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Are Journalists Selling Their Souls to Catch a Predator?



Now that Dateline NBC has brought one of its sleazy "To Catch a Predator" stings to Florida, I'm even more uneasy about this highly-hyped series -- which involves a news organization deeply with a borderline vigilante volunteer group and law enforcement to a degree we have not seen in recent years.

Some of you out there probably think I'm making too much of the ethical conflicts in assembling this series of stories -- which resulted in the arrest of 24 Florida men in Fort Myers seeking to have sex with minors over this past weekend. Indeed, the attraction of "Predator" has always been its results; who can argue with a dramatic, emotion-charged report which also takes two dozen potential pedophiles off the streets?

But there's lots to worry about. In Fort Myers, police contacted Perverted Justice, a group which engages men online, posing as children to see if they will seek sex from them. The group, founded by Xavier Von Erck in Portland, Ore., acts as a go-between, insulating Dateline NBC from direct connection with law enforcement.

Still, when local laws seemed to require Perverted Justice's "contributors" (as those who engage the men online and via telephone are called) to be deputized, three members did so, obliterating the tissue-thin boundary between police and journalists. That's because NBC has paid Perverted Justice to conduct its most recent stings in Ohio and here in Florida -- the group has even engaged an agent to deal with the network. (This mug shot shows Ellahzar Henson, the one man from St Petersburg arrested in the sting)

In Florida, police admitted they contacted Perverted Justice because they didn't have the expertise or resources to develop a similar sting on their own. Police found a local home and installed their own videotaping equipment in addition to whatever Dateline provided. Once a man entered the home with the intent of having sex with a minor he committed a felony; but police still allowed Dateline correspondent Chris Hansen to quiz the men on their plans -- making admissons on videotape which can and likely will be used against them at trial.

But I am wary of such cozy setups uniting journalists and police. For example, what if Perverted Justice makes a mistake in how it solicits one of the men? Or police are a little rough in arresting a suspect? Or some other problem arises in the process? Will Dateline fairly and fully report on such issues, given they have funded a large part of the effort and have engaged Perverted Justice as a partner -- and through them, local police? Aren't journalists also supposed to keep an eye on police and prosecutors? Can they be objective about how these men are prosecuted, given that they were so involved in their capture?

Von Erck has admitted that the name he uses now is not the name he was given at birth. ABC News has reported that Xavier Von Erck is a psuedonym; Von Erck says it is a permutation of his family name that he prefers for personal reasons and has used for many years. ABC News says Von Erck and other Perverted Justice members do not give their real names for fear of retribution from the men they help expose; Von Erck says he does not conceal his identity.

Von Erck wouldn't tell me his previous name, which made it difficult to run any sort of background checks on him. Has Dateline investigated this? If they have, has it been disclosed to viewers? Has Perverted Justice made mistakes in the men they expose? How are they trained?
And if there are any questions about their methods, does Dateline have an incentive to expose them -- given that they have hired them as "consultants?"

I know this sounds like nitpicking. But this is a slippery slope these organizations are walking on, mostly because everyone gets something. Dateline gets a highly-promotable, attention-getting series of reports which they have been very innovative about refining. Perverted Justice gets a level of publicity they could not have imagined a few years ago. And local police agencies get high-profile arrests of the least sympathetic criminal imaginable.

No wonder there's so little enthusiasm for looking closely at this arrangement.

Newspapers Whiff on Diversity Numbers

For those who case about the ethnic diversity of newsrooms, parity with the community is the holy grail -- a time when the percentage of people of color working at newspapers is equal with the percentages in the general population.

Unfortunately, new numbers from the American Society of Newspaper Editors show that goal is far away as it has ever been -- with journalists of color comprising 13.87 percent of the country's newsrooms, a rise of less than .5 percent from last year. Currently, about 30 percent of the nation's population consists of ethnic minorities; 377 newspapers nationwide have no ethnic minorities working for them at all. See each newspaper's numbers here.

Florida remains a particular challenge. Though newspapers such as the Miami Herald and The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale have high percentages (35.5 and 29 percent, respectively), they still lag behind their immensely diversified coverage areas. And papers in two other largely diverse communities -- the Tampa Tribune and the Times Union in Jacksonville -- are among lowest levels of diversity in the state among newspaper which have any minorities on staff (Tribune is at 8.5 percent, virtually unchanged from last year, and Times union at 9.4). Six Florida newspapers had no minorities on staff, all small papers.

The St. Petersburg Times was down -- from 16.5 percent in 2005 to 15.2 percent this year. The percentage of minorities in our five-county immediate coverage area is 22 percent.

Why does this matter? Because a diverse staff often brings voices to the news product that were not heard back in 1978 when the percentage of minorities at newspapers stood at 3.8 percent. And ,as these numbers indicate, we still have a ways to go.

-- A new schedule released by Sirius satellite radio for Howard Stern's two channels shows that the bulk of programming is replays of Stern's morning show, an hourlong news show about Stern's world or an hourlong wrap-up show about that day's Stern broadcast.

This is hardly the picture Stern presented in interviews before the channels were established, where he pitched a variety of shows such as Crack Whore View, an explicit talk segment with Playboy Playmate Heidi Cortez and a range of other ideas. Seems filling two, 24-hour channels with effective, Stern-centered radio has been tougher than the King of All Media has acknowledged.

-- Fox News Channel is in full coverage mode. A natural disaster? Hillary Clinton unmasked as conspirator with Osama Bin Laden? Did Greta finally stumble on Natalee Holloway?

Nope. Just one of their former employees joining the White House.

Once news leaked that he was medically OK to take the job, savvy White House watchers knew is was a matter of moments before former Fox News commentator Tony Snow took Scott McClellan's job as press punching bag -- I mean, press secretary.

I know. He was a pundit and opinion guy, who went from editing the editorial page of the Washington Times to filling in for Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly on conservative-leaning radio and TV shows. Still, it's a sad commentary on how transparent such journalism/political boundaries really are -- as administration speechwriters and pulbicists have turned the WashingtonTimes, Wall Street Journal and Fox News into a revolving door of sorts.

And forget about a new detente between the press and the Bushies. The President has proven resistant to any substative change in his staff shuffling so far. I expect Snow will be forced to continue the useless spinning that destroyed Scott McClellan's credibility, as the administration remains opposed to any press outlet which isn't transparently supportive.

But hey, at least Snow will know the directions to Fox News studios for those spin sessions -- I mean interviews. And how can you hate a guy who plays guitar in a rock band?

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


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