What’s wrong with secret taping?

August 22, 2005

The ruckus over the Jim DeFede affair has focused not on what Mr. DeFede did but on what was done to him.

DeFede was a strong and controversial columnist for The Miami Herald. He was summarily fired last month after disclosing to his bosses that he had recorded part of a telephone conversation he’d had that day with Arthur
Teele, a beleaguered civic luminary, without telling Teele.

Soon after that conversation, Teele shot himself to death in the Herald’s lobby. Hours later, Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler, citing his belief that undisclosed taping was illegal, contrary to newspaper policy and ethically wrong, dismissed Mr. DeFede.
I should note that I’ve known Fiedler for 25 years and DeFede for
over a decade and consider both of them friends. Because I’ve had private conversations with them about this matter, I have avoided writing about it.

But the underlying issue of secret taping keeps bubbling up without getting really addressed. I believe that whether it’s done in the Oval Office or the newsroom, it’s a practice that raises genuine privacy concerns that are too important to be ignored, even if you believe, as I do, that DeFede ought to be back writing for the Herald.

The question is, what’s wrong with recording a conversation without
telling the other person — and if doing so is bad, how bad?

Let me first separate the disclosure question from the matter of whether the conversation was off the record. “Off the record” sets limits on whether information can be published, not whether it can be memorialized. Reporters frequently take notes of off-the-record talks, and if the information is detailed and complex might well seek to record it for later reference.

So I don’t think the off-the-record character of the Teele
conversation is relevant to whether taping it secretly was right.
What is relevant is that people quite naturally express themselves
differently when they know they are being recorded. To me, that’s where the ethical problem lies. I think we all speak with greater care and restraint when we know we’re creating a permanent, verbatim record.

I’m not sure why; logically, we ought to be just as careful with a
reporter who’s scribbling furiously in a notebook. Perhaps it’s because when we’re being taped, we’re not just having aconversation — we adjust what we say in response to cues from the interviewer so we can be confident that we’re understood. Recorded, we’re not just talking, we’re creating an archive, fragments of which will be read by complete strangers. The challenge to clarity is greater; we’re addressing an anonymous audience with words that we’ll be stuck with.

Because we have a right to shape our words accordingly and anticipate this archival element, we have a right to know we’re being recorded. It’s a dimension of privacy, which involves the right to control the uses to which our words and images are put. Being recorded clandestinely is like being filmed secretly while you’re being interviewed.

So undisclosed taping is an ethical problem, an abuse of power. How big a problem? That depends. Is the recording going to be used, or is it a backup to ensure accuracy? Did the source seek out the reporter — and thus have control over the timing and subject of the interview — or was it a reporter’s ambush calculated to provoke rash comments? Is the source a known liar with a record of repudiating accurate quotes? Is the information so vital and explosive that it wouldn’t be believed otherwise — and wouldn’t be obtained at all if the source knew about the recording?

In other words, secret taping is a troubling action that is sometimes
contemptible and sometimes praiseworthy, but which needs to be viewed in the totality of circumstances.

The DeFede taping is hard to evaluate clearly through the haze of the
violent death that enveloped it. My own sense is that he taped for the same reason photographers at a bombing site reflexively take scores of pictures they know they’ll never use: Journalists bear witness, that’s their job. (It’s also why deeply disturbed sources call them up.)

There’s no evidence that DeFede intended to quote from the tape.
Besides, I’m not sure Teele’s privacy rights, once he shot himself, will be sturdy enough to withstand the inquiries that inevitably follow public
figure suicides, when even intimate diaries are routinely pillaged for clues.

So a reporter stepped over the line. He may have captured Teele speaking recklessly, and did him wrong. But wrongs, when forgivable, should be forgiven.

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