'Predator' producer loses ethics lawsuit

The Chicago Tribune/November 2, 2007

Unlike lawyers, who can't be canned by their firms for insisting on adherence to ethical guidelines, journalists who object to how their employer operates do so at their own risk.

That's the lesson of federal Judge John W. Darrah's dismissal of the lawsuit filed by Marsha Bartel, a former Chicago-based "Dateline NBC" investigative producer who alleged NBC News fired her last year because she refused to work on the "To Catch a Predator" series of reports out of ethical concerns.

NBC said Bartel was let go with three years left on her four-year contract, after 21 years at the company, including a decade at WMAQ-Ch. 5, because of cutbacks at the network.

But Bartel contended she was sent packing because she objected to the "Predator" project, in which men apparently seeking illicit sex were exposed on national TV. She complained the popular if controversial stings, fronted by Chris Hansen, were corrupted by Perverted Justice, the volunteer group enlisted by "Dateline" to pose online as underage boys and girls.

Her suit claimed Perverted Justice failed to keep accurate, verifiable records of its online interaction with potential predators, a point that attorneys representing some of those arrested through the "Predator" stings have cited in contending their clients were victims of entrapment.

Bartel had claimed breach of contract and sought $1 million plus interest and costs

Her contract said she was required to comply with NBC standards, which she believed she was following when she reported her concerns to the show's executive producer and others, including Hansen.

But the New York Supreme Court has ruled an employer is free to terminate an employee at any time for any reason or no reason, and Darrah determined that the narrow exception protecting attorneys resisting pressure to breach ethical guidelines couldn't be extended to journalists.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," Bartel, now working at Chicago's WFLD-Ch. 32, said Thursday. "But the comments I made, I still stand by and they need to be looked at."

NBC's "Predator" isn't completely off the hook yet.

Many advertisers have grown wary of the exposes, which get regular exposure on NBC's cable sister, MSNBC, and the series has been the subject of critical pieces in Esquire, Rolling Stone and on ABC News' "20/20" newsmagazine.

Also, still pending is a lawsuit claiming "Dateline" was responsible for a Texas prosecutor's suicide when Hansen and his crew showed up at his home with police after some damning Internet chats. NBC has said the suit has no merit.

As for the Bartel case, NBC News, which has never bought the idea that "Predator" was in any way ethically compromised, issued a brief statement: "We believed from the beginning that this case was without merit and we are pleased with the judge's decision."

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