Dateline\’s getting sued

I see that Dateline’s being sued because someone who found himself on the “To Catch a Predator” segment and killed himself. His sister is suing for $105 million.

Good.I don’t normally like lawsuits, but Dateline is the most despicable excuse for journalism in the entire world, and yes, I know that takes some doing. Remember, this is the same television show that decided that GM pickup trucks didn’t explode spectacularly enough in collisions and rigged them with explosives, then presented this dramatization as fact.

What Dateline does in its To Catch a Predator segment isn’t journalism at all. It’s entrapment, pure and simple. And capturing it on film turns it into something more closely resembling so-called “reality TV” than anything else–certainly more than journalism.

The job of a journalist is to report events. What this segment of the show does isn’t to report the events–it creates them. What’s worse is that it puts the people caught on camera on trial in the court of public opinion. Many of the people who end up on the show end up having their cases dismissed in court for lack of evidence.

If the police want to engage in this sort of activity, that’s one thing. When a sensationalistic television show does it, unintended consequences happen.

I have no sympathy for pediphiles. But engaging in entrapment to put them on television as a form of entertainment isn’t the proper or ethical way to deal with them. Plus, it certainly isn’t journalism, and it gives a bad name to those who do try to practice journalism in an ethical and principled manner.

Unfortunately, a $105 million lawsuit isn’t going to do much to change Dateline’s practices. The show stays on the air because it gets reasonably good ratings and is dirt cheap to produce. That’s why they put it on in every time slot where another show fails. Even with the occasional nine-figure lawsuit thrown in, it’s far cheaper to produce than any sitcom.

If you don’t like the direction this country or society is headed, thank shows like this. Sensationalism and celebrity gossip is what passes for news these days, so the things that really matter don’t even get mentioned.

If you want to get your news from television, watch Jim Lehrer on PBS. Liberals think it’s too conservative; conservatives think it’s too liberal. That’s usually an indication that it’s doing something right. Flawed though it may be, at least it is journalism, unlike most of what ends up on television news anymore.

I remember someone asking one of my journalism instructors (Bob Sullivan, now an MSNBC columnist) for an example of balanced journalism. Surprisingly, he didn’t hesitate. “MacNeil/Lehrer,” he said. Then he laughed. “And no one watches.”


I can find better journalism than Dateline without switching from NBC, however. It happens every Saturday night. Yes, I’m talking about Weekend Update. And it was better even when Norm McDonald was hosting.

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One thought on “Dateline\’s getting sued

  • July 31, 2007 at 8:36 am

    I’ll preface this by saying that I absolutely agree with everything you’ve said about Dateline. Got no use for that sort of “journalism.”

    But having said that, most of the folks in this part of the state (we live just a county or two west of where this happened) have zero sympathy for this guy. After all, he was on-line thinking he was setting up a sexual encounter with a 13-yr old boy. The newspaper editorials here in the Dallas area are running strongly towards this as an example of a “lawsuit-happy” culture.

    I think the whole situation is just sad.

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