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Foul Prey

A year and a half ago, I wrote a piece condemning the pernicious "To Catch A Predator," NBC's wildly popular vigilante entertainment on "Dateline." After wooing would-be child predators over the Internet in conjunction with a seriously questionable "watch-dog" group called Perverted Justice, "Dateline"'s Chris Hansen would meet the men at the "child's house." Before local law enforcement took down the sexual predator, Hansen would spend a few minutes humiliating them. As I wrote then:

Hansen sets the show up as a supposed resource to inform parents of the dangers lurking on the Internet. But, after eight shoots and 15 hours of broadcast episodes of one predator after another--after another, after another--it's clear this is no longer informative; it's just lurid. Hansen is not the heroic investigative reporter he pretends to be; he's an entertainer, creating a black-and-white world of good and evil that allows the audience to cheer as bad guys are taken out, while simultaneously appealing to viewers' own twisted perversions. ...

On one particularly nightmarish episode of "To Catch A Predator," a youth-center rabbi is confronted by Hansen. Believing that Hansen is a police officer, the rabbi solemnly admits he was up to nothing good and inquires as to what happens next. It is only when Hansen reveals that the man is being filmed for "Dateline" that the rabbi really loses it, lunging at Hansen and screaming "Oh, no!" The threat of the law is nothing compared with the threat of exposure.

Well, it appears the inevitable has happened. During a "Dateline" sting operation, one of Hansen's "dates" promptly shot himself. So now, after an undisclosed settlement on a $105 million lawsuit, "Dateline" is finally taking the show off the air--for now. By all means let's catch child predators. But let's not pretend that airing film of it ad nauseam is a public service; let's not pretend it isn't meting out punishment before a fair trial; let's not pretend it's journalism; and let's not allow this to pass as entertainment.

--Sacha Zimmerman