Knight Riddance

A great columnist falls to corporate cowardice. Was the CEO secretly holding the ax?

In all the head-scratching and fist-shaking since columnist Jim DeFede was hastily fired by the Miami Herald, another of the newspaper's great writers, Carl Hiaasen, posed the most intriguing question:

Who'd DeFede piss off?

The query appeared in Hiaasen's Herald column after DeFede was terminated for secretly tape-recording Arthur Teele before the embattled politico shot himself to death in the newspaper's lobby. Most of the world agrees that the firing reeked. What DeFede did was a definite no-no and possibly violated Florida law, but if he showed a weakness, it was only for the truth. The stellar columnist didn't deserve what he termed the "death penalty," especially after one of the most violent and traumatic days in Herald history.

DeFede walks, Ridder talks in a photo from better days, here with Janet Reno.
Steve Satterwhite
DeFede walks, Ridder talks in a photo from better days, here with Janet Reno.

Which leads us back to Hiaasen's question -- and my attempt to answer it.

Pissing people off was part of DeFede's job, and he has done it as well as anyone in South Florida for the past 15 years. The Cuban exile community is up there at the top of the list. Plenty of Miami-Dade government officials too. A few advertisers here and there, to be sure.

But they didn't cause DeFede's demise. The preponderance of evidence points to another answer: Tony Ridder, chairman and CEO of the Herald's parent company. A couple of Herald veterans say the leading theory in the newsroom is that Ridder was behind the firing and that Executive Editor Tom Fiedler -- who has been humiliated both inside and outside his newsroom in the aftermath of the firing -- simply carried out the ghastly order.

It's only a theory, but it's a damned compelling one, especially when you look at DeFede's long and contentious relationship-in-print with Ridder, a man known more for his passion for bottom lines than headlines. It's a fascinating subtext to the columnist's three-year employment at the Herald but begins with another newspaper, the Miami New Times, where DeFede spent almost 12 years before joining the daily.

While at the weekly, DeFede made a veritable sport of lampooning -- and harpooning -- Ridder, starting with a June 8, 1995, cover story titled "The Incredible Shrinking Herald."

"People are fleeing in record numbers and not being replaced," DeFede wrote of the newspaper in the 6,000-word investigative article. "Morale has hit bottom. News coverage has been severely curtailed. Money is scarce. And the corporate big shots love it."

Ridder, of course, was corporate big shot number one. In the story, DeFede noted that even as the Herald was falling apart, the CEO had pulled in a $315,000 bonus and "generous stock options."

The following year, the columnist repeatedly wrote about Ridder's obsession with profits. In the hilariously titled series "Mickey Arison Is a Greedy Corporate Pig," he accused Ridder of hiding public records pertaining to his role in the creation of what would become American Airlines Arena. Based on DeFede's claim that Ridder was violating public records laws, New Times hauled him into court, prompting the CEO to finally turn over hundreds of pages of public records that he'd previously refused to release, including to his own newspaper.

After that victory, DeFede explained Ridder's covert role in helping the Miami Heat get its new palace on Biscayne Bay. "That's right, he's Tony Ridder, secret agent man," DeFede wrote.

You think Tony heard DeFede knocking?

Two years later, Knight Ridder moved its corporate headquarters from Miami to San Jose. Some in the Herald newsroom joked that DeFede had run Ridder out of town. And, on August 13, 1998, DeFede poked another well-deserved stick squarely into Ridder's ribs. "It was bad enough when Tony Ridder packed his bags and moved out of town, taking the corporate offices of Knight Ridder with him. Now he's decided to wring every possible nickel out of Miami as well... Perhaps the new house he's thinking of building in northern California is going to cost him more than he expected. Maybe he's decided to add a tennis court, or a Jacuzzi in the downstairs guest room."

Oh, snap.

In 2001, DeFede was at it again, this time noting in a story titled "Bad News" that the chairman had earned the nickname "Darth Ridder" in the newspaper world. In the article, he also wondered if Fiedler, then the newly minted executive editor of the newspaper, had the fortitude to withstand the dark overlord's newspaper-stripping acumen. "Is he simply too nice a guy to be a warrior for the newsroom?" DeFede asked.

Considering that history, DeFede's hiring at the Herald was almost as astonishing as his firing. He joined the staff in 2002, shortly after writing a well-received book about September 11. And you have to give Ridder credit. He allowed a man who'd repeatedly eviscerated him in print to join his empire. That, however, doesn't mean he liked DeFede, who wasted little time in flaying the chairman of the board again, this time in Ridder's own newspaper.

A column headlined "What happened to the once-great Herald?" came out on February 4, 2003, a day many of the newspaper's staffers believe ultimately sealed DeFede's fate. He wrote that Knight Ridder's lust for profits had hurt local coverage. "There aren't enough reporters, editors, and photographers to cover this community the way it deserves to be covered," he argued.

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