Utterly Unctuous. On Both Sides.

[Disclaimer: (And I can't believe I have to write this.) Although my tone may be flippant or seem a little bleeding-heart in this post, I haven't the slightest bit of sympathy or support for internet predators, pedophiles, or anyone remotely connected with the abuse, sexual or otherwise, of a child. This is more of a media critique.]

Last night, I caught most of To Catch a Predator on MSNBC. If you're not familiar with the show, basically it's feeding into the current "internet predator" boogeyman mindset: Men soliciting sex with minors online. The show is in "Gotcha" format; a "sting" is set up, men solicit sex with a minor in an online chat, not knowing that they're actually speaking to a cop. When they show up at the agreed-upon location, suddenly they're confronted by Chris Hansen, Dateline "Correspondent."

You've seen this type of scene before... for a while it was very trendy for every network news team to have a group called "The Crimestoppers!" or "The Good Guys!" Usually they were confronting business owners (always small business owners, mind you, they never went after the big guys) about a complaint that a viewer sent in. These were very big when I was living in NYC; I vividly recall one that happened not too long after 9/11. A woman in a small Chinatown shop was selling photographs of the towers burning and collapsing. The "reporters" set up a "sting" where they went to buy the photos (which were being held under the counter, of course), then suddenly revealed themselves to be.... The Crimestoppers! Champion of channel 3 newsviewers everywhere! The woman selling the pictures took off running down the street, chased by the reporter still screaming, "Don't you feel ashamed for selling these?

I tell you, it really made me ill.

Setting aside the questionable taste and mindset in selling these photos right after 9/11, was it really necessary to chase a middle-aged woman down the street with cameras? I thought selling such photos was a little ghoulish myself, but how does it serve anyone to humiliate someone and quite possibly ruin their small business (the store name and location was prominently featured) for no other reason than smug ratings?

Not to bash everything these reports did; occasionally they went after someone very corrupt; someone that really needed to be stopped before cheating another hapless customer out of money or putting someone else in a dangerous situation. But the humiliation factor was always there. I recall one in particular; a school bus driver that had been busted for driving under the influence was back on the job as a bus driver. Did the "reporters" confront the hiring authority? Did they go after city hall? No, they ambushed the bus driver as she was leaving her vehicle, on the job, screaming "How do you justify driving this bus when you were fired for driving under the influence??" Again, they chased her across the parking lot. Now, I don't want someone driving a school bus to be under the influence either, but was this really necessary?

I got this same feeling while watching Dateline last night. Now, pedophiles and predators of children are the lowest of the low. But the attitude of Chris Hansen was so melodramatic and sneering, I almost found myself feeling sorry for them. And I was pissed, because I felt like I was being manipulated into feeling that way. I didn't really feel "sorry" for them in the slightest... but because the show was trying to manipulate me into the "shoot him now!" mindset, it backfired.

A typical exchange would go like this: The predator would show up at the "home" of the minor he had solicited (a house with hidden cameras set up all over the place), and would enter upon being called in by a female voice in another room. "I'm just getting changed!" They would walk in, and suddenly CHRIS HANSEN would burst into the room, saying something ridiculously overdone like "I'm afraid you won't be keeping your DATE tonight!" Bewildered, they would allow themselves to be seated with Hansen, who would sneeringly badger them with questions taken directly from the chat sessions they had with their "dates." They all went a little like this (You can read actual transcripts at the MSNBC story.):

"You were here to have sex with her, weren't you?"

(Man mumbles something, either denying it or trying to put positive spin on the situation)

"Oh come on now, here you're describing the appearance and size of your penis. To a minor. How do you justify yourself? How do you feel being caught while trying to have sex with a minor?? Don't lie, we have your words right here!!"

(Mumble mumble mumble)

"Have you seen the Datline series: To Catch a Predator?"

(Mumble mumble *nod* mumble)

"Good, because you're on it right now!!"

Ed Wood would be proud.

And on and on it went. Then they were arrested, and taken to a small room to be interrogated by police, again on camera. Generally the police took a less "camera ready" approach to talking to the men, but again they took every opportunity to humiliate them. We were also treated to trial footage, and shots of the men being led away to jail in prison stripes and ankle chains.

Again, I'm not trying to come across like I'm saying "Oh, poor child molesters." Please stay with me.

I knew that things were going a bit far when they pulled a "gotcha" on one guy who was truly disgusting. He was due to arrive at prison in four days for a 11-month stretch for soliciting a minor. And here he was, getting in a quick one before going to jail. Nice.

Here's what got me: when the guy showed up at the house, faraway tracking shots showed him to be a Little Person. Not that such a thing matters, but after the big reveal of Hanson's pop-out, he took the guy over to the kitchen counter to interrogate him. This was a normal-sized counter with barstool seats.

"It took a long time for him to get up on the seat," sneered Hanson in voiceover, "because this predator is only five feet tall!"

This solidified that Datline had gone from "protecting your children" to "everyone come to the freak show." Were we supposed to laugh at him because, not only is he a pedophile, but he has the nerve to be a Little Person as well? Was he even more horrible because of this? Not only is he an *internet predator,* he's also not like us physically!! Even the tone of Hansen's voice was very melodramatic and mocking. (He has one of those "news announcer" voices that comedians love to imitate.) They could have arrested this guy and thrown him in jail where he belongs, but Hanson had to beat him up, first.

Look. I can't stand people like him. Anyone that abuses a child deserves the harshest punishment available. The idea of someone trolling the internet for underage sex partners makes my skin crawl.

But I have to say, this "throwing them to the lions" style of television makes me a little sick, too.

While I think it's possible to have absolutely no tolerance or respect for someone due to their actions, I still think it's possible to behave like a rational human being when confronting them. This is why we rely on formal court cases, and not lynch mobs.

This "Cruelty TV" is just a televised lynch mob to me.

(I'm sure I'm going to regret cross-posting this...)

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