To Sue a Predator Catcher

Radar Magazine/May 29, 2007

A respected former Dateline NBC investigative producer is claiming that her opposition the "To Catch a Predator" franchise got her wrongfully canned by the network. Marsha Bartel, who spent 21 years with NBC, was laid off last year as part of NBC's "TV 2.0" reorganization. But in a lawsuit filed against NBC in Illinois last week, Bartel claims she was actually fired after she refused to participate in the "Predator" stings because the network's arrangements with Perverted Justice and local police violated NBC News ethical guidelines.

According to the lawsuit, which was posted at the Smoking Gun, Bartel complained to network brass that "To Catch a Predator" presented a host of ethical problems and made quick work of NBC policies that she, as a producer, had a duty to comply with: The network pays Perverted Justice, a shadowy online vigilante group that trolls for perverts by posing as children; it "unethically pays or directly reimburses law enforcement officials to participate in the 'Predator' stings"; and "unethically provides unfettered access to live video feeds ... to law enforcement officials." The lawsuit describes the filmed arrests of "Predator" targets as "dramatically staged" and claims that "NBC unethically covers up the fact that law enforcement officials act improperly ... and goo[f] off by waiving rubber chickens in the faces of sting targets while forcing them to the ground and handcuffing them."

When Bartel was assigned as a producer to the "Predator" segments, the lawsuit says, she was prevented by her bosses from ascertaining the true identities of the Perverted Justice volunteers that the network had hired for the stings. "Contrary to NBC policies and guidelines," the suit says, "the identities of Perverted Justice's 50-plus volunteers working at Dateline's behest were kept secret from ... Bartel. When she inquired, she was told Dateline checked only a couple of them."

"That's unheard of," says Mark Feldstein, a former Dateline producer and colleague of Bartel's who teaches journalism at George Washington University. "I've never heard of a producer being cut out of that basic information. In fact, they'd usually want her to have it—they usually want the vetting."

Of course, in this case, the vetting could turn up some unsavory information, like the time Perverted Justice founder Xavier von Erck pretended to be a woman in order to seduce an online critic over IM, engage in online sex with him, convince him to leave his wife, and then publicly humiliate him and threaten to release webcam video of the man masturbating. Or that he wrote on his private blog that Kim Sun-Il, a Korean translator who was kidnapped in Iraq in 2004, was a "shameless and pathetic ... asshole" for begging for his life before he was beheaded. According to the lawsuit, when Bartel confronted Dateline executive producer David Corvo with Von Erck's controversial comments, he replied, "We all know they're nuts."

Bartel referred a telephone call to her attorney, who did not immediately return a message. A spokeswoman for NBC said in a statement, "We have been transparent about our reporting methods, including the role of law enforcement and Perverted Justice. Although the reports have been subject to some controversy, audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. NBC News is proud of its reporting and we believe this lawsuit is without merit."

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