By the twin measures of ratings success and journalism that gets results, NBC news producer Marsha Bartel should have been riding high.
Since joining "To Catch a Predator" in early 2006, the 49-year-old veteran journalist had helped set up four different sting operations that led to the arrests of 112 men who allegedly used Internet chat rooms to try to have sex with minors.
But Bartel wasn't happy. In fact, she grew increasingly troubled by the highly rated program's methods, which, she said, violated the network's ethical guidelines, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court last week. She claims that her repeated complaints were ignored and that she refused to continue working on the show just before a sting in Petaluma, Calif., that netted 29 men in three days in late August.
Four months later, Bartel was let go by the network in a massive round of layoffs. Now she's seeking at least $1 million in damages from the network.
In the lawsuit, Bartel claims that she was fired because of her complaints.
According to the complaint, Bartel said that the program violated ethical standards through its relationship with Perverted Justice, an online vigilante group whose volunteers pose as juveniles on the Internet in order to lure their targets. By paying the group, NBC has given Perverted Justice a "financial incentive to lie to trick targets of its sting," according to Bartel.
She also claims that the network failed to provide her with the names of the group's volunteers and that the group does not provide complete transcripts of their chats with minors, making it impossible to "independently verify the accuracy of those transcripts."
And Bartel contends that NBC's relationship with local law enforcement was unethical, claiming that the network provided the police with video equipment and video tapes and "unethically pays or indirectly reimburses law enforcement officials to participate in the 'Predator' stings in order to enhance and intensify the dramatic effect of the show."
She claims that the network covers up improper behavior by police officers such as "goofing off by waving rubber chickens in the faces of sting targets while forcing them to the ground and handcuffing them."
Bartel, who claims that she signed a four-year contract with NBC from December 2005 to December 2009, tried negotiating a termination agreement with the network for several weeks. "She was offered a significant termination package that wasn't quite acceptable," her lawyer Roger C. Simmons told ABC News. "It would have sealed her lips…and the contract numbers were greater than the termination numbers."
Simmons added, "My case is very simple: They didn't want to hear that this was a loose and improper news method and they closed their ears to it and fired her to shut her up."
Transparent Reporting Methods?
According to NBC, Bartel's contract gave the network the option of not renewing her employment at the end of 2006.
As for Bartel's claims about the methods utilized by the series, the network released a statement: "Further, in producing investigative projects such as "To Catch a Predator," we regularly have open and critical discussions about ethics and journalistic standards. Any producer is welcome to give his or her input. In regards to the series itself, we have been transparent about our reporting methods, including the role of law enforcement and Perverted Justice, and audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. NBC News is proud of its reporting, and this lawsuit is without merit."
Some media ethicists were not surprised by Bartel's lawsuit.
"The project, from the very beginning, had lawsuit written all over it," wrote Al Tompkins, who teaches ethics in television journalism at the Poynter Institute, in an e-mail interview.
Tompkins is critical of the show's methods, saying that they are unique in television journalism. "Typically undercover work has gone after problems that would have occurred if the journalist had not been involved," he wrote. "In this case, the story turned PJ's [Perverted Justice] ability to lure a person into doing something so they could be caught."
The controversial program has won praise from child safety advocates and parents and Perverted Justice has been lauded by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
But the show has garnered its share of criticism from law enforcement officers, especially after one of its targets committed suicide during a sting operation which nabbed 24 suspected perverts last November.
'Mistakes Were Made'
When police armed with a search warrant -- and a "Dateline" camera crew -- showed up at county prosecutor Louis Conradt Jr.'s home in Terrell, Texas, no one answered the door, according to the police in Murphy, Texas, and Terrell, Texas, who took part in the attempted arrest. The police forced their way into the home to find the 56-year-old prosecutor in a hallway holding a semiautomatic handgun. "I'm not going to hurt anybody," he told police before firing a bullet into his own head.
Since the tragedy, questions have been raised about the timing of the raid and the extent of "Dateline's" cooperation with local police.
Conradt's boss, Rockwall County District Attorney Galen Ray Sumrow, believes that mistakes were made. He claims that the search warrant listed the wrong date and the wrong county, errors which could have resulted in any evidence seized from the house getting thrown out at trial. And Sumrow questions why the police felt the need to force their way into the home, telling the Columbia Journalism Review that he was told by an investigator that the arrest was hastened because the "Dateline" crew had plane tickets to fly home that same afternoon.
"He was here in the office every morning," he told the magazine earlier this year. "You generally like to do an arrest like that away from the home to avoid things like what happened."
A spokesperson for "Dateline NBC" insists that there was no pressure exerted on the police in order for the crew to make flight deadlines.
Now Conradt's sister Patricia said that her family is considering a lawsuit against the network and the local police forces. "I will never think of it as a suicide," she told ABCNEWS.com. "'Dateline' and Perverted Justice and the Murphy [Texas] Police Department were acting as jury, judge and executioner."
Did They Make Light of the Suicide?Conradt was given outtakes of the show by then-District Attorney Ed Walton and she claims that one of the scenes depicts a police officer making light of the suicide. "She's standing in my brother's backyard, you hear the shot go off, and she looks at the camera and says, "'Are we having fun yet?'"
Walton, who did not watch all of the outtakes and could not confirm that specific scene, was equally outraged by the incident. "You could not overstate how poorly things were handled," he said. "They murdered that man. That man is dead because of something he would have gotten probation for merely because of the way it was handled."
"I think it's sensationalistic journalism and it has nothing to do with law enforcement," said Conradt. "My hope is that if anything can come out of that kind of vigilantism, someone will stop and say, 'These are serious legal issues. Let's take a careful approach and not rush to action.'"
Capt. Arley Sansom of the Terrell police department was not aware of any officer making light of the suicide at the scene and defended the actions of the police during the incident. "There was nothing that happened with our involvement that was improper," he said. A spokesman for NBC did not comment on the alleged scene from the outtakes of the show.
To this day, none of the 23 arrested in the sting operation have been successfully prosecuted due to insufficient evidence, according to the Collin County assistant district attorney's office.
Although it occurred months after Bartel left the show, the sting that led to Conradt's suicide is being researched by her legal team to bolster their case. "My understanding is that it was a situation where they brought in 24 people on the sting, one of them shot himself, and none have been convicted or arrested at this point," said Simmons. "Because they just cannot make a case based on the loose procedures followed."