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Dateline’s Sting Backfires

It looks like Katie Couric cut her ties with NBC just in time. The day she ended the suspense for what she called the “worst kept secret”-that she was moving to CBS to become the evening news anchor and 60 Minutes contributor-NBC was exposed for deceitful “investigative” reporting. What happened sounds like a treatment for a new show called, perhaps, “Candid Camera: Fear Factor Follies.”

Columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin broke this story [1] when she was forwarded an email from someone who had been asked by NBC’s Dateline to help them find people who “look like Muslims” to participate in a little sting operation against what NBC considered white crackers. They brought a crew and some Muslim men to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia to see how NASCAR fans would react.

When challenged by NASCAR officials about their story, Dateline defended its actions: “Dateline is not planning a story about NASCAR. We are following up on a recent poll and other articles indicating an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. We are curious about whether that is true. The NASCAR race at Martinsville was a stop we have made in our research on this story.”

NASCAR officials were angry when they found out that Dateline had brought in some Muslims to attend the race in Virginia. A spokesman for NASCAR said the group walked around outside the track, but got no reaction from the fans.

“It’s outrageous that a news organization like NBC would seek to create the news instead of reporting the news,” said the spokesman.

NBC replied that “There is nothing new about the technique of witnessing the experience of someone who might be discriminated against in a public setting.”

Witnessing is one thing; staging is another. You would think they would have learned that after Dateline’s most famous fiasco [2], the 1992 incident in which they rigged a test to demonstrate that GM pickup trucks with side fuel-tanks were “firebombs waiting to explode” in a side-impact collision. They had attached remote-controlled devices designed to set off the explosions. They ended up apologizing and firing several producers responsible for the actions.

Interestingly, NBC, along with TNT, spent over a billion dollars for the rights to broadcast NASCAR races for the past six years. This is the final year of the contract.

I recently attended my first NASCAR event, the Daytona 500. A friend of mine was part of the TV crew, and invited me down with a “backstage pass.” It was described affectionately to me as “The Redneck Woodstock,” a “cultural” event not to be missed. I found the massive crowd of some 300,000 people to be a broad cross-section of society, and very friendly.

Clearly, NBC was hoping to find some dramatic footage of the NASCAR nation, regularly identified as a core constituency for George W. Bush and conservatives in general, exhibiting a bigoted hostility toward innocent Muslims minding their own business.

The blogosphere has had a field day with this. One suggested that they hire several white-looking Americans to wear George Bush T-shirts and mingle at a Cindy Sheehan rally and see how the crowd treated them. But don’t count on it. That’s not the kind of “profiling” that appeals to Dateline’s producers.