Chris Hansen: To Catch a (Financial) Predator

News item: NBC has tapped “To Catch a Predator” correspondent Chris Hansen to get to the bottom of the financial crisis.

Chris_hansen05 So beware: If you show up to talk someone into a subprime loan — or try to have sex with their under-age daughter — Hansen is on the case.

Actually, there’s a lot of good, simple information in the two-part “Dateline” report that airs March 22 and continues on the March 27 edition of the NBC very-seldom-news magazine. Hansen does a reasonably solid job of putting a human face on debt problems, particularly when he and his producers delve into the credit-card burdens bearing down on ordinary folks during the second hour.

The problem is that Hansen’s old tricks persist, and he almost can’t help himself from grandstanding and turning the “bad guys” in the piece into weird, creepy predators, in much the same way he exploited the pathetic losers that NBC helped lure to the “Predator” stings.

So in the first hour, Hansen drives to former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo’s gated community — and includes the footage for no particular reason, since he’s turned away at the gate. And he spends a lot of time pressing people — including consumers — regarding who they think deserves blame for the financial crisis, including themselves.

The piece de resistance, though, is hidden-camera footage of collection-agency employees in the second hour, as they stand around drinking beer and talking about their questionable tactics. And sure enough, there’s a “Predator”-like sequence, as Hansen and camera crew tail the proprietor of a Buffalo debt-collection agency, confronting the employees until they repeatedly slam doors in his face. It all makes for great, conflict-laden video, but it’s big, dumb journalism.

Then again, Hansen’s world has to be boiled down into heroes and villains, into black and white without shades of gray. So he winds up obscuring the underlying point of his reporting by overreaching for the big “Gotcha!” moment — a trend that’s become increasingly common in local news, which does precious little real reporting, but every sweeps month takes advantage of lipstick-camera technology to try doing splashy exposes on shady local auto mechanics, retailers, whatever.

NBC is belatedly coming around to the financial meltdown, especially in light of CNBC’s contribution by serving as a Wall Street cheerleader — not that you’d know it from NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker’s indignation about such suggestions or Jim Cramer’s latest defensive appearance on the “Today” show. Belatedly finding his voice, Cramer said it was “a naive and misleading thing to attack the media” for its role as Jon Stewart had on “The Daily Show,” where he reduced the “Mad Money” host to quivering mush.

As for Hansen, his act ultimately remains the same. It’s only the perps — and who they’re out to screw — that has changed.

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