Using predators to catch viewers

Fear tactics a favorite for pulling in audiences

The bizarre frenzy last week involving so-called “pedophile advocate” Jack McClellan — who took up temporary residence in Southern California — produced a rare moment of clarity regarding the media preoccupation with pedophilia.

KTLK-AM 1150 host Mark “Mr. K” Germain joined the swarm, as McClellan’s presence drove talkradio, local TV and cable news to the brink of hysteria. At one point, though, he interrupted the clamor to take calls from listeners irritated that his progressive-talk station was devoting so much time to the story — a complaint Germain and his simpleton producer dismissed as the raving of wingbats, expressing shock that anybody would object.

Although those phoning in didn’t fully articulate their grievance, what they were trying to say could be summarized as follows: “We understand that this is a terrible, terrible crime, but the volume of coverage is absurdly disproportionate to the danger. If anything, you are stoking irrational fears, when other significant, under-reported and contentious issues cry out for attention. Please, discuss those topics, and let somebody else do this.”

Even couched that way, pedophilia is so heinous and abhorrent, daring to question the righteous indignation the subject evokes feels dicey. Yet with the degree of reporting becoming so blatantly out of whack relative to the scope of the threat, there’s cause to second-guess the motives of those perpetuating concerns that every child is a random mouse-click away from being scarred for life.

In this age of big partisan debates, pedophilia lacks a legitimate “pro” side, which hasn’t prevented talk hosts from dredging up miscreants such as McClellan, as Fox News and MSNBC did, and giving them a national forum — albeit as straw men to be forcefully knocked down. “You’re scaring a lot of parents to death,” MSNBC’s Dan Abrams scolded McClellan, clearly unburdened by his own enabling role in this midsummer’s nightmare.

Most troubling is that the sheer tonnage of programming seems tethered in part to cynical demographic calculations. After all, those most likely to be alarmed are parents of young children — a contingent disproportionately represented in the 25-to-54 age group sought by advertisers.

Against that backdrop, there’s scant mystery in NBC’s sordid fascination with predators, which totaled so many cable repeats of “To Catch a Predator” in July that the program accounted for 19 of MSNBC’s 25 top-rated hours. That roster included repackaged telecasts titled “Predator Raw: The Unseen Tapes,” which sounds like something concocted by Vince McMahon’s wrestling empire.

Then again, that’s not far off, given that the “Predator” specials are orchestrated with meticulous care — a process detailed in Esquire’s exhaustive feature on one “Dateline” operation gone wrong. In that case, correspondent Chris Hansen and crew accompanied police to Bill Conradt’s home to capture his arrest in living color, only to have the Texas prosecutor blow his brains out while a SWAT team moved in.

Certain forms of peril and victims invariably strike a more responsive chord. As Gregg Easterbrook noted in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, far more people die in traffic accidents than because of terrorism, sharks or exotic diseases, without triggering calls to declare war against SUVs.

Ultimately, however, media outlets serve their public poorly by manipulating their apprehensions, even as old-guard defenders of standards — rest in peace, Hal Fishman — continue to fade away.

Finding solid evidence about online pedophilia proves difficult. After contacting several agencies, the road eventually led to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 2006 “Youth Internet Safety Survey,” the results of which are decidedly mixed and whose terminology is at best muddled. Even then, a few findings provide small signs of optimism, among them that “unwanted sexual solicitations” actually declined versus a similar study five years earlier — a factoid nobody whose perceptions are shaped by listening to radio or watching cable news would ever suspect.

Perhaps foremost, TV and radio’s coverage is clouded by their palpable desperation, inviting suspicions that somebody in a control room is muttering “Young moms will eat this up” each time Hansen confronts another creepy potential perp.

In doing so, those media recklessly use predators as bait — a wriggling lure to snare big game, in the form of those elusive, demographically desirable viewers.

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