Last Friday, Kathryn Nathanson, a producer at NBC’s “Today” show, sent an email to friends looking for volunteers for an upcoming segment. “We are going to stage a fake abduction of a young girl or boy (ages 9-14),” she wrote. “They will know that something is going to happen to them, but not what is going to occur.”
The goal of the staged abductions — which appeared designed to come as something of a surprise to the young participants — was to highlight self-defense techniques.
The parents would be “in on the plan,” Nathanson continued. “And my team will be standing by with a self-defense expert who will be ready, on site to dish out self-defense tips catered to kids/young teens.” That expert, Nathanson added, would provide commentary on “what this child did right and wrong when he/she was abducted.”
She was looking for two families who would be willing to participate. Their reward would be “five minutes of air time on TODAY!”
The email solicitation goes on in this vein (the excerpt is verbatim):
We need an easy going family for this, obviously, someone who would be able to roll with this plan and not have an on site panic attack. We plan to make this as fun as possible…and might even be able to throw in two free martial arts classes.
Please let me know if you think you might be able to find someone!!
Again, we need a boy and/or girl ages 9-14.
I emailed Nathanson to inquire about the segment and to ask her what the program hoped to learn from such an experiment. Nathanson responded, also by email, saying the program was still in a research phase. “If we decide to pursue it, we’ll likely take a different angle and I’ll let you know,” she said. She did not respond to follow-up questions.
The producer’s original casting call, which was posted in an audio producers’ group, drew immediate and withering criticism, both from journalists and parents. I emailed a few to ask them to expand on their comments.
“Staging abductions of children is a misguided and cruel idea,” said Debbie Nathan, a journalist who writes frequently on false accusations of child abuse. “To imply that children need to constitute their own, one-person police force or vigilante group encourages paranoia. That is cruel to children and parents — and hurtful to all of us.”
Jason Gots, a writer and host of “Think Again: A Big Think Podcast,” wondered if the whole thing was a hoax. If not — and Nathanson’s response to me seemed to suggest that it was very real — Gots said the segment “seems to be inviting parents to knowingly put their child(ren) in a terrifying and potentially traumatic situation in exchange for 5 minutes of fame and (maybe) a couple free karate lessons.”
“The fact that none of this seems to bother the producers of TODAY,” he added, “is disturbing.”
Julia Barton, a podcast editor at Panoply, agreed. “It doesn’t sound like a fun activity for me or my 12-year-old son. Actually having a hard time believing this query could be real.”
We will update this post if we hear back from Nathanson — or anyone at NBC.