“Dateline’s” threshold

There’s no denying that “Dateline NBC” is getting a lot of May sweeps ratings’ mileage out of its “To Catch a Predator” series. Good for “Dateline.” It set up a sting operation with Perverted-Justice.com volunteers that lures those looking to use cyberspace to seduce kids — and delivers them to police. It makes eye-opening, if disturbing, TV.

The series has become controversial. Has “Dateline” turned into tele-vigilantes? Is its arrangement with Perverted-Justice a form of check-book journalism? Was it reporting the news or making it?

But, candidly, none are the right questions.

The only question that counts is a rhetorical one: Haven’t they performed a societal service by helping to identify and take out of circulation would-be predators?

That’s not to say, however, that “Dateline” hasn’t crossed that journalistic threshold on occasion. In 1993, it was caught staging an explosion to dramatize rear-end collisions in General Motors’ trucks. And as recently as this March it sent a group of Muslim men to a NASCAR event in Virginia to see if that would provoke some fan reaction. Had it, Al Jazeera, not just “Dateline,” would have had quite the coup.

That’s a prime example of trying to “make” – not report – the news. NASCAR officials had a right to be outraged.

Here’s hoping “Dateline” doesn’t get any ethically-challenged ideas about whom to send to see “United 93” – or just hang out in the multiplex lobby afterward.

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