My Bad Ethics


Have you heard the one about the Miami Herald columnist fired because he tape-recorded a conversation with a politician without first asking permission? Even though he didn't publish anything from it, and in fact pre-emptively revealed the existence of the tape to his bosses and apologized for it?

The surrounding details are way more lurid and weird than all that—involving an alt weekly outing and a newspaper-lobby suicide, for starters. But the root journalism-ethics issue behind Jim DeFede's zero-tolerance dismissal was, in the words of Herald Editor Tom Fiedler, that

when we don't tell [sources] that their words are being recorded, they can know that they aren't.

It's all about trust.

Huh? I thought it was all about giving readers the best and most accurate information possible, especially from tax-squandering politicians. Who ever thinks to himself, while talking on the phone with a reporter, "gee, I hope to God he's not taping this, because then my trust would be violated"? I mean, I suppose it comes up once a year or something….

Florida (and California) law requires people to ask permission before taping, though in Florida at least that doesn't cover a person "who does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy." I am almost positive I've violated that law a time or two. It happens! Especially when you're climbing up the phone-tree at some dullard bureaucrat's office, and you don't feel like asking every sub-secretary on the public teat permission to tape them inventing reasons why Sen. Bilbo doesn't have time to talk about ag subsidies this year. If I have violated your sacred trust, oh deputy communications director, I guess you'll just have to sue me for emotional distress.

Newspapers are of course free to cope with their own trumped-up ethical scandals however they want. But I sure have more respect for editors who fire their employees for carelessly or deliberately getting stuff wrong, not for failing to read possibly inapplicable journalistic Miranda rights in the service of trying to get stuff right. And I'll bet money that the surviving family members of poor Arthur Teele are glad that there exists a tape recording of his despondent ravings hours before he pulled the trigger.