NEW YORK - NBC acknowledged Monday that it had paid an organization to set up a pedophile sting operation in Ohio for a "Dateline NBC" story, saying it was performing a public service.
Seventeen men were arrested in March as part of the sting. They were accused of looking for sex with minors after communicating with people posing as juveniles on the Internet, and caught when they came to a home in rural western Ohio.
NBC arranged the operation, the fourth in its ongoing "To Catch a Predator" series on "Dateline NBC," with an organization called Perverted Justice that tries to ensnare pedophiles. NBC wouldn't comment on how much it paid, although the Washington Post reported it was at least $100,000. The arrangement was first reported in the Dayton Daily News.
"There's no question it's a unique situation and one we talked about a lot internally," said David Corvo, executive producer of "Dateline NBC." "But this is an Internet crime, a new form of crime in America, and we're trying to find new ways of covering it."
Perverted Justice volunteers were paid for expenses during the first two stings, but NBC felt the company deserved to be paid for helping set up the more involved operation in Ohio, Corvo said.
With NBC's cooperation, the volunteers were briefly sworn in as deputies with the Darke County sheriff's office. Corvo described that as a legal quirk in Ohio.
The arrangement raises several ethical questions, including whether the magnitude of the problem was worth the attention paid to it by law enforcement in Ohio, said Bob Steele, a senior journalism-ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute.
"If the journalist was paying someone for their information, cooperation and participation, the payment may taint the reliability of the story and the truth being sought," Steele said. "Credibility is affected. Some would even put the term 'checkbook journalism' on this matter."
Corvo said it's not the same as paying a source. Perverted Justice was working as an NBC consultant, in much the same way that NBC paid a company for use of its hidden-camera technology for the story, he said.
The stories have been attention-getters for "Dateline NBC" at a time the newsmagazine has been hurting for attention. "To Catch a Predator" segments have run this TV season in November and February, both ratings "sweeps" months. The February story drew 10.6 million viewers, above the newsmagazine's season average of 8.1 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.
While the Ohio case doesn't have a scheduled airdate yet, May is another ratings "sweeps" month.
NBC said it received at least 15,000 letters or e-mails in response to its February story. Not one parent complained about the journalistic methods used to film the piece, he said.
"We think the system we set up has allowed us to keep our journalistic standards as well as perform a public service," Corvo said. NBC will disclose to viewers the fee paid to Perverted Justice, he said.
Asked whether a story about Internet pedophiles could just as easily be told without the sting, Corvo said it was necessary to illustrate the problem for television. He compared it to "60 Minutes" showing Mike Wallace chasing a reluctant source with a camera crew, instead of just saying the source had no comment.
"Dateline NBC" angered NASCAR officials last week after the newsmagazine said it was sending Muslim-looking men to a race, along with a camera crew to film any possible reaction among other fans. NBC said it was looking to illustrate a story about increased anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States.
Steele, of the Florida think tank, also said he had problems with NBC, in effect, joining the police force for this story. He said it could make NBC vulnerable in a lawsuit by people who want to see the notes or outtakes of the story. Corvo dismissed this concern.
Steele also questioned NBC's involvement with Perverted Justice. The Oregon-based group has inspired a rival organization, called Corrupted Justice, which says it objects to the so-called vigilante tactics of Perverted Justice. Some law enforcement agencies have also objected to the tactics of the group, effectively saying their amateurish efforts thwart the efforts of the professionals.
"Perverted Justice is a player in this arena and NBC shouldn't be partnering with them," Steele said.
A request for comment from Perverted Justice on Monday received no response.