American Vigilantes: To Catch a Predator

By Jonathan Adams Sep 12, 2007

From Andre Banks’ Write What I Like: Nobody likes a sex predator, but America does love a witch-hunt. Watching NBC’s smash hit To Catch a Predator, I’m struck by how easy it is to make us feel comfortable breaking the law to trap a criminal we love to hate. The show thrives on the logic of vigilantism – breaking all the rules to exact vicious justice against those it becomes popular to place below the law – an American tradition with it’s deepest roots in the criminalization of Black people. Esquire has a great piece up by Luke Dittrich, Tonight on Dateline This Man Will Die, that meticulously covers a recent ill-fated episode of the show that ended in an untimely death for Bill Conradt, a Texas Assistant D.A. The article gives an inside look at Dateline’s Hollywood version of justice – how its producers bully small-town law enforcement into catching entrapping the most salacious group of sex predators (the rabbi wants teen sex in whipped cream!) for the best production values. After reading the piece, it is hard to argue that getting sex predators off the street is of any concern compared to producing a true-crime reality show with the juice to turn Dateline into the Survivor of prime time newsmagazines :

"The thing is, Doris Berry is a prosecutor. She wants to see bad guys punished. She’s read the transcripts, which means she knows most of these men are bad and a lot of them are probably dangerous. And if she rejects the cases, she knows what will happen: Instead of receiving the incarceration and supervision that might prevent them from someday soliciting real kids, not fake ones, they’ll receive only Dateline’s nationally televised shaming. But the law is the law, and you can’t just wish a batch of mangled cases good. On June 1, 2007, seven months after the end of the sting operation, three months after Dateline airs the relevant episode of “To Catch a Predator,” the Collin County District Attorney’s office will announce that it has decided not to pursue indictments for any of the suspects Murphy police [local law enforcement working with the show] arrested outside the decoy house."

And if you don’t like Esquire you can get another take. As Douglas McCollam points out in a piece over at the Columbia Journalism Review, despite To Catch a Predator’s dubious-at-best commitment to putting away potential predators, it’s a huge ratings winner because, like all the most popular reality TV, it taps the keg of public humiliation – and America is all too ready to get drunk. But what both pieces miss, while highlighting the pitfalls of an ends-justify-means approach to law enforcement, is what happens when that logic is applied more broadly. How can the Jena 6 face 20+ year jail sentences for a playground fight with a noose-hanging schoolmate? How can Kenneth Foster end up on Texas death row for a crime no one, including the state, argued he committed? The answer, perhaps obviously, is that the misapplication of laws along the color line still put Black people in prison at record numbers. What isn’t so obvious: it is a vigilante culture that allows us to accept a brutally unjust criminal justice system because, though the rules are being broken, they are working against Black people who too often turn out to be the witches in America’s hunt. The show reminds me why I don’t want justice in the unchecked hands of any American – Chris Hansen, the local sheriff or a Supreme Court Justice. To Catch a Predator teaches us that the law is in the hands of the most powerful and (self) righteous. It seems like a bad lesson, but looking around, it may just be the sad, enraging truth.