August 7, 2007

Parallel investigations. That’s how Chris Hansen, of “Dateline NBC” describes the work that he does on the program’s “To Catch a Predator” segments. In theory, “Dateline” staff does an investigation, the non-profit organization Perverted Justice does an investigation and the cops do their own investigation.

Esquire magazine just published a lengthy article taking readers behind the scenes of the operation last year when one of the targets, an assistant prosecuting attorney, killed himself as police were trying to arrest him.

In practice, parallel investigations are messy. The article is a case study for journalists, an object lesson that demonstrates how complicated it is for investigators to work along side each other, each motivated by different goals and values. The journalists, in theory, want to inform the public about a threat to children. The Perverted Justice folk want to shame and expose potential pedophiles. And the cops want to arrest those who break the law.

Even though their motives are not mutually exclusive, Luke Dittrich’s reporting in Esquire makes it appear almost impossible for the journalists, the citizens and the cops to stay true to their own goals and not to assume the work of the other.

That’s because they need each other. “Dateline” needs the cops to draw their guns and chase down the bad guys in order to get dramatic video. Perverted Justice needs “Dateline” to promote its cause. And the cops want to look competent and tough.

The Esquire piece reveals these pressure points again and again.

“A day or two prior to the beginning of the sting operations, NBC technicians had installed a high-tech video projection system in a room at the Murphy Police Department headquarters,” Dittrich writes. “Along with the projector, NBC installed all the equipment necessary to stream multiple live video and audio feeds from the decoy house a mile or so away.”

If indeed NBC needed a remote control room, why set up in the police department? Doing so almost guarantees that information gathered by the journalists will be shared with police. Doing so makes it impossible for the cops, when they approach the court system, to sort out what information they gathered on their own and what information came to them via a third party. This room was so impressive the Murphy Police began to refer to it as the War Room, Esquire reports.

“At about 12:30 a.m., according to Detective Sam Love, who was also in the War Room, Lieutenant Barber’s cell phone rang. The conversation, recalls Love, was brief and mostly one-sided, and afterward Barber relayed a message to the chief: Chris Hansen wants the police to get an arrest warrant and a search warrant for Bill Conradt,” the assistant prosecuting attorney.

Hansen denies this in his interview with Dittrich, which Esquire published. Even if it didn’t happen, often police and journalists have unspoken expectations of each other. Sources should expect reporters to ask tough questions, hold them accountable. But most cops would no sooner listen to a journalist suggest how they should do their jobs, than they would join a local chapter of the ACLU. Good police beat reporters spend years establishing professional boundaries with detectives and patrol officers. It’s clear the information flows one way. It’s clear that the reporters are supposed to inform the public and the cops are supposed to enforce the law.

The Esquire article goes on to describe the scene outside the assistant prosecuting attorney’s house on a Sunday morning, which the “Dateline” crew had staked out, hoping to get an opportunity to ambush their target before he was arrested. As more police officers arrived to serve the warrant, they considered whether to force their way into the house.

Dittrich writes: “Actually, Hansen and his crew did notice one thing. They saw the Sunday edition of The Dallas Morning News sitting just outside Bill Conradt’s door. And then, the next time they looked, they didn’t see it. Which is what the chief is talking to the sergeant about … ‘But no one’s left the residence?’ the sergeant asks. Chief Myrick repeats the question to someone off camera. ‘Yeah,’ Chris Hansen answers. He hasn’t seen anyone leave.”

This is another example of how what seems like a good idea in theory falls apart in practice. It’s no longer a parallel investigation when the cops are basing their decisions to call in the SWAT team on the observations of the journalists.

In his interview with Esquire, Hansen insists that method works: “You know, in the model that we used in Riverside, I think it served our viewers and it served public safety in the best way that we could. And I think we maintain our independence as journalists. You know, we disclose all the methods in this story, in terms of paying Perverted Justice as consultants. In terms of Perverted Justice’s relationship to the law enforcement investigation. So you know, I think we satisfy all sides here.”

Disclosure is not the answer here. Independence is. Independence in practice as well as theory. It’s impossible for investigations to stay parallel, when the journalists are working out of the police department and contributing to law enforcement discussions about the timing and methods of an arrest.

The public relies on journalists to be independent, to question the cops about their methods, not help them. It might make for good video, if the camera person is in on the stakeout. But it’s not good journalism.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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