NEW YORK — Chris Hansen of NBC News has supplanted Mike Wallace as the TV journalist you'd least like to see emerge from behind a closed door.
For dozens of men cornered on the "Dateline NBC" series "To Catch a Predator," the sight of Hansen dashes their warped dreams of sex with a child they'd "met" over the Internet. They'd be arrested and shamed on national television.
Some of the same subterfuge — minus the shame — was applied in Hansen's effort to trace online identity thieves. His second of two prime-time hours on the topic airs 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday on NBC.
"To Catch a Predator" has established Hansen's professional identity. Through 10 installments over 2 1/2 years, the series is such a part of the culture that online parodies abound. His teenage sons love the one that shows a man with a microphone trailing kids around the house saying, "I'm Chris Hansen." "Dad, I know," is the exasperated reply.
It's impact journalism. Hansen has shed light on a 21st century crime and, either through the arrests of potential sex fiends or deterrence, probably saved some youths from being victims. Aside from the occasional high-profile interview, nothing else broadcast news divisions have done over the past few years gets such consistently high ratings.
Yet "To Catch a Predator" is also an ethical minefield.
NBC News and the group it pays to chat online with potential predators, Perverted Justice, have been accused of entrapment. Critics say the series promotes humiliation as entertainment, much like the cringe-worthy auditions that begin each season of "American Idol." When Texas prosecutor Louis "Bill" Conradt Jr. put a bullet through his head after his house was surrounded by police and TV cameras interested in his online sex talk last November, his sister blamed NBC.
Among several ethical concerns is that NBC has become actively involved in the story instead of covering it, said Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute in Florida.
"I fear that `Dateline's' motivation is driven by the quest for eyeballs, for ratings, rather than a legitimate journalistic purpose when they perpetually run what in essence is the same story over and over," he said.
Hansen, a 14-year NBC News veteran, came up with the idea for "To Catch a Predator" after hearing about Perverted Justice. He's proud of the way it has brought attention to a little-known crime.
"We debate all of this internally: how much is too much, what is our role, how do we balance compelling television with journalism," he said. "Everyone's entitled to their point of view. That kind of debate is healthy. It doesn't make me defensive. I get asked these questions all the time and I feel comfortable answering them."
The reality of television is that if Hansen pitched a story about online sex predators and all he had were a few interviews and pictures of fingers typing on a keyboard, his producers would probably pass, he said.
So the formula was created that persists today.
With typers who will pose as innocent youths, Perverted Justice lies in wait for predators who visit chat rooms. When they engage in conversation and suggest a meeting, the decoys set one up at a home NBC has rented and rigged with cameras.
The men arrive, often invited inside by a young actress. Then Hansen appears, holding transcripts of the online conversations. Some men offer pathetic, mumbling excuses about their intentions. Others make a futile dash, unaware the house is surrounded by police.
Hansen has seen the comically inept — two men walked into a room naked — and the vaguely dangerous, when a rabbi lunged to grab obscene pictures of himself he had sent online. The most heartbreaking case involved a Florida man who arrived with his 5-year-old son.
Men are so driven by delusion they figure they won't be caught. Maybe some secretly want to be, he said.
Because the decoys wait for a potential predator to make the first move, Hansen said he doesn't consider this entrapment. Yes, the subject matter can get dicey, but he said he's never been uncomfortable watching the programs with his 15-year-old son.
The Conradt case was the most serious issue NBC has faced. Conradt's sister, Patricia, told the Murphy, Texas, City Council that she didn't consider her brother's death a suicide. "When these people came after him for a news show, it ended his life," she said.
There's no evidence the prosecutor knew that "Dateline NBC" was involved, Hansen said. NBC hasn't shied away from the case, showing the cavalcade of police cars heading toward Conradt's house and the sad aftermath in a program that aired during the February ratings "sweeps." Its inclusion was even promoted in advance.
"If it had happened to my brother, I'd be sad that he had decided to commit suicide," Hansen said. "But to say it's our fault, I just don't think that's true."
He's not sure how many more "To Catch a Predator" stings will happen. The series' success gives Hansen —who has investigated child labor in India and the child sex trade in Cambodia — freedom and the juice within NBC News to pursue many different stories.
One was the identity theft piece, a close cousin to "Predator." Hansen sets up fake credit card accounts, an online electronics store and a delivery company to infiltrate a shady world of stolen goods. Part two finds him closer to masterminds operating overseas.
In one unexpectedly funny segment, Hansen is caught by hidden cameras talking with a man who collects stolen electronic equipment for a fantasy woman who is an online apparition. He jokes with Hansen about the hapless men he's seen on "To Catch a Predator."
He has no idea who he's talking to. The joke's on him.
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org
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