Did Fired ‘Miami Herald’ Columnist Change His Story About Suicide Victim’s Last Phone Interview?

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By: Joe Strupp

Nearly two weeks after the tragic suicide of a former city commissioner in the lobby of The Miami Herald — and the subsequent firing of a Herald columnist who taped his last conversation with the man — a dispute remains over whether columnist Jim DeFede deserved to be fired, and exactly what occurred during that final phone call.

More than 500 reporters and editors around the country, including nearly 200 current or former Herald employees, have signed a petition protesting the firing.

An article in the St. Petersburg Times on Sunday quoted Herald columnist, and famed novelist, Carl Hiassen: “To me, it has the smell of corporate panic about it. I think there’s a lot of very serious resentment at the newspaper, and I think the scars are going to take a long time to heal.”

DeFede contends that he began taping part of the phone call with Art Teele on the afternoon of July 27 because he felt that Teele was contemplating suicide and worried about his stability. Within hours of the conversation, Teele shot himself to death.

In a broadcast Sunday on CNN, DeFede claimed he only skirted the Florida law the bars secretive taping out of concern for Teele’s well-being.

“The thing that scared me most about Art was that he had given up. This was a man who was a legendary fighter in this town, and he had all but given up,” DeFede told CNN.

DeFede’s attorney, Dan Gelber, made similar statements to The New York Times, which published a story Monday (Paper’s Top Editor Claims Columnist Is Changing Story). In it, Gelber said a transcript of the phone conversation recording indicates his client is telling the truth. “It’s pretty credible when Jim says that Art was unglued, and an hour later he kills himself,” Gelber told the paper. “We’re urging The Herald to release the tape.”

But Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler says DeFede has changed his story since the day of the suicide. In e-mail conversations with the Times, Fiedler contends that DeFede’s account has differed in recent days.

Fiedler told the Times that DeFede had first told him that Teele “said nothing to Jim that would have led him to believe that Art was on the precipice of suicide. … Yet in subsequent days, Jim has started saying that he sensed he was hearing the cry of a friend about to do something drastic,” Fiedler told the paper. “I’ve listened to the tape that Jim made and I, too, wouldn’t have sensed an ominous outcome.”

He added that DeFede’s alleged changing story “leaves me where I was a week ago in concluding that Jim couldn’t ethically or legally justify turning on his tape recorder because there was no compelling journalistic purpose in doing so.”

The St. Petersburg Times quoted Walker Lundy, a retired editor of papers in Philadelphia, St. Paul, Tallahassee and elsewhere: “A firing is about the worst thing an employer can do. If you get fired for taping a phone call, then you’d have to be guillotined for making up sources. I think the paper is taking quite a hit on this. It’s hard to imagine they’d be taking a hit on something less severe.”

Herald columnist Leonard Pitts called DeFede’s firing a “travesty.” San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll said recording Teele was “unethical, but these were extraordinary circumstances.”

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