Twenty years ago when Jim DeFede was leading student demonstrations and walkouts at CSU, the boundaries of ethics appeared well defined. As of one week ago, however, those lines seem much hazier for the one time CSU student body president, Collegian campus editor and popular former columnist of The Miami Herald.
DeFede, 42, was fired from his position July 27 for taping a phone conversation without notifying the second party, which is illegal in Florida. The man whom DeFede was speaking with, Art Teele, showed up in the lobby of The Miami Herald an hour after the conversation ended, handed a package intended for DeFede to the security officer and said, "Tell Jim DeFede to tell my wife that I love her." Teele, whom DeFede considered a friend and confidant, then immediately proceeded to remove a gun and shoot himself in the head while in the middle of the newspaper's main lobby.
DeFede would be subsequently fired in a meeting with the paper's publisher and lawyer.
"They fired me while Art Teele's blood was still being cleaned from the lobby floor," said DeFede.
What has unfolded in the aftermath of this tragedy is another controversy over the dilemma of ethics in journalism and where personal relationships fit in. CSU journalism professor Jim Landers acknowledged the discrepancies reporters face when deciding whether or not to record a conversation.
"The situation presents both an ethical as well as legal problem," said Landers. "The basic rule however would be if you record a conversation then you get permission."
Teele, a former county commissioner facing corruption charges, had called DeFede the afternoon of the 27th at 4:45 p.m. Teele was apparently upset over information released by the prosecutors that said he had had a relationship with a transvestite prostitute. Teele expressed his sentiments to DeFede that he was the only journalist with whom he trusted to tell his story correctly.
"I had known Art for 14 years, he was the first politician I had interviewed in Miami and was a source and subject for many of my stories – we were friends," said DeFede. When DeFede received the call from Teele that afternoon, it had been four months since the two had last spoken.
"When Art called me he sounded upset, distraught and emotional over the allegations," said DeFede. "As we talked I began to realize that he was in a crisis mode."
It was approximately five minutes into the conversation that DeFede decided to turn on the recorder he kept near his phone.
"I was taping it like it was a 911 call, an emergency," said DeFede. "It was not like an interview with a journalist, I was not trying to get quotes."
Over the course of the conversation DeFede was able to change the direction of talk away from Teele's controversy. DeFede felt confident when the conversation ended that Teele's mood had lightened and that he was feeling better.
At 5:52, according to DeFede, he received another phone call from Teele. Teele stated that he was in the Herald's lobby and that he was dropping off some information on another story that DeFede was working on and that he would see him the next day. Ten minutes later DeFede would receive the fateful information from his newsroom of the tragedy that had occurred.
"I started to shake, my body was trembling, I couldn't believe this had happened," said DeFede. "I realized that this tape I had made was Art's suicide note."
DeFede was subsequently called into the newsroom where he was instructed to write a column regarding the conversation he had with Teele, which would run on the paper's front page the following day. According to DeFede the paper also took possession of the tape and instructed him not to speak to police on the matter.
At approximately 10:10 p.m., DeFede was called into the publisher's office where he learned of his firing. Initially The Miami Herald informed him he was being fired for criminal misconduct, but later stated it was for a lapse of ethical judgment according to DeFede. As of the time of The Collegian's deadline, calls to the Miami Herald's executive editor had not been returned.
Provided the background of the situation, Landers felt that the incident fell within a gray area.
"Given that background, I would not have fired him," said Landers.
DeFede had fond memories of CSU, where his journalistic roots began. He attended the school from 1981 through 1986 while studying for a political science degree. He was the ASCSU president for the 1984-85 school year and served as The Collegian's campus editor in 1985-86.
DeFede moved onto the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., where he worked from 1986 through 1991. After 11 years of employment at the Miami New Times, DeFede was hired as a columnist at the Miami Herald in 2002 where he remained until last month.
Asked whether he had any plans to sue his former employer, DeFede emphatically stated, "no," and that he would love to have his job back.
"I believe this was one of The Miami Herald's darkest moments, as well as mine," said DeFede. "They only made this decision because they thought it was the right one at the time."