An Odd Lesson In Ethics

Lawyers have a saying that warns, “Hard cases make bad law.” The Miami Herald may need to adjust that for journalism after a bizarre set of circumstances led to the firing of star columnist Jim DeFede for supposedly violating the law and the ethical standards of the Herald. How did DeFede get axed? It all started with a call from his friend, who happened to commit suicide in the Herald’s lobby shortly afterwards:

It seemed like a throwback to “Miami Vice”: an eccentric politician, recently accused of money laundering and soliciting male prostitutes, fatally shoots himself in the lobby of The Miami Herald after an anguished phone conversation with a star columnist.
But the storyline grew even stranger on Thursday as employees of the newspaper reacted with outrage after learning that the columnist, Jim DeFede, had been fired for secretly taping his conversation with the distraught man – a possible violation of state law.

Note that the taping has not been determined to be illegal, at least not yet. Florida case law allows for a business exemption for taping conversations. Why didn’t DeFede simply tell Arthur Teele, a former city councilman whose career and life had collapsed in a series of revelations about corruption, drugs, and illicit sex, that he had started taping the conversation? DeFede worried about Teele’s state of mind, he says:

“The idea that he might be thinking suicide was in my mind,” Mr. DeFede, 42, said Thursday. “I wanted to get what he was saying down – to preserve what he was saying – so I pushed the record button.” …
“I realized Art was headed in a direction that scared me,” Mr. DeFede said, and so in the heat of the moment he turned on his tape recorder. Mr. Teele seemed more stable when they hung up after 25 minutes, Mr. DeFede said, and even calmer when he called a second time from The Herald’s lobby. Mr. DeFede was working at home, and Mr. Teele said he was leaving a packet for him at the security desk.
The Herald called minutes later to inform him of the shooting.

After hearing of the suicide by a man DeFede considered a friend, he informed the paper that he had taped the conversation. DeFede claims that the editor and the corporate counsel both assured him that the Herald would stand by him. DeFede, with that assurance, started transcribing the conversation so that he could write about the tragedy and the despair that had driven Teele to kill himself. When he brought the tape to the paper, however, they fired him.
Why? The Herald claims that taping Teele without his knowledge violated the paper’s sense of ethics. They also dispute the story DeFede tells, saying that editor Jesus Diaz and counsel Robert Beatty had problems with DeFede’s actions from the first moment they heard about the taping. Tom Fiedler, the paper’s executive editor, backs this version of events and the firing of DeFede:

“We expect our people to act in a highly ethical way, and Jim admitted that he had crossed that line, and I really didn’t see an alternative,” Mr. Fiedler said. “If we have that expectation and someone fails to abide by it, knowingly fails to abide by it, regardless of that person’s talent it means they can no longer be a part of The Herald.”

That seems like a pretty tough position to take with a longtime employee dealing with the suicide of a friend. The Herald certainly must have written this policy out for a violation to be considered grounds for termination, and perhaps we will see some evidence of that. Under these circumstances, though, termination couldn’t have been the only option available to the Herald.
In fact, in a stunning and hypocritical twist, the Herald then went on to undermine their own ethical stance — by using DeFede’s notes for a story on the suicide!

Even after knowing Mr. DeFede had taped Mr. Teele without his consent, the newspaper published portions of the conversation as described by Mr. DeFede.

It seems that the Herald has a flexible concern for ethics. They fire DeFede for getting the conversation on tape, and then use the work product of the tapes to publish their paper. Either DeFede shouldn’t have taped the conversation and it shouldn’t get published, or he should have taped it and it should get published. The Herald wants us to believe that they enforce a high ethical standard, when in fact they’re publishing information that they themselves assert was collected unethically and they never should have possessed.
Jesus Diaz, Tom Fiedler, and Robert Beatty have a very strange sense of ethics indeed. Or maybe not; it sounds like the ethics of “whatever we can get away with”, one that on further reflection doesn’t seem all that unique in the Exempt Media.
See Mark in Mexico for further thoughts.