More than any news program in recent memory, NBC's "The Wanted" comes with a reputation preceding it. And it isn't good.
The series about chasing alleged terrorists and war criminals was the subject of stories questioning its reporting five months before its debut, set for July 20 at 10 p.m. EDT. Unflattering references were made to "To Catch a Predator," NBC's derided yet successful sting operation for potential sex offenders.
Its producers are anxious for people to judge the work for itself.
"The people who've called it, 'To Catch a War Criminal,' they've never seen the show," said journalist Adam Ciralsky, who co-produces the series with documentary filmmaker Charlie Ebersol and appears on screen, too.
Ciralsky works with Roger Carstens, a counterterrorism expert; former Navy SEAL Scott Tyler; and former U.S. intelligence official David Crane on the show. Each week's hour focuses on someone who is living freely despite being accused of crimes by governments or tribunals elsewhere in the world.
The first episode tracks Mullah Krekar, who is living in Norway and is leader of the Ansar Al Islam, an Iraqi-formed terrorist group believed to be behind attacks on U.S. and allied troops in Iraq. The next week focuses on Mamoun Darkzanli, who lives in Germany but has been accused by a Spanish court of providing financial and logistic support to al-Qaida.
Ebersol, son of NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, said he and his partner were intrigued by stories of people accused of serious crimes who hadn't been brought to justice. Some they confront actually say they're eager to have their conduct judged, believing they can clear their names, he said.
"At its core, the most important thing to look at is whether or not there is an opportunity for justice to occur," Ebersol said. "We're not saying a person is guilty or innocent."
It would seem odd, however, for a series called "The Wanted" to knowingly broadcast an hour on someone producers believe is innocent.
The producers call it a "follow documentary" and talk about "breaking through the fourth wall" with viewers by making them seem part of the investigation while it's happening. The goal is to marry investigative reporting on complex issues with high-end production values.
"We want to make it seem like something you'd want to see on a Friday night at the movies," Ciralsky said.
In fact, a trailer advertising the show looks just like a movie commercial. There are scenes of a helicopter trailing a car, with the target in what appears to be a gun sight. Tyler, Carstens and Ciralsky pose in sunglasses as the rock song "Cavalry" blares.
"This is not just a show to me," Carstens declares. "This is a mission."
Glitz or no glitz, the episodes still have to meet rigorous journalistic standards, Ciralsky said.
Their methods came into question over the winter during an investigation of Leopold Munyakazi, a French professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, who was accused of participating in Rwanda's genocide 15 years ago. Goucher's president, Sanford J. Ungar, said producers wanted to film him being told by a Rwandan prosecutor that Ungar had a war criminal working for him. He called it "totally orchestrated."
Ungar, a former journalist at The Washington Post and National Public Radio, said he also found it odd that NBC was working in concert with Rwandan prosecutors. Usually, journalists keep some distance with government officials.
"I don't mean to be Victorian about it, but if the truth is what they were really seeking, this doesn't seem to be the way of going about it," he said.
Munyakazi was suspended with pay after the charges became known, and he's finished his two-year contract at Goucher. He's still living in university housing, a spokeswoman said. Ungar said human rights officials had told him that the case against Munyakazi was flimsy.
NBC said an episode about Munyakazi is still in the works, with no scheduled air date. Producers defend their methodology, saying the style of their show is to make viewers a part of the investigative process.
"It's pro-active," said David Corvo, executive producer of "Dateline NBC." ''But certain kinds of investigative journalism are. You're trying to have an impact with your reporting."
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