Tuned In

To Catch a Legislator

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There’s always a TV angle. On Friday, Florida congressman Mark Foley shocked the political world when he announced his resignation, after reports emerged that he had sent sexually suggestive e-mails to teenage pages. On Friday night, NBC once again won the 18 to 49-year-old demographic ratings race in the 9 p.m. slot with its successful gotcha-journalism series Dateline: To Catch a Predator, featuring reporter Chris Hansen and an endless stream of perverts caught soliciting kids over the Internet.

I’m just sayin’.

There’s long been an informal alliance between law-and-order politicians and law-and-order TV. Politicians (say, politicians like Foley, who chaired a committee and sponsored bills to fight the exploitation of children) benefit not only from working against child-sex crimes, but from the impression that said crimes are not just nefarious but everywhere–Look out! Behind you! TV shows like Dateline not only feed this terror but, through feeding it, reap the ratings. Sexual exploitation of children, of course, is abominable: but is it so common, so rampant, that it alone above all crimes deserves its own TV show? Of course not–except that you watch, so it does.

That fear doesn’t just drive ratings, it drives the polls. And while both parties are capable of demagoguing security issues–I’m not saying Democrats are the party of cyberperverts–it’s no secret that Republicans, from Nixon on forward, have made a specialty of turning law-and-order concerns into votes. Now the GOP is facing the possibility that those same fears could boomerang on them, if the charges that the party’s leadership could have done more to stop Foley prove to have legs. (GOP leaders, while having known about the more-ambiguous e-mails Foley sent to staffers, have denied any more-specific foreknowledge, including the damning instant-messages that became public Friday.)

Of course, I don’t know how the whole issue will play out, and I certainly don’t know whether there’s legitimate reason to say that any Republicans covered up for Foley. But I also know what years of gotcha journalism–from Dateline to local news–have taught me: that to the public, what matters in the end is the appearance of being caught, and the audience’s eagerness to see someone get nailed.

In the meantime, with just over a month until midterm elections, certain politicans are probably suddenly hoping that the American public can become a little less interested in cyberpredators for a while. And however this turns out on Election Day, the real winner will probably be Dateline. A little more Internet-pervert publicity can’t hurt the ratings.