Legal pressure grows for 'Dateline' over 'Predator' series
EmptyNEW YORK -- "Dateline NBC" denied Wednesday an Esquire article's claim that its "To Catch a Predator" producers tried to manipulate Texas police officers into arresting a D.A. who killed himself when confronted by police at his home last year.
Meanwhile, NBC is facing a $105 million federal lawsuit filed by the man's sister as well as a lawsuit by a former producer who said she was fired because she questioned the "Predator" lawsuit on ethical grounds. ABC News also confirmed Wednesday that its newsmagazine "20/20" was conducting an investigation into the death of Kaufman County prosecutor Bill Conradt and the role of "Dateline" in it.
It was "Dateline" and Perverted Justice, the consultant to the series that has used TV to entrap would-be child sex predators, that led police in Murphy, Texas, to set up a sting that would collar suspects and provide compelling TV all at the same time. The "Dateline" series has led to several convictions from the more than 200 people who have been snared, all with the cooperation of "Dateline" and law enforcement.
The Esquire article details the circumstances around the sting in Murphy, where an actor had been hired to pose as a 13-year-old boy who had been chatting online with a man who was later identified as Conradt. Esquire said "Dateline" producers tried to lure Conradt to the house where police were waiting, only to find that Conradt wasn't coming. They and members of Perverted Justice decided, Esquire said, to take police and a "Dateline" crew to Conradt's home in the small town of Terrell.
Esquire said the "Dateline" crew wanted Murphy police to get search and arrest warrants for Conradt's house, which the police did. The next day a SWAT team -- with "Dateline" cameras staked out nearby -- entered Conradt's home to arrest him. After a few words, Conradt held a Browning .380-caliber pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. He died on the way to the hospital in Dallas.
Conradt's sister Patricia Conradt sued NBC Universal last month claiming that NBC News had invaded his privacy and "steamrolled" their way with the help of police to arrest him. None of the men who had been arrested in the Murphy operation have been charged, and the D.A.'s Office has criticized the way the arrests and investigation were handled.
NBC News declined to put executive producer David Corvo on the phone for an interview about the Esquire piece or the lawsuit. An NBC spokeswoman disputed Esquire's account of the incident; so did correspondent Chris Hansen in an interview with Esquire.
"The notion that Chris Hansen or anyone at 'Dateline' could or would 'control' or 'manipulate' the actions of law enforcement personnel is preposterous," the spokeswoman said. "Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that Conradt was aware of 'Dateline's' investigation."
The Dallas Morning News reported Wednesday that Murphy police chief Billy Myrick, who approved the "Dateline" investigation setting up shop in Murphy and conducted the operations, had been interviewed by a crew from "20/20." An ABC News spokeswoman confirmed that "20/20" was working on a piece about the case and "Predator." She said it hadn't been scheduled for air and declined to talk about any other specifics.
NBC News declined comment on the "20/20" investigation.
But journalism ethics experts continue to be concerned about the "Predator" series. Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at St. Petersburg, Fla., journalism think tank the Poynter Institute, believes there's no journalistic reason for "Predator" and that NBC has compromised its journalistic independence.
"What I find disturbing about 'To Catch a Predator' is that it's designed to compromise journalistic independence and the system they've set up for doing these sting operations involves the cooperation of everybody," she said. "It's not like it actually just happens. Journalists designed it that way."
While she acknowledged that Internet predators are a legitimate concern, she said that more child-sex predators live in the same home as the children and that if NBC wanted to do a public service that they should so stories on those situations and ways that communities can keep children safe.
NBC News said Wednesday that it was "in discussions about future investigations" but declined to comment further about whether it would pull the plug on "Predator."