By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
Five weeks after the Miami Herald canned columnist Jim DeFede, his spot in the newsroom appeared, well, rather strange. A crash dummy in a baseball cap, jeans, and Nikes sat in his chair. Its left hand rested on the desk next to a bottle of Australian Chardonnay. Nearby was a coffee cup -- of the sort distributed to many staffers -- that read: "James DeFede: Employee of the Century."
Though nametags were twice removed from DeFede's desk, colleagues hung hand-scrawled replacements.
"We haven't forgotten what happened to Jim, and we won't," said one reporter, who declined to give a name. "He can be gone forever, but the people who know he got screwed will always know it."
The Herald fired DeFede July 27 after he tape-recorded a conversation with former Miami-Dade Commissioner Arthur Teele. Then last week, Executive Editor Tom Fiedler declined to reconsider the dismissal -- even after prosecutors pronounced that the columnist had committed no crime.
But DeFede's legacy lives on at the paper, where his departure, cutbacks, and a series of ham-handed editing decisions have displeased the staff -- and helped to fuel a union drive. Over the past few weeks, with advice from Knight-Ridder headquarters in San Jose, Herald management has held meetings with Miami-Dade and Broward employees to, among other things, discourage unionization.
Seven reporters and photographers who spoke to New Times last week all voiced similar, if not unanimous, sentiments on the dismissal and on the need for a union. Only a few would be quoted by name. "DeFede's firing was a catalyst for people to look for relief somewhere," comments Tim Chapman, a photographer who recently told his bosses of his interest in a union. "It might or might not be a guild. A lot of our feeling is based on [a lack of ] benefits... and job security."
Union trouble at the Herald traces back a half century, to the 1940s and '50s, when management took on the International Typographical Union. After printers walked out, the newspaper found scabs. Then James Knight, brother of Heraldpatriarch John Knight, got into a fistfight with a press operator, and a suspicious fire nearly burned down the building. Eventually, the Heraldbeat that union.
Though the Herald has since then suffered many cutbacks as well as the closing of foreign and domestic bureaus, there have been no formal unionization efforts in the newsroom as far as I know. When I worked as a reporter at the newspaper in the late 1980s and 1990s, unionization was often discussed, but never seriously.
Then about five years ago, the Herald stopped providing photographers with cars. About 20 people teamed together and complained to management. Union talk was -- briefly -- serious, but that effort died because "things weren't bad enough yet," one photographer says.
The latest spark for union activity followed DeFede's taping of Teele, who committed suicide in the Heraldlobby after calling the columnist. Fiedler, in San Jose that night with his corporate bosses, made the decision to fire DeFede in just a few hours. "When the firing was announced, there was crying and yelling in the newsroom like I've never seen before," one reporter says.
News of the suicide and the firing was broadcast around the world. I heard about it in Ecuador, where I was on vacation. The events were also described in a dozen Canadian, British, and French newspapers.
One element particularly galling to DeFede and his colleagues was that he had no advocate in the room when he was fired. Had there been a union, the contract would likely have required that a shop steward be present to cool overheated tempers.
Tony Winton, president of Local 31222 of the News Media Guild, declined to comment on any organizing effort at the Herald.But he said a union presence would have helped the situation for everyone involved. "It's just a question of fair treatment," Winton said. "If this happened at a shop with a union, it couldn't have spun out that way."
The newspaper's coverage of the affair has also drawn significant ire from reporters -- and to readers, it has seemed downright bizarre. Herald local columnists Leonard Pitts, Ana Menendez, and Carl Hiaasen have voiced their distaste for the firing in print. Columnist Joan Fleischman even reported that the grandson of the Herald's recently deceased conscience (and close Fiedler friend) Gene Miller was lobbying for DeFede.
"There was no shortage of bad decisions that awful Wednesday night," Pitts wrote August 5. "Give the man his job back."
The day after the Pitts column, a story appeared that caused consternation all around. When reporters learned that management had played the tape of DeFede's conversation with Teele for prosecutors, reporter David Ovalle was assigned to write a story. His article -- written under a dual byline -- included a disclaimer at the end: "Herald reporter David Ovalle has signed an online petition protesting DeFede's firing."
When editors at the newspaper -- several of whom were out of town at the time -- learned of the story, they stripped it of the byline and the disclaimer, apparently to make it appear as if the story were penned by objective reporters. The byline in the paper's print edition read simply "Herald staff report." Ovalle couldn't be reached for comment. (The original, by the way, is available in the online database LexisNexis.)