It is sometimes argued that taping a conversation for news purposes is simply a reportorial extension of jotting notes on a pad or punching them into the computer terminals that have replaced typewriters. From this one being interviewed gave consent.
Not necessarily so. CBS producer George Crile is currently under suspension from his job for taping conversations with several former government officials--including Robert McNamara, George Ball and Arthur Goldberg-- without their knowledge. That, said CBS, was a violation of network policy. The conversations were recorded in connection with Mr. Crile's controversial documentary "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," which, since its telecast in early 1982, has led to a $120 million libel suit against CBS by retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland. In untaped telephone conversations, Mr. McNamara and Mr. Goldberg strongly criticized CBS. "Dirty business," said Mr. Goldberg.
Most major news organizations have policies prohibiting surreptitious use of tape recorders, some written, some not. A written Post policy accords with permissive D.C. law, while an unwritten practice that reflects public sensitivity to the devices has precedence over what may be legal. Prior consent must be obtained before recording a telephone call, says deputy managing editor Richard Harwood, who once destroyed a reporter's tape for failure to do so. Yet, even though two reporters said they interpret newsroom rules to include recording an interviewee's approval, it is not clear that all reporters understand their obligation.
The Baltimore Sun committed some parallel instructions to writing this week. Assistant managing editor James Keat attributed the action to CBS's suspension of Mr. Crile.
At The Wall Street Journal, according to executive editor Frederick Taylor, a written restrictive policy has been in effect for seven or eight years. Any exception to obtaining approval of "the other side" must be sanctioned by the managing editor or above. Mr. Taylor remembers none being granted. Last year he "argued against our policy" in a piece written for The American Society of Newspaper Editors bulletin, although he has not worked to change it, he said.
The Los Angeles Times instituted written guidelines two years ago. Washington bureau chief Jack Nelson once taped a telephone call--without prior consent--from former president Jimmy Carter. Alerted that Mr. Carter would call about a story the paper had run or was planning, Mr. Nelson arranged to record the conversation. He wanted to ensure that the president's remarks were unabridged. Today, Mr. Nelson observes, the action would be contrary to Times policy.
Taping without consent is permissable under federal and D.C. law; also in New York where Mr. Crile made his calls. Some of the laws are glaringly ambiguous. There are, as media writer Jonathan Friendly noted in The New York Times last week, "philosophical questions which journalists and lawyers haven't resolved." The Times doesn't have a written policy against secret taping, but says it is prohibited. Executive editor Abe Rosenthal has been quoted saying, "It's not honest, it's not fair."
No one I talked with defended surreptitious taping. One editor fiercely opposed to the idea admitted he couldn't prove it was not done in his newsroom. Then, even where indulgence is illegal, there are advocates. A comprehensive survey last year by Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw reported some journalists rationalizing its special application in interviewing known criminals or others suspected of wrongdoing. Another rationalization was that the issue is little more than a choice of mechanism in pursuit of information--whether one writes it, types it or tapes it.
Even if the law is skirted, the ethical question must be confronted. People don't like being taped. The realization that it may occur without approval is slightly chilling. The press found it squalid business when it was done clandestinely in the White House. There ought to be a reminder in that.