Fired Miami Columnist Wants Outsider To Review His Dismissal; ‘Herald’ Editor Balks

By: Joe Strupp

Nearly two weeks after firing Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede for taping a phone conversation with a public official who later killed himself in the Herald lobby, Editor Tom Fiedler says the incident should remain in the past and critics should let the paper move forward.

But DeFede, who has received a wave of support from journalism groups and fellow reporters demanding that the Herald rethink its decision, isn’t buying it. DeFede, 42, wants the Herald to allow an outside arbitrator or review panel to review the facts and make a decision. He told E&P he would agree to such a verdict by someone that both the Herald and he could agree upon.

“Why not let some outside person come in to this and objectively look at all of the facts,” DeFede told E&P, suggesting that a journalism dean or ombudsman from another paper be used. “I think if we could have someone come in with fresh eyes and look at everything, that would restore the paper’s credibility internally and with the community.”

Fiedler knocked down the proposal, saying it “isn’t realistic.” “I don’t believe that it is the kind of decision you designate to someone else,” the editor added. “This was a decision that ultimately came to me.”

Opposition has mounted for the past two weeks against the Herald’s decision to fire DeFede on July 27, just hours after former Miami City Commissioner Art Teele shot himself to death in the Herald lobby. Teele, who had been under indictment in a government corruption case, killed himself shortly after speaking by phone to DeFede, who admitted taping part of the conversation.

Herald executives have said they chose to dismiss DeFede because he taped the conversation without Teele’s permission, an apparent violation of Florida state law.

Since his firing, several journalists have come forth to support DeFede, including Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winner who penned a column Friday urging DeFede’s rehiring. “What DeFede did was certainly a violation of journalistic standards. He deserved punishment. But he didn’t deserve this punishment,” Pitts wrote.

In addition, the South Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has publicly opposed his firing, while an online petition criticizing the move drew more than 500 signatures from journalists and has been forwarded to the Herald. There have been others, including Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who point out the paper had the right to let DeFede go.

“I’m a bit surprised at the volume [of reaction] that this has achieved,” Fiedler said Tuesday. “I believe it is a healthy debate that we are having. It is an indication of the regard that Jim is held in.”

But the editor stressed that the decision had been made and he urged all involved to move on. “The time has come for us to move forward and wish Jim well and go our separate ways,” Fiedler said. “To get into an ongoing public debate about the details of who knew what when doesn’t help anyone.”

Fiedler said he did not regret his decision. But he admitted that he would have liked to have been in the Herald newsroom when the firing occurred. Because he was in California at a Knight Ridder corporate meeting on July 27, he had to fire DeFede over the phone. “There might have been other ways it might have been done,” he said. He hinted that waiting until he could return to Miami to fire DeFede would have been a better situation, saying he has realized “the importance of my being here when these decisions are done. I can’t turn back the clock. I would have preferred to have been here.”

DeFede said Fiedler did not speak to him prior to the firing and believed the editor should have waited to take in all of the facts. “All of the information he had received had been second-hand,” DeFede said. “After I was fired, I was put on the phone with him and he said he wished I hadn’t told him about the tape.”

The columnist also contends that Fiedler, who came under his own ethical scrutiny in 1987 when he helped break the story of then-presidential candidate Gary Hart’s affair with Donna Rice by staking out a Washington townhouse where the two had met, should have been more understanding about DeFede’s ethical lapses. “I would have just hoped that Tom, having lived through a time when people questioned his ethics, would have been more sympathetic and understanding before questioning my ethics.”

Fiedler dismissed such a comparison, saying his surveillance of Hart, which did not include any video or audiotaping, broke no laws. “We never violated the law doing any of that with Hart,” Fiedler said. “I cannot see that there was a parallel, legally or ethically.”

Fiedler said he had not decided on any kind of replacement for DeFede, whose column ran three times a week. He said the paper is providing legal defense for DeFede if he needs it as the investigation into Teele’s death continues, but offered no information on any possible severance or other compensation.

DeFede, who worked at the Herald for three years, declined to comment on his future employment or any offers he may have received from others. He also said he had gotten no indication that he would receive any compensation or severance from the Herald.

“At some point, I’ll have to start trying to figure that out,” DeFede said about his future. “I love working here, I love Miami. I guess I have to be realistic at some point.” But, he adds, “I still haven’t canceled my subscription to the Herald.”

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