If All Else Fails, Fall Back on Common Sense

This past week we’ve seen a few examples of reporters speaking to sources who were unaware that they were being recorded or even interviewed. As a result, one highly regarded columnist with a devoted following has been fired in a knee-jerk reaction by his editor and publisher and, in a far less important instance, another veteran reporter has been royally ticked off.

By far the most public of the two flaps came about last week after the Miami Herald’s Jim DeFede taped a conversation with former Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr., who had recently been indicted on charges of mail fraud and money laundering. Adding to Teele’s woes, the Miami New Times was about to publish uncorroborated allegations from a jailed transvestite prostitute who claimed to have had an affair with him.

DeFede and Teele had known each other for years, and had formed a friendship, which is why Teele called DeFede to vent about his problems. Soon after the conversation, Teele committed suicide — and that’s when DeFede’s problems began. Realizing that he had what he later termed Teele’s “suicide note” on tape, DeFede went to the paper’s brass and confessed that he had recorded Teele without telling him. Despite the fact that DeFede never published a word of the conversation — which had happened only hours before — the executives at the Herald fired him. As DeFede wrote in the Miami Times after he was sacked:

Often when I interview people, I ask if I can tape them for the purpose of making sure their quotes are accurate. But this wasn’t an interview.

I hit the record button on my tape recorder, instinctively, impulsively, not thinking about whether it was legal or not legal, whether it was right or wrong.

I wanted to preserve a conversation the same way 911 calls are recorded.

Within minutes of learning Art had committed suicide, I told my publisher and the newspaper’s attorney about the tape. The lawyer, Robert Beatty, told me there could be some legal issues and concerns, which he outlined, but he said, “The Herald will support you.”

“Absolutely, absolutely,” reiterated publisher Jesus Diaz….

Three hours later, without any additional conversation, and without hearing all the facts, I was called into the publisher’s office and fired. The column I wrote for Art was scratched from the paper. I left the Herald building at midnight.

The second instance of a reporter speaking with someone who was unaware that she was on the record came last week in a July 28 item in The Hill, when reporter Albert Eisele quoted veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas saying, “The day I say Dick Cheney is going to run for president, I’ll kill myself … All we need is one more liar.”

After the piece ran, Thomas wasn’t too happy, reportedly saying, “We were just talking — I was ranting — and he wrote about it. That isn’t right. We all say stuff we don’t want printed.”

On Wednesday, Eisele wrote, by way of a defense, “I made the mistake of assuming that, when I called her last week to ask about her recent Hearst Newspapers column on Cheney, I wasn’t calling to pass the time of day but actually intended to write a story about it.”

Eisele feigns innocence of intention, despite the fact that he didn’t tell Thomas that she was on the record, explaining that “‘off the record’ is a virtually meaningless term.” Thomas probably should have known better than to spout off to another reporter without some warning that she didn’t want her comments to make it into one of his columns. But Eisele, on the other hand, still bears the ultimate responsibility for telling her that he was writing a column — especially given that they’re friends of the sort who do occasionally call just to talk about the news.

To be sure, the outcome of the two cases is radically different — DeFede was fired, and a man killed himself, while Thomas may have been mildly inconvenienced and Eisele managed to squeeze the minor flap into a follow-up column. But both instances speak to a larger issue that may almost seem common sense to many reporters: not telling the other party that you’re using the conversation for an upcoming piece is a major breach of journalistic ethics.

Yet while DeFede should probably have been given some kind of suspension and Eisele some kind of dressing down, neither offense seems serious enough to warrant a firing. The Herald’s management overreacted, and in firing an accomplished columnist who made a spur-of-the-moment mistake, editor Tom Fiedler and publisher Jesus Diaz did nothing for the Herald’s already-dimishing reputation.

The icing on this sour-cream cake ? After firing DeFede for the illicit tape recording, the Herald’s editors had the gall to use “snippets” of the recorded conversation in stories that ran the next day.

Physician, heal thyself.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.