Is this guy impersonating a journalist?
There are few television personalities more insufferably pompous and obnoxious than NBC’s Chris Hansen, who despite having earned several awards in journalism, has now been reduced to impersonating a reporter for the newsmagazine, Dateline. Hansen is the point-man for Dateline’s continuing series “To Catch a Predator,” a sting operation on which the show collaborates with the watchdog group Perverted Justice and law enforcement in numerous jurisdictions across the United States. The hidden camera investigation ensnares pedophile suspects red-handed using a coordinated effort that begins with internet chats between a “decoy” posing as a minor and a suspect and ends with police arresting the suspect. It’s a laudable cause.
Therefore, it’s a shame that Hansen and NBC continuously use Dateline to exploit and sensationalize a newsworthy issue for the purpose of generating Nielsen ratings, while mocking the concept of integrity along the way. Each week Dateline exposes an alarming number of creepy (almost exclusively) men, from all demographics, engaging in inappropriate sexual conversations with a Perverted Justice decoy, who the suspects believe is an underage boy or girl. Suspects unknowingly wander into the trap, a house rigged with hidden cameras, police hiding out in the back yard, an adult actor hired by Dateline (who appears to be underage) and the always overzealous Chris Hansen, who is none too shy about injecting himself into the middle of the lurid story.
What transpires next is an exhaustingly perverse scenario. The actor typically invites suspects into the house for a drink, or something equally arbitrary, engages them in small talk and even sometimes asks the suspects to completely disrobe. Meanwhile, in gleeful voice-overs, Hansen apprises viewers of the suspects’ full names, professions, hometowns, marital status and the number of children they may have. Hansen wreaks destruction on the families of the assailants and does so shamelessly, with the tone and enthusiasm of a stand-up comedian, not a newsman.
Bad reality TV?
Eventually, Hansen surprises the suspects with a self-aggrandizing entrance and subjects them to a litany of questions, seemingly designed to humiliate more than they are designed to gain any legitimate insight into pedophiles’ minds. I find myself wondering who is more perverted: the men who show up apparently expecting to have sex with a minor or Hansen, who seems all too comfortable yucking it up with them. Finally, Hansen has his big Allen Funt moment when he announces that he’s “Chris Hansen from Dateline” and camera operators and sound engineers wielding boom microphones flood the room.
The reporting on Dateline: “To Catch a Predator” is seldom unbiased. Despite occasionally admitting that decoys prime suspects with chats that can span weeks and months, no equal time is ever devoted to scrutinizing the methods of the decoys and addressing whether those baiting tactics cross the line into entrapment. In fact, Hansen never even so much as mentions the word. He is too busy presenting only the most salacious and shocking excerpts of the online chats and pornographic pictures the suspects often email the decoys. Surprisingly, many suspects who show up to the house and are interviewed by Hansen are familiar with the “To Catch a Predator Series” and admit to having watched the show on NBC. The specter of becoming fodder for an episode of Dateline doesn’t appear to deter these men from engaging in what appears to be criminal activity. Rather than investigate why suspects are undeterred by the risk of national humiliation, or if the method employed by Perverted Justice and Dateline is effective, Hansen takes the opportunity to read back to the suspects, in a snarky voice, excerpts of the dirty chats.
Instead of investigating whether neighbors in the communities used by Dateline have concerns or objections to Perverted Justice and a media outlet setting up shop, Hansen repeatedly shows blurred pictures of men’s genitalia obtained during the sting. When one suspect, an assistant district attorney, refused to surrender to police and committed suicide (which NBC aired during the February sweeps period), Hansen never pondered whether Dateline’s insatiable lust for ratings cost an innocent family its father, husband and son. Doing so would leave less time for his dramatic teases of upcoming episodes. On next week’s installment, Hansen, ostensibly interviewing himself, tells viewers in his own words what was going through his mind when he came face-to-face with the predators.
Hansen or one of Dateline’s drone studio anchors (Stone Phillips and Ann Curry) often justify the show’s existence by spewing predictable platitudes about protecting children. Protecting vulnerable children in our society is of paramount importance. However, it’s highly irresponsible for Hansen and NBC to exploit people’s perversions and sicknesses and then package that exploitation as the gold standard for protecting America’s youth so General Electric, NBC Universal’s corporate parent, can realize massive profits. Just because a person is a pervert of galactic proportions and a potential pedophile doesn’t reasonably make him available to be drafted into an NBC army sent to battle FOX’s American Idol juggernaut, Dateline’s Tuesday night timeslot rival.
If executives at GE and NBC were genuinely concerned with the welfare of children, perhaps they would require Chris Hansen to engage in something that remotely resembled television journalism. And perhaps GE wouldn’t be so quick to reap profits, milking the concept both on TV and Dateline’s Web site with Hansen’s blog. Moreover, GE and NBC could run the episodes as a public service announcement, commercial-free. Or the corporation could donate the show’s profits to a charity that cares for sexually abused children. And if GE and NBC are not compelled to raise Dateline: “To Catch a Predator” above the level of tawdry reality television, would it be too much to expect them to dispense with the transparent “journalism protecting the youth of America” pretense and be forthright about their agenda?