm. And I just wanted to get your response to our earlier caller and to some of the things also that Doug McCollam was saying. Is this a - is this a problem that is being overblown by Dateline NBC, and I guess, by Perverted Justice, which continues to work with them?
Mr. VAN ERCK: Well the only thing about the McCollam column is, the day he wrote it, I was on the phone with a family in California whose 12-year-old boy had been solicited by an online pedophile. The pedophile had gotten the boy to be on his child sexuality Podcast and was grooming him over a period of a year. We have a full-response piece on our Web site, detailing the fact checking that was not done with the McCollam story. This crime is incredibly common. What's not common though, is for the victims to step forward. Because the Internet is so new, most of the victims of Internet predators are still underage. They're not exactly going to come forward to the media and say yes, I was raped by a child predator.
In the vast majority of these cases, the victims will never come forward and will never tell their story to the media because they're still so young. I think in the next ten years you're going to see a lot of individuals stepping forward and saying, yeah, me too.
We have a lot of individuals who volunteer for us. We've had 45,000 people sign up for our forums. And a good percentage of them had had contact with Internet predators themselves. So when the caller says the research is not there, suggests that this crime is as large as people are saying it is, that's because there's really no good research that's been done on this crime yet. There hasn't been enough time to pass.
CONAN: Doug McCollam?
Mr. MCCOLLAM: Well, to the extent there is statistical data out there, though, It doesn't really support that this is a huge crime wave or that there isn't a growing problem.
Mr. VON ERCK: (Unintelligible) from research. Anyone with an idea of criminology knows that you need, you know, decades of sampling before you can come to any…
CONAN: And Mr. Von Erck, I'm just going to ask you to let him speak. He let you speak. Please go ahead.
Mr. MCCOLLAM: Well, to the extent there is the data, I think Xavier makes a valid point, which is to say there isn't a tremendous amount of data out there. That's true. And he has access by virtue of his work to a tremendous amount of anecdotal data based on the work he does.
But I say again to the extent that the research is there and to the extent that groups like the National Center for Exploited Children have looked at this, they don't see a huge up tick. And in fact in the latest 2005 survey, they noticed that some of - certain numbers of unwanted solicitations had actually dropped off. In part, because the kids are savvy.
I mean they just don't go in chat rooms as much as they used to. I think Dave is right that there are, you know, certainly unsavory characters and hang out in these rooms, and a lot of the kids just blow it off.
Now some do get caught up in this. You know, there's some great and horrific, horrible stories about kids getting caught up in sort of a relationship, or an online relationship with a pedophile, and being lured into sexual activity. There's no question it happens.
My issue - and I want to make clear that I'm making a distinction between Dateline NBC and Perverted Justice - is that the news media and news divisions, I think have to be careful and to exercise care when they sort of get into what are essentially law enforcement activities, and work too closely with the cops. Or an Internet watchdog group like Perverted Justice.
CONAN: We're talking about Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator" series, that airs from time to time. We're talking with Douglas McCollam, a contributing writer for the Columbia Journalism Review and an author of an article about this series. And with Xavier Von Erck, the founder of PervertedJustice.com.
If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@NPR.org. and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Sandy joins us. Sandy on the line from Salt Lake in Utah.
SANDY (Caller): Hi there. Thanks for taking my call.
SANDY: I called to say that as a former police officer, I don't agree with the idea that this may in some way be generating news or generating the cases, or is it entrapment. Either entrapment needs to be offering the perpetrator both the incentive and the opportunity. And I think the incentive is mostly personal for these people. It's nothing really being offered. It's primarily just the opportunity. So I don't think at any stretch that there's any kind of entrapment issue.
And as to the idea of the whether it's a value probably by the news or something that the news should not be involved in, my feeling is that the news should also be an advocate of the people. And we the people ought to be aware of potential problems within our communities, within our nation, and if there's a threat to us in those communities, a threat to our children. And so I appreciate the fact that…
CONAN: So you think is public service.
SANDY: Yes, I do.
CONAN: All right. Let me get a response to different parts of your call from our guests. Xavier Von Erck, entrapment, does that come up? There have been dozens of men, more than 30 convicted or confessed. Has that come up as a defense in their cases?
Mr. VON ERCK: No, because in the vast majority of these cases, these people are predisposed towards this crime. We don't make first contact with individuals in chat rooms, they make first contact with us. They're looking for minors online. And no sane defense attorney would even offer a defense of entrapment. It's a negative defensive at our client. And all the ones who have offered it - all their clients have been convicted. We have zero acquittals and 129 convictions, and another 400 criminal cases still ongoing. Entrapment's just not something that - you know, for the layman who doesn't understand the term, they might thing it's an issue. But for us it's not because what we do doesn't apply.
CONAN: And, Douglas McCollam, on Sandy's other point, he that if this situation exists in our communities, we ought to know about it.
Mr. MCCOLLAM: Sure, and I don't disagree with that. You can report on this story, and people have reported on this story and shed light on it and I think that's absolutely a good thing. My issue, again, doing it as a sort of an undercover sting operation, working with the police, and working with an Internet watchdog group and paying them at the same time.
I don't think there's any problem with reporting the story and I think it's a good thing that the story is reported.
CONAN: Again, that's a question more for NBC than for Perverted Justice.
Mr. MCCOLLAM: Absolutely.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from DJ, who writes, if you'd ask me about this a year ago, I would've said entrapment. But as a father of a nine-week-old girl, I am now firmly on the other side. Funny how one's mind changes about a lot of things after a baby appears.
And that gets to a broader point that you were making, Douglas McCollam - yes, the majority of the men who show up in these things are unsympathetic, to put it mildly. Do you fear that this is some sort of a slippery slope that, you know, similar kinds of stings are going to be run less publicly annoying things?
Mr. MCCOLLAM: I'm wary of that term. As George Will said, life is a slippery slope.
Mr. MCCOLLAM: So I think the news divisions are under a tremendous amount of pressure for ratings. And the "To Catch a Predator" series has been a clear ratings winner. It's really done well and it has been compelling television, at least to this point. It's a winning formula to TV news. So imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It wouldn't surprise if people found other ways to do these investigations and some might be appropriate.
But, again, I think that the manner in which they're done and how they're done is key. And I think there are good ways to do public service journalism without doing the kinds of things that the "To Catch a Predator" series does.
CONAN: Sandy, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate. We'd also like to thank Xavier Von Erck for his time today. He's the founder of Perverted Justice, snowbound as he speaks to us today in Portland, Oregon. Thanks very much for your time.
Mr. VON ERCK: Thank you.
CONAN: And our thanks as well to Douglas McCollam, a contributing writer for the Columbia Journalism Review. And he joined us today from the studios of our member station in New Orleans, WWNO. Thank you for your time today.
Mr. MCCOLLAM: Well, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: We're going to continue the subject after we come back from a short break. And, again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@NPR.org. Also, the U.N.'s new estimate of almost 100 civilians dying per day in Iraq.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Right now we're wrapping our conversation about the NBC Dateline series "To Catch a Predator." And joining us now is Richard Rapaport, freelance writer and author of an op-ed called "Dying and Living in COPS America," which was a critique of "To Catch a Predator" among other TV shows.
He joins us today from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Nice of you to join us.
Mr. RICHARD RAPAPORT (Freelance Writer, Author, "Dying and Living in COPS America"): Thank you, Neal. We're here shivering in California but we'll do the best we can.
CONAN: I'm sure you'll suffer along. You write about a zero tolerance America and how programs like "To Catch a Predator" factor into that. What are you talking about?
Mr. RAPAPORT: Well, I think what we've had over the last several decades is a redefinition of what the role of what police are, as opposed to what families should be taking care of - say. And so, you know, when we have TV shows like "To Catch a Predator" or "COPS," when they show us a kind of policing that is maybe different and more robust than people are used to, it tends to move the ball forward somewhat. So I, you know, when the piece came out, I got a tremendous amount of e-mails and a lot of people were frightened.
And there's a woman from Joplin, Missouri, which is not exactly a hotbed of radicalism, who wrote and said, I don't want to watch these types of programs. They will make violent police action look normal and justified. They'll make people accept that type of policing. So I'm very concerned that, you know, as we sort of mix together entertainment and police enforcement, you have a situation where we are at risk of kind of forgetting what good policing is actually about.
CONAN: Nevertheless, to say that there is a problem with online predators - and to be fair, this NBC series is not especially violent.
Mr. RAPAPORT: Well, I think that's right. But if you go back and look, for example, at the Perverted Justice Web site. You know, you see things that make this not normal. You know, they sell classic underwear, thongs, on which it's written Contents Aged at Least 18 Years.
You know, that kind of thing, to just sort of accept that as the basis of, you know, of this kind of action is very scary. You know, and I know NBC has latched on to something good here but it just seems to me that there's a tremendous danger in just kind of letting people like Perverted Justice sort of into the tent. You know, just without questioning who they are and where they came from. And is this really a good thing for American justice?
CONAN: Is what you're suggesting that NBC ought to be covering who is Perverted Justice and what are they doing as opposed to paying them?
Mr. RAPAPORT: That wouldn't, you know, that might not be a…
Mr. RAPAPORT: They won't but maybe they should. You know, maybe they should look inside before they sort of come out. And, you know, when you have somebody like Chris Hansen, when you listen to him he's generally speaking in the third person. I mean I'm a little scared of the grand inquisitor sort of showing up and then in the third person taking these people apart.
You know, the other thing is, of course, that they are people beyond the pail. As you said earlier, you know, I mean once sort of this runs its course what's next? You know, are we going to take people, you know, who want to have parties for the ACLU and kind of get them and, you know, entrap them into something?
CONAN: It's hard to believe that would be as titillating enough to generate a lot of interest in terms of TV viewing.
Mr. RAPAPORT: Well, you know, it's funny how second and third generation television shows kind of, you know, break down that way. The latest, last week CBS premiered a show called "Armed and Famous," which kind of takes B-grade celebrities like Latoya Jackson and gives them police training ,and then kind of sends them out into the mean streets. I'm not sure that's a real good use of our police resources. But, you know, I could be wrong.
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Jay. Jay's with us from Aiken in South Carolina.
JAY (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call.
JAY: I was also thinking about what he just said, and the whole reason why I originally called was to bring up the point of, like, free speech. Now, I am sure I'm one of the chorus of voices that are basically thinking that the whole Dateline NBC series is over the top because, you know, I'm glad the earlier caller mentioned the fact that early in the show, it was meant to just be investigative reporting. And then later on you see these almost sting-like qualities in which, like, here are the police waiting after the individual walks out the building.
I mean, that seems kind of almost like an open-and-shut deal before you begin. Now, I like at, like say, an idea like sexual predatorial(ph) nature. I totally do not agree with that. But like, if you think about it, you can also use the same almost, like, monolithic example like with drugs.
There is - records have showed since, like, even the ancient Egyptians, Roman times, sexual, quote-unquote, you know, deviation. Therefore, is the concept of Internet in a sexual predator only something new, I question, or is it something that's been there?
And so basically what I point out is I've been, you know - I went to college, and I know for a fact, like, say you take five minutes of chatting and when you say hey, how are you doing today? Now, because the thing about the Internet, unless we got the voice software, see is how the…
CONAN: Yeah, Jay, I think the distinction that they draw on the program between online chatting and the First Amendment and doing something that might be in violation of the law is when you agree to go to a meeting and do something and act in furtherance of your conversation. An act, I think, is what's required, though I gather in some states, just even soliciting for this is against the law.
JAY: Exactly, but that was my point. What's the dividing line between A, just simply flirting and chatting, and what is hey, this is a predator. He's out to, you know, cause harm to the younger girls of America.
CONAN: Is that something that you would agree with, Richard Rapaport?
Mr. RAPAPORT: Well, I think the window is narrowing. You know, it's going to -as more - you know, it's sort of police, it seems to me, you know, as the role expands, as they intrude into more areas, it seems to me that we end up having less leeway in what we can think of and do.
You know, we're talking about zero-tolerance America. You know, it used to - it used to be that, you know, in America, it was three strikes and you were out. You know, it was kind of the baseball metaphor. You always had another chance.
And it seems to me that now we're down to probably two strikes, on our way to one. You know, this is not a very forgiving society. And I think it seems to me you've got to be very, very careful when you - you know, you take people like -you know, even if they are the scum of the earth, which, you know, we've all admitted that, and that's kind of the, you know, the insurance policy that Perverted Justice and Chris Hansen have.
These guys, you know, cannot - they're defenseless in the sense of nobody's going to defend them.
CONAN: They're indefensible.
Mr. RAPAPORT: They are - well, except that, of course, we have a Constitution that…
CONAN: That's another issue legally, but yeah.
Mr. RAPAPORT: Yeah.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, appreciate your time today.
Mr. RAPAPORT: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Richard Rapaport is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and author of the op-ed "Dying and Living in 'COPS' America," a critique of "To Catch a Predator" and other television programs. He joined us today from the studios of KQED, our member station in San Francisco. When we come back, the death tolls of civilians in Iraq.
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