A Goldilocks Number

On May 17, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the launch of the Justice Department’s Project Safe Childhood by citing a terrifying statistic: “It has been estimated that, at any given time, 50,000 predators are on the Internet prowling for children.” But where did that figure come from?

Spokespersons for the FBI, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire say it’s not based on any research they’re aware of.

The AG’s press secretary has the answer, though: “That number is actually pulled from [NBC newsmagazine] ‘Dateline’ and other media outlets,” says Tasia Scolinos via e-mail. Indeed, “Dateline” reporter Chris Hansen offered the statistic last fall during one of the show’s popular hidden-camera stings of would-be pedophiles, and other media outlets have since repeated it.

Hansen’s source, according to the “Dateline” report: unnamed “law enforcement officials.” Asked who those law enforcement officials were, Hansen told Legal Times that “this is a number that was widely used in law enforcement circles,” though he couldn’t specify by whom or where.

Hansen says he confirmed the figure with Ken Lanning, a former FBI agent who had advised the show and works for a consulting company in Virginia. Lanning, however, isn’t so sure. “I don’t know where that number came from,” says Lanning, adding that it’s possible Hansen could have prompted him to confirm the figure.

Lanning, who spent 30 years at the FBI, is skeptical about the stat, whoever originated it. “Was it just a WAG — a wild-assed-guess?” he says. “It could have been.” Lanning theorizes that there may be something special about the number 50,000 and crime scares.

In the late 1980s, the figure was cited by the media as an estimate of the number of people slaughtered annually by satanic cults. In the early 1980s, it was similarly cited as the number of children abducted annually by strangers.

“For some reason the number 50,000 keeps popping up,” he says. “Maybe because it’s not small and not large. It’s a Goldilocks number.”
This is how our government and media operate. Just fills me with trust.


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