Chasing terrorists -- and maybe TV ratings

The New York TimesJuly 16, 2009 

A production company thinks it has found a dramatic new television format for the so-called age of terror: conducting international manhunts for suspected terrorists and war criminals, filming them and selling the finished product to television networks around the world. Its first bidder is NBC News.

In just under a week, NBC is expected to introduce the series, "The Wanted," which has already attracted criticism because of the collaboration between the journalists and the former government operatives they work with.

Soon the series may go worldwide: On Monday a distribution company, ShineReveille International, said it had acquired the series for foreign distribution.

The series has been criticized by some as an extension of "To Catch a Predator," the "Dateline NBC" franchise that showed police officers and journalists working in concert to catch possible sex offenders when they tried to meet minors. Some have even pre-emptively labeled the series "To Catch a Terrorist." Last winter, the Department of Homeland Security warned that NBC's pursuit of a Maryland college professor suspected of genocide could hurt the ability of law enforcement officials to enact actual, as opposed to televised, justice.

But NBC and the producers have brushed aside those concerns. NBC has called "The Wanted" a "groundbreaking television event" that would show an elite team of investigators pursuing accused criminals living in the open and avoiding justice. An online promotion for the program suggests that it will have cinematic qualities, including sweeping shots from helicopters and a command center for the team. In a mostly low-rated season of summer programming, the ratings for "The Wanted" will be closely watched after it has its premiere Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern time. A second episode is scheduled for a week later; four more episodes have been filmed.

"The truth is the real weapon in this redefining news series that follows a Navy SEAL, a Green Beret and a dedicated reporter as they hunt down war criminals and terrorists from around the world," the production company, Echo Ops, says in promotional materials.

'Just here to seek justice'

The Green Beret and the SEAL are retired. They are cast members who conduct surveillance and hold mock intelligence briefings on the program, alongside Adam Ciralsky, an NBC News producer, and David Crane, a former chief prosecutor of an international war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. Crane praised the series for tackling cases of possible criminals who are "living normal lives under the protection of a domestic law and are trying to avoid justice."

"We're just here to seek justice for people that have been so victimized by international terrorists," Crane said in a telephone interview Monday.

It is the "we" -- the cooperation between the former intelligence officers and NBC News -- that has raised red flags among a number of veteran journalists, including some within NBC. They say they find it troubling that "The Wanted" blurs the boundaries between government agents and supposedly impartial journalists.

Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, asked simply, "Is this supposed to be journalism?"

Ciralsky, a former CIA lawyer and "60 Minutes" producer, has worked for more than a year on the series. On the program he is repeatedly visible during the televised manhunts, saying on camera during one of the stakeouts, "I have eyes on him from the back."

The documentary filmmaker Charlie Ebersol, son of Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, is an executive producer alongside Ciralsky.

Jane E. Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said she was stunned that NBC would use some of the same tactics that led to the harsh criticism of the "Predator" series. One of the accused sex offenders committed suicide as the police and cameras approached his home in 2006; NBC settled a lawsuit from the man's family last year.

Kirtley said that when she first learned of the program, she "thought it was something that The Onion was doing as satirical summer silliness," referring to the satirical newspaper.

She said she worried that Ciralsky would be perceived not as a reporter but as a government representative. The series could "play into the hands of those who say that there is no such thing as independent journalism in the U.S., that everybody who's working abroad is working in concert with the U.S. government."

NBC's ethical guidelines

Crane said he believed it was very appropriate for Ciralsky to work hand in hand with the former intelligence officers. "It's a team effort," he said.

By licensing the program from Echo Ops, NBC may be able to sidestep some of the legal and ethical questions that followed "To Catch a Predator." An NBC News spokeswoman said that "The Wanted" followed the news division's ethical guidelines to the letter.

The network declined requests to interview the executive producers of "The Wanted." But Ciralsky told The Associated Press, "The people who've called it 'To Catch a War Criminal,' they've never seen the show."

David Corvo, an executive producer at NBC News, said in a news release that "we hope this program sheds light on an overlooked story."

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