On a fall day in 2006, a small-town Texas county prosecutor named Bill Conradt raised a loaded Browning .380 handgun to his temple, pulled the trigger, and ended his life at 56 years. Before him stood a SWAT team from a local police department that had just barged into his home after he did not answer several knocks at his door. Outside the home, film crews from NBC Dateline’s controversial To Catch A Predator program were waiting, hoping to get the arrest on tape and allow host Chris Hansen the chance to grill Conradt about explicit online chats he is said to have had with a decoy posing as a teenage boy. Instead they soon found out that Conradt had taken his own life. There would be no chance to grill him.
To Catch a Predator has been a hit among viewers. A big hit. And that means plenty of cash rolling in at NBC. In fact, the “Predator” segments averaged about 800,000 more viewers in 2006-2007 than other Dateline programs, according to a recent Times article. But in a race for ratings, has a news organization sacrificed its journalistic independence and done more harm than good in the process? I think, on both counts, NBC most certainly has.
For those who haven’t seen the show, this is how it works: NBC pays a watchdog group called Perverted Justice to set up a sting operation where members of the group pose in online chat rooms as underage teens. When a man starts hitting on the fake teen, Perverted Justice saves the transcripts and the decoy invites the guy over to a house rented by NBC for a liaison. Some men show up, a female or male actor poses as the child, and then Hansen pops out of hiding and interrogates the men about their online chats. The men soon flee, but are arrested outside by overzealous local police officers with guns drawn. Is this show of force really needed? I can’t imagine why.
In Esquire‘s September issue, writer Luke Dittrich delves into the story behind the story of Conradt’s suicide. It’s a fascinating read, in which a police officer says that Hansen urged the Murphy Police Department to get arrest and search warrants on a Sunday morning so Hansen could get a shot at Conradt before he had to leave town. Conradt never showed up for the liaison the day before, but Hansen still wanted him because a prosecutor being arrested would certainly make good TV, the story claims. Hansen denied this in an interview with Dittrich, but I don’t buy it. Why else would the police be in such a rush to nab this guy? They knew where he worked and could have arrested him without incident on Monday.
If the accusations against Conradt are in fact true — that he possessed child pornography (NBC says he did) and was soliciting a minor for sex — then he indeed deserved whatever legal repercussions came his way. Maybe he would have been found guilty, sentenced to prison time and therapy, got the help he needed and turned his life around. But those decisions should be sorted out in detectives’ offices at local police precincts or in a court of law. Not on a TV news magazine broadcast.
I don’t have any problems with sting operations when conducted by law enforcement — that’s their job. But when they are carried out or influenced by a news organization hungry for ratings, a recipe for disaster emerges. Sure the show has led to a couple hundred arrests and at least one conviction, but a man lost his life in the process. A man that could have been innocent. We’ll never know. Conradt’s sister has filed a lawsuit against NBC, and hopefully they will have to pay up. But that’s not the only result that should come out of this. The cover of the September Esquire issue says it all: “A Plea To NBC: Cancel To Catch A Predator Before Someone Dies Again.”