Wednesday, May 07, 2008

We'd Love to be on the Dais

Normally, journalism awards programs are pretty dull affairs. They pass out a lot of hardware and there's always a keynote by some media big-wig, reminding everyone of the importance of a free press in a free society. Yada, yada, yada.

As a blog that slings its share of arrows at the MSM, it's no surprise that we're excluded from the invitation list. And believe us, we're not begging for a chance to attend. Three or four hours in a banquet room with a bunch of over-sized media egos...well, that's not exactly our definition of a fun evening.

Still, we're almost a bit jealous of those invited to this year's George Foster Peabody Awards. The Peabodys, which recognize broadcast excellence, will be handed out next month in New York City, with NBC anchor Brian Williams as the host.

And, Mr. Williams may have a deliciously awkward moment as he distributes the awards. Among the 2008 honorees is reporter Byron Harris of WFAA-TV in Dallas. Mr. Harris is being recognized for a series of investigative reports, including one that took dead aim at NBC News.

Harris and his team took on the network's "To Catch a Predator" franchise, which airs on the news magazine Dateline NBC. Reported by Chris Hansen, "Predator" is a video sting operation, designed to catch child predators.

Regular viewers know how the sting works. Dateline outfits a home--often in an upscale neighborhood--with hidden video cameras and microphones. Local police, working with a group called "Perverted Justice," make contact with suspected pedophiles on-line, promising sex with a child or underage teen if they come to a specified address--the sting house. When they show up, Mr. Hansen pops out and grills the suspect on why they showed up, and what they expected. After that, the suspect is led away by police.

But Mr. Harris found problems with the operation. Focusing on a sting in Murphy, Texas, he found a "chummy" relationship between local cops, NBC and Perverted Justice, which received a consulting fee (from the network) for its efforts. Local cops even wore miniature cameras during the Murphy operation, providing more video that could (presumably) be used in court, or on Dateline.

The Murphy sting resulted in the arrest of two dozen suspected predators. However, as WFAA discovered, the investigation fell apart after the TV lights were turned off. None of the suspects was ever convicted. A local prosecutor slammed Murphy police for "abdicating" their duties to outsiders who, in his words, "don't know diddly-squat" about local law enforcement.

As you might expect, NBC didn't take kindly to Mr. Harris's examination of their expose series. When WFAA won a duPont-Columbia award for the report, the NBC contingent at the black-tie affair walked out, led by news division president Steve Capus. Even by today's decidedly low media standards, it was a petulant and childish display.

That sets the stage for the Peabody Awards in June. While Mr. Williams is too much of a gentleman to stomp out of the room, we're guessing his presentation to Mr. Harris (and WFAA) will be perfunctory, at best.
ADDENDUM: We should point out Dateline has dramatically scaled back its "Predator" series since the Murphy segment aired. The network is currently facing a lawsuit by the family of a defendant, who killed himself after being arrested during one of the sting operations.

It's also worth noting that Harris's series has been criticized outside the hallways of NBC. His report on the Murphy sting failed to report that Perverted Justice assisted in the arrest--and eventual prosecution--of a child predator in Murphy, four months before NBC arrived on the scene. As TV critic Ed Bark noted in his blog, there may have been a legitimate impetus for conducting a sting in that town.

There's also the question of whether WFAA would have been equally aggressive if Dateline aired on ABC, rather than a competing network. Harris told Mr. Bark he "would try" to go after an ABC program while admitting "it's less probable, certainly (that he could investigate an ABC News broadcast) with the same freedom.

Bark notes that WFAA is owned by media giant Belo, which has banned its flagship paper, the Dallas Morning News, from criticizing local news operations for almost a decade. Belo also owns a pair of NBC affiliates in the Pacific Northwest, which took a pass on their own expose of Dateline. And, as you might already know, Mr. Bark is the former TV critic of the Morning News.

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