On Nov. 5, 2006, with police knocking on the door of his home and a camera crew from "Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator" waiting in the street, Rockwall County assistant prosecutor Louis "Bill" Conradt, Jr. shot himself rather than face accusations of soliciting sex online from a decoy posing as a 13 year-old boy.
It may prove to be a shot heard 'round the journalism world, as its report resonates in litigation and accusations of unethical conduct now confronting the popular NBC show and its parent network.
Patricia Conradt, sister of the late Bill Conradt and administratrix of his estate, filed a $105 million lawsuit against NBC Universal on July 23, 2007, in federal district court in New York. At the heart of the lawsuit are allegations that NBC set in motion the forces that led to Conradt's suicide by essentially bribing police across the U.S. to let it film encounters with suspects lured to "sting" houses where reporter Chris Hansen and camera crew lie in wait. When Conradt did not show up at a sting house in the Collin County town of Murphy, the lawsuit alleges, NBC "steam-rolled" police into trespassing onto Conradt's property and trapping him in order to "broadcast a spectacle to millions."
Ms. Conradt accuses the network as well as the show's host and producer of being more interested in sensationalism and profit than with responsible news reporting or with combating pedophilia.
Patricia Conradt's criticisms are echoed by a most unlikely ally – Marsha Bartel, a former Dateline NBC producer who worked on the "To Catch a Predator" series. In a breach of contract lawsuit filed in late May 2007 in an Illinois federal court, the 49-year-old veteran journalist claims that her 21-year career at NBC came to an abrupt end when she complained about the show's violations of ethical standards of journalism.
Bartel maintains that during her tenure at NBC, she had been acknowledged by her superiors not only for her "excellent investigative skills", but also for her sound judgment and ability to avoid "legal bear traps". At Dateline NBC, she was charged with the responsibility of ensuring compliance with NBC News Policies and Guidelines and reporting any breaches of journalistic ethics.
Bartel was troubled by NBC's relationship with local law enforcement. According to her lawsuit, NBC "unethically pays or indirectly reimburses law enforcement officials to participate in the Predator stings in order to enhance and intensify the dramatic affect of the show."
Among other things, this alleged bribery included providing local police with video equipment and tapes used in the arrest and presentation of individuals who show up at the sting houses. In return, Bartel claims, "NBC receives dramatically staged arrest scenarios and videotaped police interrogations" in order to capture the audience's attention, and increase ratings and ultimately revenue for the network.
Bartel's lawsuit further alleges that NBC, in a breach of journalistic ethics, provides both law enforcement officials and local prosecutors with unrestricted access to live data feeds on the sting operations, and in return obtains "otherwise confidential data from local law enforcement officials."
Having been put in the awkward, to say the least, position of becoming part of the news instead of reporting it, Dateline NBC recently had little choice but to make available all of its footage (including outtakes) when a criminal defense lawyer for a Maryland suspect arrested in one of the stings demanded it from both the show and the police. Some of these outtakes may make for even better television than the edited footage. According to Bartel, NBC unethically covers up improper behavior by the police at these sting operations, including "goofing off by waiving [sic] rubber chickens in the faces of sting targets while forcing them to the ground and handcuffing them."
The former "To Catch A Predator" producer also took issue with the program's unhealthy relationship with the shadowy vigilante group Perverted Justice, whose volunteers pose as minors on the Internet in order to lure their targets. Contrary to journalistic ethics, as well as NBC's own Policies and Guidelines, Dateline NBC pays Perverted Justice what the network describes as a "consulting fee" and what Bartel's lawyers characterize as "a financial incentive to lie to trick targets of its sting."
According to published reports, Perverted Justice not only gets paid a "consulting fee" of between $100,000 and $150,000 per episode (the group hired an agent after seeing the success of the first three "To Catch a Predator" installments), but it also stands to receive a portion of any revenues derived from DVD sales of "To Catch a Predator" episodes.
Neither reporter Chris Hansen nor Perverted Justice founder Xavier Von Erck see anything wrong with this checkbook journalism. In an interview with Radar magazine, Von Erck said "At the end of the day, the cameramen were getting paid, Chris Hansen was getting paid, the producers of Dateline were getting paid … so it was only natural to seek compensation for the expensive work that we do."
Echoes Hansen, "In the end I get paid, the producers get paid, the camera guy, why shouldn't they?"
Others at NBC have dismissed this type of financial relationship as no different than, say, hiring Colin Powell as a paid consultant to comment on foreign policy.
Actually, there's a big difference. Someone like Colin Powell is no longer engaged in policy-making. Perverted Justice, on the other hand, is an advocacy group that's actively involved in the story.
In fact, police in Darke County, Ohio, insisted that Perverted Justice personnel participating in that sting operation be deputized, so as not to endanger the chances for successful criminal prosecutions against the sting's targets. Such an involvement brings NBC awfully close to being in the law enforcement business, and directly paying peace officers, instead of just reporting the news.
But Bartel's criticism of the show's ties to Perverted Justice wasn't just limited to the fact that the organization was on NBC's payroll or the fact that its members were active participants in the news stories themselves. In violation of the network's own policies, NBC purportedly kept the identities of Perverted Justice's volunteers working for Dateline NBC a secret from Bartel herself, hampering her ability to ensure the show's accuracy.
According to the lawsuit, when Bartel expressed concerns about the reliability of Perverted Justice and controversial comments made by its founder, Dateline's executive producer David Corvo acknowledged "We all know they're nuts." (In fact, Dateline NBC transcripts went from describing Perverted Justice as a "vigilante" group to a "watchdog organization" right around the time the so-called consulting arrangement began).
Of equal concern to Bartel was the fact that Perverted Justice does not provide complete transcripts from its Internet trolling to NBC; as a result, says the former producer, she and Dateline were unable to independently verify the accuracy of the group's online chats with sting targets. The lawsuit claims that Perverted Justice's agents, posing as children, sometimes call individuals begging them to come to the sting location even after the targets initially decide not to come; these phone conversations are either not recorded or transcripts are not made available.
Collin County District Attorney John Roach, who has publicly stated that his office does not have enough evidence to prosecute the 23 cases resulting from the Murphy sting operation, explained that in a number of the cases, complete transcripts of the online exchange between the Perverted Justice decoys and the suspects were not made available to him.
While Perverted Justice takes exception with District Attorney Roach's decision not to pursue the Collin County cases, the fact remains that both the group and its methods are shrouded in controversy. A rival online organization, Corrupted-Justice.com, has pointed out a number of problems with the group's methods, which allegedly include using minors as online correspondents with suspected pedophiles - the very sort of activity that Perverted Justice claims that it wants to prevent.
In addition, Corrupted-Justice.com maintains that because of ethical and evidentiary concerns (such as the incomplete transcripts), Perverted Justice's evidence is often useless in court. Perverted Justice has also been accused of leading many non-pedophiles by mistake into its online traps, and defaming innocent individuals by posting their names, addresses, and photographs on the Perverted Justice website, as well as making harassing contacts to that person's family, friend, neighbors, and employers.
In late December 2006, an Eastern New Mexico University employee received a civil judgment against Perverted Justice for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other claims after the group's inaccurate postings about him and mass mailings to his employer allegedly caused him to lose his job.
But why would a network and its prestigious newsmagazine sacrifice their journalistic integrity on the altar of ratings and profits and engage in manufacturing the news rather than merely reporting it? The answer is simple - they've done it before.
On November 17, 1992, Dateline NBC aired an investigative report about General Motors pickup trucks which allegedly exploded upon impact due to defectively designed fuel tanks. Using a consultant named Byron Bloch, the program featured an example of a low speed accident that resulted in the fuel tank exploding.
Unfortunately, what Dateline NBC didn't tell its audience was that the accident had been staged, with a truck that its producers had rigged with hidden, remotely detonated explosives, an overfilled gas tank, and a gas cap left deliberately loose so that the resulting pyrotechnic display would make for good television.
Dateline also neglected to mention that its on-screen expert, Mr. Bloch, might be less than impartial, since his offscreen activities consisted mainly of being a paid expert witness for plaintiffs' lawyers with high-dollar product liability lawsuits against GM and other automakers. GM investigators studied the Dateline episode, and discovered that smoke was coming out of the fuel tank before the impact. GM promptly filed a lawsuit against NBC, and conducted a well-publicized point-by-point rebuttal of the program.
Faced with what the Los Angeles Times described as "an unprecedented disaster in the annals of network news, and perhaps the biggest TV scam since the Quiz Scandals", NBC proceeded to do what damage control it could. The lawsuit was quickly settled, Jane Pauley read an on-air apology, the producers involved were fired, reporter Michelle Gillen was transferred, and the president of NBC's news division resigned.
According to published reports, even before the Murphy sting operation some at Dateline NBC were concerned enough about the show's arrangement with local law enforcement and the Perverted Justice group in staging the stings for "To Catch a Predator" that they feared a reprise of the GM fake gas tank explosion scandal. A producer, worried that the Perverted Justice people would "do something to embarrass us" uttered the eerily prophetic statement "One of these guys is going to go home and shoot himself in the head."
That prediction would come true on November 5, 2006.
In "Perverted Journalism-Part Two", we'll examine the facts surrounding Bill Conradt's death in greater detail, along with the lawsuit brought by his sister against NBC, and the reaction by NBC and others.