Host of 'To Catch a Predator' speaks at FBA bench/bar conference: Controversial show walks thin line dividing media from law enforcement

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Chris Hansen, best known as the host of NBC's "To Catch a Predator," took the microphone and looked out at the 175 law professionals gathered in a Henry Hotel ballroom in Dearborn.

"Can I just tell you how refreshing it is to walk into a room where people aren't running out the back door?" he asked.

Hansen was the keynote speaker April 28 at a six-hour bench/bar conference sponsored by the Federal Bar Association Eastern District of Michigan Chapter.

Titled "Media and the Law," the event also featured two panel discussions with members of the bench, bar, and media.

When NBC set up its first segment of "To Catch a Predator" back in 2004, Hansen wondered if anyone would show up at the house where he and his hidden cameras would confront men seeking sexual encounters with a young teen.

He needn't have worried.

On Day One, 17 men -- including a New York City firefighter -- showed up at the house after engaging in sexually charged online chats with a "decoy" or an adult posing as a teenager.

The next day, a rabbi was the first to show up. By the end of the day, Hansen had confronted an emergency room doctor, several teachers, and a man who'd shown up without clothes.

"In no class at Michigan State University was I ever taught how to interview a naked man," said Hansen, a Michigan native and former WDIV-TV reporter who now lives in Connecticut.

Hansen noted that the show has had its share of critics among "old school" journalists (who've been vocal about Dateline's blurred lines between the police and the press).

But he didn't mention the Texas district attorney who committed suicide in 2006 after Dateline recorded a SWAT team entering his house following a sting operation. Perverted-Justice, the organization that investigates adults who solicit sexual relationships with adults posing as children or underage teens, had allegedly discovered Bill Conradt, Jr. in a chat room with someone he thought was a 13-year-old boy.

Hansen said he and his colleagues constantly ask themselves: Is it fair?

In response, Hansen said there are serious crimes being committed, and these cases were no different from any others involving hidden cameras.

As long as he tells their stories fairly, and accurately portrays what happened without making the perpetrators look worse than they are, Hansen stands by the work because of the serious crimes being committed.

Everybody gets his day in court, Hansen said.

Over the course of 12 investigations, all 300 men were prosecuted, with results ranging from probation to 24 years in prison. (The rabbi received 6-1/2 years.)

Hansen acknowledged that the show walked a delicate line between media and law enforcement, and said each side was careful to do its own thing.

Hansen has also conducted similar investigations into identity theft, sex traffic, security violations at airports, and terrorist activities.

Published: Thu, May 5, 2011