Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Voyeurism as Entertainment: “To Catch a Predator,” To Lose a War

Network news was once about authority: Walter Cronkite, Roger Mudd, Ted Koppel, even Dan Rather in his reporter days. But when is the last time a network, as opposed to a newspaper or a magazine, broke major investigative news vital to the public interest like the Abu Ghraib scandal (The New Yorker), the Bush administration’s secret prisons (Washington Post), the NSA wiretaps and international finance snooping (New York Times), the Marines’ massacre of Iraqi civilians at Haditha (Time magazine)? So much fine print journalism is being produced week in and week out, it’s difficult to keep up. But most Americans still get their perceptions of the world around them from the networks. And for network news these days, it’s about deference to authority: When anchor chairs are filled by the likes of Katie Couric and Charles Gibson, it’s more about putting a good face on the news than breaking it. No wonder the networks’ news divisions are indistinguishable from their entertainment function. One running example stands out as an illustration of the networks’ degradation — and irresponsibility.

On Nov. 11, 2004, NBC’s Dateline aired a segment called “To Catch a Predator.” Reporter Chris Hanson went on the prowl in a New York City suburb with tabloid journalism’s standards — the hidden camera, the ambush, the crucifixion on camera — and with a little help lured 18 men in three days to a house where the men thought they might have sex with a teen they’d chatted with online. Read the rest...