To Catch To Catch a Predator

“They fought back hard,” said Brian Ross.

It was Friday afternoon, and Mr. Ross, the chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, was on the phone with The Observer. He was discussing NBC’s preemptive response to his latest story—set to air that night on ABC’s 20/20—which would raise troubling questions about Dateline NBC’s hit show, To Catch a Predator.

The buzzy Predator, in which Dateline investigators, working with law enforcement officials, conduct sting operations designed to expose and arrest potential child molesters, has turned into a surprise hit among NBC’s struggling prime-time lineup. Now Ross was readying an investigative report that aimed to shine a spotlight on Dateline’s sometimes questionable methods.

For weeks, said Mr. Ross, NBC producers and executives had declined to comment for his piece. Then, last Wednesday, NBC News president Steve Capus had publicly questioned Mr. Ross’ motives in an interview with USA Today. “I chalk this up to the usual network silly competitiveness, in a territory that deserves much more of a serious handling,” Mr. Capus told the paper. “The competitive wars right now are at a very high level. That’s fueling this.”

To NYTV, Mr. Ross batted down Capus’s implication. “Implicit in that was that we’re all in a club and we shouldn’t criticize or report on each other,” said Mr. Ross. “I don’t think that’s the way you should operate. It’s like the blue wall of silence with cops.”

Mr. Ross had never watched an episode of To Catch a Predator until this summer. But he grew interested in the story when a group of fellow reporters alerted him to the tragedy surrounding a sting operation that the show, coordinating with local police, had carried out in Murphy, Texas, outside of Dallas. During filming, one of the operation’s targets had committed suicide rather than face exposure on national television. To make matters worse, the local prosecutor eventually dropped all charges against all 23 would-be pedophiles caught on camera, citing flaws in the joint NBC/police investigation.

Mr. Ross was intrigued. “People said, ‘You’ll never go after NBC.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re not going to go after NBC. But we are going to take a look at this.’”

The show, which aired Friday night, used outtake footage, never aired by NBC, to detail the intimate working relationship that Dateline forged with the local police chief’s office, and the extent to which the show’s production requirements influenced police procedures—ultimately leading to the collapse of the D.A.’s case.

Mr. Ross said he was surprised by NBC’s defensiveness, contrasting the experience with his critical reporting on CBS, during the Dan Rather “Memogate” controversy of 2004.

“I remember talking to [CBS president] Les Moonves and he said, ‘You really opened our eyes,’” said Mr. Ross. “I thought that was commendable. CBS was straightforward. They answered our questions. They dealt with us. That was not the reaction we got at NBC from Capus.”


MEMO TO CNBC EMPLOYEES THINKING about jumping ship to the Fox Business Network, set to kick off October 15: Get your Kevins straight!

That advice comes a little too late for Eric Bolling. In June, Mr. Bolling, a high-rolling commodities trader-turned-charismatic CNBC talking head, informed his cable news bosses that he was quitting as a commentator on the market-analysis show Fast Money.

To Catch To Catch a Predator