NBC ‘Predator’ lawsuit: journalism on trial

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Yes, it’s only a ruling on a motion to dismiss. And, yes, in such a ruling, the plaintiff’s allegations are presumed to be true. And, yes, it’s only the ruling of a trial judge, not a ruling of an appellate court establishing new precedent.

So, yes, many reasons exist to minimize the importance of the recent ruling in Conradt v. NBC Universal, Inc. At the same time, many reasons exist for NBC to be concerned.

In Conradt, Patricia Conradt is suing NBC for the network’s role in her brother’s suicide. Conradt claims NBC, in an effort to create a sensational arrest for “Dateline NBC: To Catch A Predator,” recklessly orchestrated a police action that caused her brother to take his life.

On Feb. 26, 2008, Denny Chin, a U.S. district judge sitting in the Southern District of New York, held that Conradt’s case could proceed. While he dismissed seven of Conradt’s claims, Chin ruled that the most serious of her allegations — that NBC had violated her brother’s civil rights and had intentionally caused him emotional distress — warranted a jury trial. “[A] reasonable jury,” Chin wrote, “could find that NBC crossed the line from responsible journalism to irresponsible and reckless intrusion into law enforcement.”

At issue in Conradt is NBC’s attempt to catch Louis Conradt in a child-sex-abuse sting. Since 2004, the network has lured online predators into situations that result in their arrests. Working with watchdog group Perverted Justice and local law enforcement agencies, NBC staff members pose online as teenagers, engage in explicit sex chats with suspected predators and then invite the suspected predators to meetings in the teens’ purported homes.

When an alleged predator appears at a home, he is met by NBC News correspondent Chris Hansen, who confronts the man and grills him about his intentions, all of which is recorded by hidden cameras and microphones. Hansen then leads the man out of the house, where police — often with guns drawn — aggressively arrest the man.

According to Conradt’s complaint, NBC secures the cooperation of local law enforcement agencies by providing them equipment and money. In addition, NBC conducts on-air interviews with many of the officers and otherwise provides the agencies with substantial positive publicity.

In 2006, NBC started a sting in Murphy, Texas. In just four days, NBC succeeded in luring 24 men into the Murphy sting house. Though all 24 were arrested, the Collin County prosecutor ultimately decided none of the cases could be prosecuted, according to Chin’s opinion. Conradt’s complaint implied that NBC’s involvement tainted the case.

During the Murphy sting, NBC identified Louis Conradt as a suspected predator. Conradt lived in Terrell, Texas, about an hour from Murphy. Conradt was especially interesting to NBC because he was a local prosecutor in Rockwall County. In November 2006, Conradt engaged in an online chat with an NBC staffer posing as a 13-year-old boy. During the chat, Conradt agreed to meet the “boy” at the sting house in Murphy. Conradt, however, did not appear for the meeting.

Unbowed, Hansen persuaded Murphy police to obtain search and arrest warrants for Conradt and to travel to Terrell to execute the warrants. According to Conradt’s complaint, the judge who issued the search warrant said he would not have issued it had he been told of NBC’s involvement.

Within hours, Conradt’s home was a hub of activity. About 10 NBC staffers, including cameramen, were present, as were police officers from Terrell and Murphy and a representative of Perverted Justice. Police vehicles clogged the road in front of Conradt’s home and, according to the complaint, the officers took their direction from NBC.

When a police officer and detective knocked on Conradt’s door, Conradt did not respond. After speaking with Hansen, the Murphy police chief summoned a SWAT team, which appeared with seven more officers, at least some of whom were heavily armed. The SWAT team eventually entered the home through a locked sliding-glass door and encountered Conradt. Conradt then shot himself.

Outside, a police officer approached Hansen and reported, on camera, that Conradt had shot himself. According to the complaint, a police officer remarked to an NBC producer, “That’ll make good TV.”

NBC broadcast the segment on Feb. 20, 2007. The broadcast included footage of the stakeout, photos of Conradt’s body and an audiotape of his last words. The broadcast also included an interview with Murphy’s police chief, during which he speculated that the three computers seized at Conradt’s home contained “something that’s way worse than the chats or the pictures he had already sent.”

In denying NBC’s motion to dismiss the civil rights and emotional-distress claims, Chin clearly was disturbed by the network’s conduct.

“Rather than merely report on law enforcement’s effort to combat crime,” he wrote, “NBC purportedly instigated and then placed itself squarely in the middle of a police operation, pushing the police to engage in tactics that were unnecessary and unwise, solely to generate more dramatic footage for a television show.”

A reasonable jury, Chin continued, “could find that there was no legitimate law enforcement need for a heavily armed SWAT team to extract a 56-year-old prosecutor from his home … and that this was done solely ‘to sensationalize and enhance the entertainment value’ of the arrest. A reasonable jury could find that by doing so, NBC created a substantial risk of suicide or other harm, and that it engaged in conduct so outrageous and extreme that no civilized society should tolerate it.”

Whether Patricia Conradt can persuade a reasonable jury of these facts, of course, remains to be seen, and NBC undoubtedly will present a vigorous legal defense. Thirty-four pages into Chin’s 40-page ruling, however, rests a potentially more problematic issue for NBC — Chin’s reliance on ethical standards published by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Recognizing that these standards have not been universally adopted (and not even addressing whether they have been adopted by NBC for its “Dateline” staff), Chin nevertheless held that the “failure to abide by these journalistic standards may indeed be relevant to the jury’s determination of whether Dateline acted in a reckless and outrageous manner.”

Specifically, he said, a jury could find NBC violated these standards “by failing to take steps to minimize the potential harm to Conradt, by pandering to lurid curiosity, by staging (or overly dramatizing) certain events, by paying Perverted Justice and providing equipment and other consideration to law enforcement, by failing to be judicious about publicizing allegations before the filing of charges, by advocating a cause rather than independently examining a problem, and by manufacturing the news rather than merely reporting it.”

Conradt is suing NBC for more than $100 million, a number that surely has NBC’s attention. As is clear from Chin’s opinion, however, journalism (or at least some parts of it) is as much on trial as NBC. This case therefore should have the attention of journalists everywhere.

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