Analysis: Does ‘The Wanted’ Cross the Line?

NBC News is going ahead with a controversial series that purports to expose terrorists and war criminals. The Wanted casts one of its executive producers, Adam Ciralsky, a former CIA lawyer, along with former intelligence and military personnel including a retired Navy SEAL and a former federal prosecutor on the international war-crimes tribunal, as a team of globe-trotting operatives.

With echoes of Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator, the series has drawn criticism for crossing the line between law enforcement and ostensibly independent media, while also raising questions about the unequivocal guilt of targets.

“They’re blurring a lot of lines,” says Kelly McBride, a faculty member and the ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute. “They’re clearly describing this as journalism as opposed to entertainment, and it’s coming out of the news division. But they are collaborating with organizations that have motives that are different than journalistic motives.”

According to Charlie Ebersol, who along with Ciralsky is an executive producer on The Wanted, all charges and information about targets was verified and vetted.

“Our burden of proof is significantly higher than [that of] any of the other groups,” Ebersol says. “We were held, and wanted to be held, to an extremely high standard by NBC News, that the people we went after really did meet a number of different [criteria]. Every aspect of the case had to be something that we could validate independently. We weren’t going to take anyone’s word for anything.”

Tom Bivins, the John L. Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, says the show legitimizes vigilantism and compromises the role of those in the media as impartial observers. “People who are in the news business have no business making the news,” Bivins says. “To me, this smacks of vigilantism.”

Neither Bivins nor McBride has seen the series. 

NBC News has commissioned six episodes of The Wanted. The series is produced by Echo Ops, Ebersol’s production company. (Ebersol is the son of NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol.) According to Ebersol and Ciralsky, The Wanted was done in strict compliance with NBC News standards and was vetted by the news division’s lawyers. Echo Ops has already sold the international rights for The Wanted to ShineReveille.

The show previously came under fire for pursuing Leopold Munyakazi, a visiting professor from Rwanda at Goucher College in Baltimore. Munyakazi has been accused by a Rwandan prosecutor of war crimes. The New York Times reported that the Goucher administration was unaware of the charges against Munyakazi until an NBC News producer showed up at the college last December. A representative from Human Rights Watch has said that the charges against Munyakazi are weak, and an official from the Department of Homeland Security told The Times that NBC’s investigation could interfere with the department’s ability to build a case.

According to Ciralsky, Munyakazi’s case is still a candidate for a future installment. Munyakazi was suspended by Goucher after the college learned of the charges.

At the time, the program was unofficially tagged To Catch a War Criminal. The name invoked NBC’s now-defunct Dateline franchise, which worked with a non-profit group called Perverted Justice to ensnare alleged pedophiles. The sister of a Texas man who shot himself when law enforcement, with Dateline camera’s in tow, came to his door sued NBC, alleging that the network was partly responsible for her brother’s suicide. The network settled the case out of court.

Ciralsky asserts that The Wanted was never actually called To Catch a War Criminal. “It was never called that at NBC, internally or anywhere else,” he says.

The show’s targets, Ebersol explains, all have Interpol red notices pending. The Interpol home page stresses that a red notice is not an arrest warrant, and that these persons are “wanted by national jurisdictions [or the International Criminal Tribunals, where appropriate], and Interpol’s role is to assist the national police forces in identifying or locating those persons with a view to their arrest and extradition.”

“Our first question was,” Ebersol says, “is there an opportunity for justice to occur? We began to discover that these people are wanted for doing really serious things, and for whatever reason justice is being delayed or denied. And so we built this idea of doing a series where over the course of an hour we look at every aspect of the case. We investigate it ourselves; we talk to the different witnesses and the different governments.”

The first episode, on July 20, centers on Mullah Krekar, founder of the Islamic terror group Ansar al-Islam. The NBC News release states that “Krekar has been called Bin Laden 2.0 as well as an Islamic Nazi, and yet he has been living free in Norway.”

“In terms of the first two cases, these are people who are wanted in connection with killing Americans, targeting and killing American civilians and citizens, and really looking to do damage to that which we represent,” Ebersol says.

The July 27 installment trails Mamoun Darkazanli to Germany. Darkazanli has ties to Osama bin Laden. (The NBC News release notes that he has been called “bin Laden’s financier” and that “Spanish officials indicted Darkazanli in 2003 for providing logistical and financial support to Al Qaeda, specifically in connection with 9/11.”)

“Because the suspects are so unlikable anyway,” says Poynter’s McBride, “nobody is really asking a lot of questions. But it’s very hard to claim any sort of independence as a journalist when you team up with law enforcement.”

The show is being promoted much like a reality show or a network spy thriller. A promo for The Wanted includes pounding rock music and sweeping shots of a helicopter tracking a vehicle, and uses the tagline “Truth is the real weapon.”

According to Ebersol, there’s nothing wrong with making news entertaining. “There is validity to education through entertainment,” he says.

“I don’t think news should be boring,” McBride counters. “But I wonder, is the primary value seeking the truth, or is the primary value entertainment?”