If you are not familiar with the program, a hugely rated NBC series named "To Catch a Predator" (TCAP)–now in its 8th season – lowers the standards, if that’s possible, of our already revolting and brainless TV media to a new low.
NBC’s partner in this endeavor is PervertedJustice.com–who are well paid as a consultant–stretching journalistic ethics right there. At P.J. adult "decoys" engage in sexually charged conversations online with adult men they find in role playing and other adult internet chat-rooms. Former Dateline anchor Stone Phillips concedes that "… in many cases, the decoy is the first to bring up the subject of sex." The web logs of their chats are published for all to see online.
NBC takes this one step further in their series – the decoys convince their marks to visit their (especially camera rigged) houses, ostensibly for an evening of under-age sex. When the men arrive they are lured into the house by the decoy, and several minutes later are ambushed by Chris Hansen.
We the audience have a front row seat. From dozens of camera angles we can see the "predators’" lust, surprise, confrontation, oppression, contrition, regret, fear, panic, and in the end to this perfect vouyeristic drama, their fall–take down arrest, and at times–for those who really appreciate the follow up blood, court arraignments. Throughout the decoy house confrontation the men generally have no idea they are being filmed from every angle. But Chris Hansen tells them–don’t miss that priceless reaction.
Soon after arrival, the marks are ambushed as Hansen saunters into the kitchen of the set-up house with some breezy ironic line. Hansen proceeds to question them, letting them lie (as they all do), before presenting them with their own weblog transcript and surprisingly often, photos of their genitals they had previously sent the decoys.
Following this public humiliation, and Hansen’s holier than thou castigation, he informs the men they are "free to go." The men are free to walk out of the house where each are arrested in a violent felony take-down arrest by the waiting police outside, and later charged with a grab bag of felonies. Wonderful. Sometimes viewers are treated to a search of their vehicles–all sorts of things come up then.
The entire mise-en-scene of the show is worthy of some analysis. It is a classic tragedy cum car crash voyeurism. Toweringly tall Chris Hansen is always standing–he’s quite determined to have the marks sit down lower, thus he dominants the cowering, bewildered, frightened sinners. Unbeknownst to these men, the house is wired with cameras so everything said; every movement is recorded and after editing, presented to us the viewer as entertainment.
The men’s private, deeply personal sexual emails are read back to them and to us in prurient nuggets of humiliation. And perhaps the most obnoxious part of the whole exercise is tall, looming, Chris Hansen’s righteous indignation about their emails and situation. The award for Phony of the Universe is hereby won.
Hansen delights in reading the web-logs; full of predictable, salacious, intimate details of the previous internet chats in all their deliciously filthy glory. We see the men beg, plead, lie, and humiliate themselves like cornered animals, desperate and thinking it’s a private conversation. And that’s GREAT TV!
Hansen blatantly impersonates a law enforcement official to these poor saps–he addresses the men in language which can only be described as courteous officiousness; telling them to empty their pockets, keep their hands where he can see them, and insists the men sit down. Many of the men talking themselves into jail honestly believe they’re under arrest.
NBC’s "consultant" – Perverted Justice – has been around for a few years now, publishing conversations between adult men and phony 14 and 15 year olds to humiliate the men who try to seduce them. Doubts the men have about the decoy’s ages are assuaged, the men are encouraged to become involved and to try to start a sexual relationship with these decoys. The vigilante aspects of this entire system are obvious.
The decoys are all adults but pretend to be younger. In the US generally we draw the line at various mid teen ages for sexual activities/consent. Without taking sides here, or asking for hate mail, it should also be noted that factually, in almost all times and places of human civilization; crossing all types of tribes, cities, empires, and jurisdictions, 14-15 years old has been an acceptable age for sex and marriage. As it is (with parental or court approval) in some US states today. The notion of 14 year olds being "children" is a recent, largely American construct. But the fact is, in TCAP’s carefully selected legal jurisdictions, such behavior is statutory rape, or some computer based derivative crime thereof. From a gut perspective though, sex with a 15 year old seems like long way from the "child molestation" Hansen et al accuse their quarry of.
PJ’s FAQ’s addresses this age issue on their website, dismissing any country where teenage sexuality is legal as "Third World backwaters". When I queried that with a list of (non Third World backwater) countries with that age of consent in an email to PJ, they addressed their aggressive, holier-than-thou response to me as "Dear Pedophile". These people aren’t fighting inappropriate sex, they’re fighting Satan.
Hansen’s famous line and greatest glee concerns the occupations of some of their victims; "What some of [these dirty molesters] do for a living might surprise you." Seethey’re teachers, a rabbi, scout leaders, Iraq vets, and the like – "A respected doctor". Oh how wonderful of Hansen to protect us from his own manufactured fear! It SEEMS such careers employ men who desire teenagers for sex. Go figure! Hansen STOKES that manufactured fear. And notice he stokes it about people’s weakest spots–their children.
TCAP has nothing to do with protecting children; it’s a Roman Amphitheater blood sport in the form of the lowest gutter journalism on the market today. Which is saying a lot. It’s the ultimate car wreck type rubbernecking–to watch another person make life wrecking mistakes, to sin, be humiliated, and punished. What a wonderful feeling. Child molesters are our society’s most hated members. Some of those caught in the TCAP trap are no doubt vile serial predators but it looks like most are just very sad and lonely men–virgins unable to get a date with adults, or often just reckless low class losers caught in a trap.
In today’s America it impossible to criticize such "kiddy saving" as this without being branded a monster. PJ and TCAP have the upper hand morally. Were it to be so simple, the damage may not be so great. But people are going to jail for years and having their lives destroyed for these totally fake set-up sex chats, for our entertainment. And as with the war on terrorism, the ultimate effects are much more serious and counter-productive than may appear on the surface.
The series has directly resulted in one suicide in Texas where a ‘predator’ employed by law enforcement shot himself rather than be caught in the sting. The Columbia Journalism Review referenced below detail the specifics of that case. Additionally CJR explores how rare internet predators actually are. Furthermore, the payments from NBC to their "consultants" at PJ has raised the issue of checkbook journalism and resulted in the resignation/firing of a senior and accomplished NBC producer who challenged her employer’s ethics regarding TCAP.
In the big picture, not only does TCAP have no discernable effect on child molestation, but similar to many laws passed in haste in response to public outrage, it may even be counter productive. The media love "stranger danger" when it comes to "your kids"–yet the real dangers to children, sexually, are primarily from relatives and family friends.
Such counter productive effects are a common result of our societal obsession with child abuse. (They can be seen also in the War on Terror.) Fox News and Bill O’Reilly in particular have been successfully lobbying states to require a 25 year mandatory sentence for first offense child molestation. Even with the greatest intentions in the world, a far stretch when talking about O’Reilly, such a law will only encourage real child predators to kill their victims/witnesses.
Its clear TCAP/PJ are not helping "the kids"–but rather helping NBC’s bottom line, and PJ’s demented cleansing agenda. Incidentally, it has been a huge money spinner for Hansen and NBC (see CJR). Hansen is getting his ratings and fame, PJ is getting the media coverage it craves, so who cares if dozens of misguided men have their lives ruined and one has his brains blown out? It is all in a day’s ratings for NBC and coverage for a group whose name says more about themselves than their fight – Perverted Justice.
(A close examination of the Texas suicide can be found at Columbia Journalism Review "The Shame Game")
DAVID ANDERSON is an attorney in NYC. His previous column for Counterpunch was on NYC subway searches. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org