Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner: Hypocrisy Surfaces at 'Miami Herald'

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ethics Corner: Hypocrisy Surfaces at 'Miami Herald'

Article excerpt

A life-sized mannequin, a cap atop its head, sat last month in The Miami Herald newsroom at the former desk of Jim DeFede -- a symbolic attempt to induce the paper to re-hire its metro columnist. Herald executives said they fired DeFede because he violated Florida state law and behaved unethically by secretly taping an off-the-record telephone conversation with a source and then trying to use it in his column. But then the paper turned around and used the notes that DeFede transcribed from that exchange when composing its front-page story about the suicide of a former city official in the newspaper's lobby.

This ethical saga began at around 4 p.m. on July 27 when Arthur Teele Jr., a former Miami city and county commissioner, telephoned DeFede at his home. Teele, who was facing 26 federal charges of fraud and money laundering, was distraught. Miami New Times, an alternative weekly newspaper, had just published a story that accused Teele of, among other things, having trysts with a transvestite prostitute.

"Who did I piss off in this town?" Teele asked DeFede, a friend of 13 years, adding that the transvestite allegations would hurt him with "the ministers and the church." Growing worried, DeFede pressed the "record" button on his tape machine to record his friend's pain.

At one point, DeFede asked Teele if he wanted to go public about the way the state attorney's office had used the media to smear him. Teele didn't want to.

At 5:52 p.m., Teele telephoned DeFede from the Herald's lobby to tell the reporter he left him some documents for a potentially explosive story the two men had discussed. It turned out to be a farewell present. Several minutes later, Teele shot himself in the head with a pistol.

At about 6:30 p.m., DeFede made a decision that cost him his job. He told Jesus Diaz Jr., the Herald's publisher, and Robert Beatty, the paper's legal counsel, during a telephone conference call that he had taped a conversation with Teele. They asked him to bring the tape to the paper.

Shortly after 8 p.m., DeFede met Managing Editor Judy Miller in the newsroom. Miller had always watched his back, supporting his hard-edged muckraking. He gave her the tape and told her, "Beatty and Diaz are handling it." Miller then told DeFede to write a story about his conversation with Teele. She even promised him space on Page One. …

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