Show’s vision of justice seems, well, perverted

On Tuesday, Dateline NBC aired the latest in what has become an ongoing series of Internet crime reports titled “To Catch a Predator.” Hosted by Chris Hansen and employing the smut-talking prowess of volunteers from civilian group Perverted Justice, the series ensnares would-be sex offenders and exposes them on national television. But during its growing number of installments, this increasingly sensationalist program has worn out its welcome. Its problems are too serious to ignore.

The premise is straightforward. Volunteers from Perverted Justice pose as underage Internet users and hang around popular chat rooms. When hit up for chat, they freely wander into explicit territory, swap photos and lure their target to a real-life meeting. The unwitting mark arrives to find himself pinned both by hidden cameras and Chris Hansen’s local-affiliate swagger; this terrifying one-two punch sends the “predator” staggering into the sunlight, at which point he is thrown to the ground and arrested by porky local sheriffs wearing tactical vests. The result is a curious cross between Candid Camera and COPS, with some Sunday-morning proselytizing thrown in.

It is tempting to dismiss the show as televised entrapment. Addressing this issue on the Dateline blog, NBC anchor Stone Phillips ’77 admits that “in many cases, the decoy is the first to bring up the subject of sex.” He goes on to assert that “once the hook is baited, the fish jump and run with it like you wouldn’t believe.” This does little to excuse the underlying charge: Do Perverted Justice decoys entice men to type things they otherwise would not? It’s impossible to know for certain — but provided it fuels more episodes, Dateline doesn’t seem to mind.

The stings depend upon the efforts of Perverted Justice, the civilian group that specializes in aping minors online. It seems such work would demand of volunteers a certain clinical detachment; though they may mimic capricious, uneducated ’tweens on Instant Messenger, in reality — one hopes — they are anything but.

I visited Perverted-Justice.com to find out. I was dismayed to find sandbox rhetoric and perhaps the most petulant FAQ section online today. Click the question “How is this a crime? There was no actual minor!” and you are treated to a meandering hypothetical response, which begins: “Such a stupid statement. If you’re reading this and you’ve uttered this at any point of your life, feel free to smack yourself for ignorance right now.” They also caution that they’re very powerful and well connected, and that “threatening us is a very, very bad idea.”

Interestingly, Dateline busts are just a fraction of the group’s activities. Their main trade appears to be independent baiting expeditions in chat rooms followed by extensive online information gathering and “outing” of targets on the Web. This might include posting the street address, telephone number and other details about a mark in an online forum. Such information could then be used to humiliate and harass the individual and their family.

One might argue that pedophiles and “predators” deserve such punishment, but even so it is hardly the place of pseudonym-sporting civilians to dole it out.

Any group entrusted with assisting criminal investigations should be professional, accountable and free of amateurish posturing. Perverted Justice would do best to confine its efforts to supporting law enforcement, not striking out alone to lynch citizens without due process. One certainly hopes their volunteers are driven by genuine concern for children, not the giddy rush of power that accompanies the public “outing” of Web users.

The group also highlights its rate of return. “Riverside, California: 51 predators in three days. Darke County, Ohio: Completely rural, two hours from anything … 17 predators in three days.”

I’d like to see evidence that Perverted Justice excludes false positives: Once caught in a chat with a decoy, does anyone escape being branded a “predator?” I could find no chat log or statistic reporting this outcome, although the “Info for Police” page does mention a “100 percent conviction rate.”

Frankly, I’m reluctant to accept that Internet-savvy pedophiles are as utterly ubiquitous as Perverted Justice would have us believe. If they are not, care should be taken in our efforts to snare them; most users online are still innocent bystanders. Teen chat rooms are not sanitized by populating them with garrulous, lewd-minded decoys.

Moreover, myriad pitfalls exist. Age is routinely misrepresented online; what if a 24-year-old “predator” turns out to be 17? In that case, the Perverted Justice approach is equivalent to seducing a minor with lascivious chat, or soliciting sexual photos from an underage user. Which network will air that sting?

For now, “To Catch a Predator” continues. We can lament its slide into shock journalism, but a program that catches deviant men seeking to prey upon underage victims does have some claim to a moral high ground. Few criminals are as despised as pedophiles, and the public will tolerate exceptional means of capturing them. Nonetheless, the national news media has obligations beyond sating the raucous mob.

We would like to believe that NBC and its bedfellows are not only doing the right thing, but doing it properly. Online predators are a real problem, but as any preteen knows, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Michael Seringhaus is a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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