The ABC News investigation into NBC News’ To Catch a Predator (which aired Friday on 20/20) shines an unflattering light on the Dateline staple and Murphy, Texas law enforcement.
The investigation was spurred by the suicide of a former Texas prosecutor who shot himself when Murphy police – with Dateline cameras and Predator front man Chris Hansen in tow – kicked in his door on a Sunday afternoon. The man’s sister, Patricia Conradt, is suing NBC.
News organizations – especially TV news organizations perceived to have deep corporate pockets – are routinely targeted by lawyers proffering “letters of demand,” the insinuation being that fighting a lawsuit is more expensive than settling. Bruce Baron, the Brooklyn lawyer for Conradt, sent such a letter to NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker in July. He also faxed a copy in which he outlined his intention to seek $100 million in damages, to reporters.
ABC’s Brian Ross interviews a former Murphy detective and police officer as well as the district attorney in neighboring Collin County, Texas, who sent a letter to Murphy authorities warning them against getting into bed with Predator and the civilian vigilante group Perverted Justice, which NBC News worked with to set up the stings.
The interviews and Dateline outtakes from that day paint the Murphy police as Keystone cops blinded by the klieg lights of celebrity. In one outtake, Hansen and two Murphy police officers are standing in front of Conradt’s house. Conradt would not answer the door, so Hansen supplies them with Conradt’s phone number. And while Hansen has done nothing illegal, the scene likely sent journalism ethicists into paroxysms of protest.
Ross certainly overstates the influence of To Catch a Predator when he describes it as “hugely popular.” NBC News had already scaled back production on Predator prior to the Conradt suit. But whatever the merits of the case, the lawsuit is a huge headache for NBC News and has likely convinced NBC News lawyers that the stings aren’t worth the liabilities. Despite Hansen’s on-air defense of Predator and the Texas operation on last week’s Dateline, Ross’ report may be the last nail in the Predator coffin.