Topic: Media

The Columnist and the Suicide Tape

Florida authorities have declined to file charges against former Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede for surrepticiously taping a phone call from Art Teale, a city commissioner who later committed suicide in the newspaper’s lobby. They cited the unusual circumstances that led to the taping. But those circumstances were not enough for the Herald, which fired the popular columnist for violating its policy prohibiting the taping of sources and interviewees without the subject’s consent.

DeFede’s firing caused a firestorm of protest, including a petition from the Herald staff. DeFede was friends with Teale, a frequent source who was embroiled in multiple charges of illegal conduct and impropriety. According to DeFede, the councilman was despondent over public allegations about his sex life, and the tone of his statements on the phone were so alarming that the columnist impulsively decided to record them. The tape records DeFede’s attempts to calm the councilman, as he offered to write a column in his defense. But the call ended with Teale still in despair. Minutes later, he shot himself.

Following the suicide, DeFede told editors he had been interviewing Teale earlier in the day and had recorded part of the conversation without his consent. “As Teele was becoming unglued, I turned on a tape recorder because I could tell that he was distraught and bouncing off the walls,” DeFede was quoted in the Herald as saying. “I made an illegal tape and the company decided to fire me.”

“In a tense situation I made a mistake,” DeFede said later in a statement. “The Miami Herald executives only learned about it because I came to them and admitted it. I told them I was willing to accept a suspension and apologize both to the newsroom and our readers. Unfortunately, the Herald decided on the death penalty instead.”

Was the Herald‘s action fair? Its editors have taken the position that there must be an absolute prohibition of the paper’s reporters taping conversations without a party’s consent, and not just because it is against the law in Florida, as it is in a dozen other states. Executive Editor Tom Fiedler has stated that the policy is necessary to protect the paper’s integrity, as well as to foster trust from news sources.

Several authorities on journalistic ethics have sided with DeFede, taking the position that a blanket prohibition against one-sided taping by reporters is unreasonable. Mark the Ethics Scoreboard down as siding with the Herald. True, it was an unusual situation not envisioned by the paper’s policy. But the reasons for the policy remain valid. Surrepticious taping, even when it is legal, is a form of deception, and the Herald‘s policy should be commended, as well as emulated elsewhere. Particularly with a group as traditionally prone to convenient ethical rationalizations as news reporters, a strict enforcement of the policy is necessary and wise.

Would a suspension or other punishment have been more equitable? That’s really a matter of judgement. The harsher the penalty, the louder the message. Sandy Baron, an attorney and executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York, makes the typical lawyer’s argument that Teele had no “expectation of privacy.” “A public official who knowingly talks to a reporter on the record has no reasonable expectation of privacy,” she said. “It may be different if a public official says he is off the record or has said he does not want to be taped. But, people who talk to reporters are not having a private conversation.” Okay, that might cover a situation in which DeFede, working from notes or memory, betrayed Teale by putting his anguished conversation with a “friend” in a newspaper column. I would argue that by DeFede’s own admission, Teale was calling him as a confidant rather than as a reporter, but in any event, while Teale arguably had no reasonable expectation of privacy, he clearly had no reason to suspect that his pal the reporter would break Florida law and secretly tape him. It’s still deception by DeFede. And Teale didn’t have to say “please don’t beak the law by taping me” to make it so.

Furthermore, one cannot escape the conclusion that Jim DeFede has not really explained the motivation for his actions. A supposed friend and subject of developing news called him and seemed unusually distraught. His response was to turn on the tape-recorder. Why? How was that supposed to help Art Teale? What was DeFede going to do with the tape? The sequence of events is consistent with a scenario in which DeFede made the surrepticious tape as material for a future column on Teale’s travails, possibly a supportive one. When his editors reviewed the recording, they did not detect the suicidal tone from Teele that DeFede claimed was the reason for his violation of the policy.

DeFede’s actions were deceptive and wrong, and perhaps worse, if he was intentionally using the words of a desperate friend to prepare for a column. We can also reject one of his dubious ethical arguments for lenient treatment, which is that he is being punished for being forthright and admitting his misconduct. No, he is being punished for the conduct itself. Admitting misconduct is a completely separate ethical obligation. He was right to do it, but mistaken if he thinks this should necessarily mitigate the seriousness of the misconduct he revealed.

This is a frequent lament from violators of codes, policies or laws who later decide to confess: “Where’s my reward?” There isn’t any mandatory award for doing the right thing, and a proper confession certainly doesn’t lessen the consequences one has already earned by doing the wrong thing in the first place. The Herald could have legitimately decided to be lenient with DeFede, but the fact that it didn’t doesn’t shift any responsibility for his fate away from their ex-columnist. He broke the law, violated the policy, and deceived a source, an interview subject, and a friend.

That’s enough for the Scoreboard. “I honestly believe that Art trusted me to call me one last time,” DeFede has said. Mark that word: trust. When Defede taped his friend without his consent, he violated that trust. He cannot impugn the Miami Herald for insisting upon a higher standard of integrity for its employees, and neither should anyone else.

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