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 V.17 No.10 | March 6 - 12, 2008 

Thin Line

“Predator" Gets Caught

After years of putting suspected pedophiles on the hot seat, the people behind the “ Dateline” segment " To Catch a Predator" now find themselves in a tough spot.

Last week, a judge decided there is enough evidence for a lawsuit against the hit show to go to trial. The suit is being brought by the sister of Texas prosecutor William Conradt, Jr., who shot himself in the head after a SWAT team entered his house with cameras following behind. The lawsuit blames the show for Conradt's death, and it also raises some provocative questions about the program's merits.

On one hand, the show exposes parents across the country to the harsh reality that their kids can be easily targeted by pedophiles. "Predator" parades people of both sexes and various racial and ethnic backgrounds who, if you have any faith in the show's commitment to truthful journalism, seem like dangerous and disturbed individuals. It can be hard sometimes to feel bad for the folks ensnared in that net, because their nefarious intentions seem obvious.

Still, the lawsuit shines the spotlight on the darker side of the “Dateline” segment. For one thing, it's difficult to believe the show’s purpose is purely educational. Its positive effects are merely a side effect of its true intent, which is to entertain. The show feeds off people's fears, insecurities and anger toward pedophiles. There's a desire to see the trapped subjects hard-balled and toyed with. We want to see them suffer for their intentions. In its worst moments, "Predator" is entirely fueled by hate and serves no other purpose than to breed an unhealthy distrust in our neighbors and friends.

Did Conradt commit suicide because he was ashamed of himself, or because he knew his embarrassment would be witnessed by millions? Is it OK to profit off the misery of other people if they're guilty of a serious crime? Where are the boundaries between journalists and law enforcement, and at what point is it unacceptable for TV shows to dish out their own brand of justice? None of these questions has an easy answer, but it's time to start thinking seriously about all of them.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, "Predator" has been dealt a serious blow to its credibility and legitimacy. Even if the show loses the case, it's not clear whether the lawsuit will result in its cancellation or even affect its ratings. There are probably plenty of people who feel Conradt got what he deserved, and those folks will be eagerly awaiting the next episode.

 
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