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.

Advertisement

NEXT: Liberty Immortal

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Not taking sides here, but killing yourself in the lobby of the newspaper you’re pissed at is pretty damn cool.

  2. And gotta give him points for not taking anyone else out with him. That’s so 90’s.

  3. If you’re talking to a reporter, you have no expectation of privacy.

    I wouldn’t do what the guy in question did, but I don’t see it as a firing offense.

    While we’re on the subject, what the hell ever happened to uncover investigative journalism?

  4. Yeah, but will Filter write a song about him?

  5. I would hope any conversation I had with a reporter was taped. Better to have that than some dubious notes, in case of mistakes.

    Oh, nice reference to Andrew Tibbs.

  6. If you’re going to talk to a reporter you might think about taping the conversation yourself.

  7. You know, I have to say that I am pretty impressed by the Miami Herald here. These days, journalism and the MSM are so loathed and mistrusted (Douglas Fletcher’s comment above is a good example of this) that it is refreshing that there is a newspaper willing to fire people based on what may be realtively minor grounds. However, they have a stated policy of standards and they will stick to those standards (its consistency is also refreshing in these days). I’m not sure why a private organization’s ethics and transparency bothers Matt Welch so much that he decided to write several paragraphs about it.

  8. So if a reporter speeds to keep up with someone he’s following for a story, does he get fired for that, too?

    As a former reporter and later editor, I have to say this is one of the stupidest things to come out of the newspaper world in a long time. (And the newspaper industry is so full of stupidity that that is quite an achievement.) I would WANT my reporters to be smart enough to get evidence of a breaking story that has the possibility of being important. I would want my reporters exercising judgment instead of worrying that they might be fired for the equivalent of jaywalking.

  9. Howz’a’bout not hitting the “record” button until one asks permission? I don’t think I would have fired the guy, but Matt’s explanation of how it could happen inadverdantly strikes me as implausible. When I think of it, however, given what can be done with digitized sound these days, I don’t think I’d do anything but interviews that are broadcast live, if I ever became a public person.

  10. Will — It ain’t inadvertent. I have deliberately pressed “record” without obtaining permission on a handful of occasions, and maybe one or two broke the law.

  11. Swede — John McCain once introduced a bill removing Congresspeople’s perks at Reagan National Airport (basically, their ability to go to the front of the line when in a hurry). He acknowledged at the time that the bill served zero practical impact, and would in fact make things more difficult for no sound practical reason. But, he argued, it will be a great symbol! Because people don’t trust the government, and they should, so this is how we begin the process!

    He lost that one, as he should have, but he won some others.

  12. No, I think the Filter song is about a homicide.

  13. Matt – how about some credit for clueing you in to this story, bub?

  14. In what way did you clue anyone in to this story? Until today’s big Detroit Free Press/Detroit News deal, the DeFede saga has dominated media news.

  15. Why I never mack around with tapes at all in news reporting. Notes usually take care of things.

  16. Dave-

    Filter’s song “Hey Man, Nice Shot” is a reference to the live televised suicide of Budd Dwyer.

  17. I too thought the Herald was gutless and jumping to do SOMETHING to deflect blame and a possible lawsuit. But I thought I was just having one of my fits.

    Tom Fiedler is full of shit and he knows it. What if DeFede took really good, accurate notes of the conversation? Off-the-record does not mean I-will-keep-no-record-mental-manual-or-electro-magnetic of this conversation. Otherwise, why have the conversation?

    True story: About 20 years ago I interviewed a school board candidate via phone who asked me if I was recording him, I said no and I was not and did not. (You learn that some people do get touchy about being actually tape recorded, makes them stiff and guarded, so it is not always worth it.) I was taking notes in service of an article he knew I was writing, however. He called me back after I left a message asked to speak to him. I was INTERVIEWING him after all about an election. When the piece ran with quotes from him, he got all mad and called up to say I misled and duped him, called the publisher, etc. Typical stuff.

    I guess Fiedler woulda fired me.

  18. Yeah, that was their cover story. I wonder why they were so afraid.

  19. Surely, as a libertarian Mr. Welch should have no problem with any employer criticizing or dismissing any employee for any reason whatsoever, presuming such action does not violate some pre-existing contractual relationship. (In fairness, he admits as much.)

    The ethical issue, insofar as there is one, is more complicated. At the risk of incurring comments regarding constitutional concerns over reasonable expectations of privacy, and admitting that a politician should have enough sense to be leery of reporters under all circumstances, if the sole purpose of recording a conversation is to ensure accuracy, then there is no good reason not to alert the interviewee of the fact the conversation is being recorded. Far more likely, the reporter presupposed (not unreasonably) that even a public person might be less careful in his remarks if he believed he was not being recorded. Simply put, concealment is a form of deceit and deceit is certainly an ethical issue.

    If “giving readers the best and most accurate information possible” is the highest goal of the working journalist, then I suggest, for example, that journalists stop cutting and pasting quote fragments in their reports without any indication to readers that the practice is journalistic standard operating procedure.

  20. Good to see a little competition in the Miami newspaper market. Looks like the rival reporters got competitive about reporting the story and some big public money corruption got exposed in the process. Sad that the grandstanding suicide and the idiotic termination of employ distract us from the real triumph of capitalism here.

    I am glad the owners of the Herald don’t own the “alt weekly” too, or there probably would have been 2 idiotic firings instead of just one.

    I remember when the Chiquita thing went down with the Cincy Enq. Disgusting. It was one of the factors that drove me away from Cincinnati back in 1998.

  21. In what way did you clue anyone in to this story? Until today’s big Detroit Free Press/Detroit News deal, the DeFede saga has dominated media news.

    Comment by: Hopple at August 3, 2005 10:14 PM

    in addition to the fact that your comment is partially incoherent:

    https://www.reason.com/hitandrun/2005/08/posners_general.shtml

    …speaking of journalistic thumbsuckery, what did you think of the miami herald’s firing of Jim LaFede (I think that’s his name) for taping a phone call from an elected official without his permission or knowledge, and then said official offed himself in the lobby of the newspaper. reports indicate the reporter came clean, and if he hadn’t noone would have known, but instead of the expected slap on the wrist, he got it with both barrels (pardon the pureed metaphors)

    Comment by: biologist at August 2, 2005 01:32 AM

    biologist — …And I haven’t followed the LaFede thing at all….

    Comment by: Matt Welch at August 2, 2005 12:16 PM

    (ellipses mine)

    admittedly, I misremembered the guy’s name, but I took Matt’s comment to mean that he wasn’t aware of the story previously

    so please get bent, Hopple

  22. ‘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”?’

    Nobody, and it would be preferable if we could keep it that way.

  23. “Surely, as a libertarian Mr. Welch should have no problem with any employer criticizing or dismissing any employee for any reason whatsoever, presuming such action does not violate some pre-existing contractual relationship.”

    Based on this admission, I would probably refuse to speak to you, Mr. Welch, if you were to call my office. I would suggest that you ask your editor to send someone more ethical.

    If that someone asked to record our conversation, I would say “Sure, no problem.”

  24. The firing may have been a pretext. Jim Defede is a guy who writes opinion pieces on the front page of the local section with that have a strong leftist and statist bias. He alternates with a guy named Leonard Pitts, who has the same political leanings. The Herald may have been wanting to get more balance in their “News Analysis” writers and saw this as an opportunity to axe Defede. Jim Defede is also an incredibly big guy. Think 5 or 6 of the Dove girls. Also bears a strong resemblence to an unkept Peter Griffin. Fat guys always get the shaft.

  25. That quote should have been, “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.”

    If you ever find yourself having a conversation with me, you can rest assured that I will not be recording it. If I wish to record it, I will ask your permission.

  26. Er… What’s “incoherent” about these sentences, either individually or together?

    “In what way did you clue anyone in to this story? Until today’s big Detroit Free Press/Detroit News deal, the DeFede saga has dominated media news.”

    At any rate, incoherence is an odd charge to be lobbed by someone whose own prose is cluttered with run-on sentences, clumsy capitalization and intrusive parentheticals.

  27. Those who think that the guy’s taping is unethical haven’t addressed the issue of WHY it’s unethical. Yes, it violates Florida law, but is that the same as “unethical”? In 39 U.S. states (and DC), it’s perfectly legal. Just why do you have ethical problems with someone mechanically recording something that a person is freeely speakng to you?

  28. Ethically I’m only opposed insofar as the fact that the law affords protection to some class of people (accredited journalists) that should in reality be afforded to all.

  29. Actually, in most states (includng mine), anybody can take a conversation that he is having with anyone else. How is that a special protection for journalists?

  30. Sorry. That should be “tape” instead of “take.” I suppose there IS a reason for the “preview” button, huh? 🙂

  31. biologist — I was certainly *aware* of the story, but just hadn’t actively looked into it. Your prodding, alas, had nothing to do with why I did, and so no credit was given.

    D.A. — Surely, as a libertarian, Mr. Welch should have no problem with any employer criticizing or dismissing any employee for any reason whatsoever. Stop calling me Shirley! I have no problem with the *right* of an employer to do this, but this does nothing to preclude me from criticizing assholish behavior. If my hometown newspaper (the L.A. Times) fired my favorite columnist (imagine I have one) for an absolutely bone-stupid reason, am I supposed to muffle my own criticism just because I believe it’s well within their rights to do so? No.

    Further, you say “if the sole purpose of recording a conversation is to ensure accuracy, then there is no good reason not to alert the interviewee of the fact the conversation is being recorded.” There is a chasm between “no good reason not to,” and “grounds to fire if you don’t.”

    Baylen — In reality, journalists get very very little extra protection with this; as far as I’m aware, the expectation of privacy depends more on the person being interviewed (e.g., a politician or celebrity).

    joe — If I ever interview, I’ll ask permission before taping, which in any case I do 99% of the time, out of common courtesy. It just happens that I don’t always extend that common courtesy to people being paid by my tax dollars.

    A.M. Mora — I, for one, have found that notes are WAY less accurate than tape recording….

  32. There is no necessary connection between an act being unethical and it being illegal. Perhaps we have reached the point where we should presume at all times that our actions and words are being recorded. There is at least increasing evidence that such an attitude would be prudent. But we don’t. One important reason we don’t is because of a fairly well established custom of requesting permission before recording a conversation, whether over the telephone or in person. Thus, the intentional failure to seek such permission is the breach of an implied covenant, if only as a matter of custom, convention and civility. I suppose reasonable people can disagree whether that constitutes an ethical breach, but I am confident that most people would conclude that it is.

  33. I’m sorry, but to simply say, “Most people would agree with me,” doesn’t exactly constitute a strong argument that something is unethical, in my book. Besides, if you were to ask the same cross-section of people about a whole lot of things that are protected by freedom of speech.

    Also, Matt is right when he says that notes are far less accurate than tape recording. When I was a reporter, my notes could always capture the gist of what was said, but it’s not possible to recall everything perfectly. This became painfully obvious to me when I covered city councils which recorded their entire meetings. I would have to listen to the recordings to get the quotes right — and I found that the quotes in my notes would differ from reality far more than I would be willing or able to accept without the proof.

  34. Mr. Welsh (aka Shirley) — If the purpose of your original post was merely to “criticizing assholish behavior,” you are quite correct that you are as entitled to voice your opinion as the next person. However, if only by implication, you support that opinion by dismissing or at least discounting the possibility that Mr. DeFede’s dismissal might be justified because he had, in fact, acted unethically. I have no window into the soul of his editor (assuming, arguendo, that editors have souls), but I do think a good case can be made for the contention that the secret tape recording of conversations is unethical. Whether it constitutes a firing offense is, again, a matter about which reasonable people could disagree as, indeed, we apparently do.

  35. Mr. McElroy — I haven’t read your book, but what most people think is at least good evidence of what prevailing moral standards happen to be. (Admittedly, most people can nonetheless be wrong.) This isn’t about what is more convenient for the reporter or more likely to result in accurate reportage. I never suggested I had any objection to recording conversations, but only that doing so furtively was ethically problematic.

  36. D.A. — My position, which I certainly don’t expect everyone to share (but which I lament is NOT shared by more people who work in my field), is that a journalist tape-recording a phone conversation with a public official *without* securing said official’s permission is NOT unethical. What would be unethical, is *sharing* that tape, willingly or unwillingly (for instance, after being compelled by a judge), *if* the interviewee had some good reason to believe it was *not* being taped (i.e., the ground rules of the conversation were “this is totally between you & me”).

  37. Mr. Welch — I now understand and apparently misunderstood your position previously. If by “sharing in any way” you mean to include using it in a published article, story, report, etc., I am more inclined to agree.

  38. Matt,

    Thanks as always for your follow-up comments. You’re right that reporters generally receive only a little more protection than the commoner, but (as one in favor of equal protection) I’m not sure even that small gap in rights is a good thing. But even the way the Florida law is written is seemingly meant to protect reporters. According to an Editor & Publisher account of the DeFede/Teele saga:

    “The Florida statute includes a provision that says, ‘consent is not required for the taping’ of someone ‘who does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.'”

    Who could that be referring to? The only group of professionals I can think of off the top of my head who are protected by this is credentialed journalists. And at least some legal folks in Florida seem to agree (again from the same E&P article):

    “Although Florida law prohibits the taping of anyone’s phone conversation without their consent, legal experts differ over how that might apply to a reporter.”

    I’m all for restoring everyone’s constitutional rights, but giving preferential treatment to one segment of society — especially such an exclusive group — just ends up further empowering the powerful at the expense of others.

  39. Baylen — I agree with you in vague principle, but I think there are limitations to this line of thought. As Tim Cavanaugh pointed out much better than I’m about to, in some previous thread about journalist privilege, there are countless number of legal tweaks that “favor” (or “account for”) all kinds of different professions, from lawyers to firefighters to cops. The Republic survives.

  40. I agree with your assessment, but I also think it’s important that we as libertarians make the case against special treatment — even if said treatment is not really all that special.

    The Republic is dead! Long live the Republic!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.