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Knight Riddance

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

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.

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.

Then he lowered the boom on ol' Darth, telling Herald readers that Ridder, whom he identified by name, received $2.4 million in bonuses while the staff got "free pizza" during its inspired coverage of the crash of the space shuttle Columbia.

Not long after the column was plastered about the Internet, Herald humorist Dave Barry wrote on an internal message board: "When is DeFede's going-away party?"

The quip perfectly portrayed the prevailing attitude at the newspaper. Staffers knew the columnist's aggression would not stand. The following Sunday, Fiedler rebutted DeFede in print, writing that his columnist was "flat wrong" and that his premise was "cheap and easy -- but also misguided."

The day after Fiedler's column was published, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz quoted the executive editor as saying that he "couldn't argue [DeFede] was inaccurate or unfair."

In other words, Fiedler contradicted himself. The man was floundering. And DeFede? Well, he'd managed to embarrass the Herald, Knight Ridder, Tony Ridder, and Tom Fiedler all in one fell swoop. That's a solid day's work, people.

The theory: After that column, all Ridder needed was an excuse, and after more than two years of typically great work from the Metro columnist, the Teele taping finally gave him one.

An examination of the circumstances indicates that Ridder, if he didn't simply order Fiedler to fire the columnist, at least influenced the process. The CEO certainly had easy access to Fiedler, who happened to be with Ridder at corporate headquarters in San Jose on the terrible day Teele shot himself in the Herald lobby.

Fiedler, who didn't return my phone calls, has claimed publicly that he made the decision alone. But in a Time magazine piece last week, he acknowledged that he had spoken to some "smart people in San Jose" before he sent word to Publisher Jesus Diaz Jr. to terminate DeFede's employment not long before midnight.

You better believe one of those geniuses was Ridder, though Fiedler denied in the Time piece that corporate officials told him to do anything.

If that is true, if Fiedler made this decision alone, he's the one who should be fired, for appalling leadership. By his own admission, he never spoke to DeFede -- a man he hired and still claims to admire and respect -- before he dropped the ax. DeFede never even got a chance to defend his actions to his judge and executioner. It's downright Kafkaesque.

And Fiedler's ramblings on the matter have been nothing short of incoherent. In his July 31 column, he admitted that his decision was "perplexing" and acknowledged that the tape-recording incident was a "seemingly minor offense." Then he wrote that DeFede had "violated one of the most fundamental tenets of journalism, which holds that in all our dealings, we act without hidden motives or practices."

Hidden motives? Reporters, at least the good ones, have hidden motives all the time. And what was DeFede's hidden motive? To get the unvarnished truth during an extraordinary interview? Fire him!

From there, it becomes just plain scary.

"When it comes to maintaining our integrity, we must be absolutists," Fiedler wrote.

Who says he isn't strong? His regime is ruthlessly cleansing any sign of human weakness from the Herald. Heil Fiedler!

DeFede lost a job, but Fiedler, in the end, is losing much more. The executive editor is absent a star columnist, the respect of his newsroom, and, by all indications, his ability to reason. Some 86 Herald staffers, including Hiaasen and Barry, signed a letter to Fiedler asking that he rehire DeFede. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts called the decision a "travesty." Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, a Herald alum, called Fiedler a "cowardly newspaper editor" last week in an online forum.

And to think that Fiedler used to be known as a fairly sharp character. Which is another reason the firing reeks -- there's that word again -- of corporate persuasion. It brings to mind the prescient question DeFede asked in Miami New Times about whether Fiedler was tough enough to defend his newsroom against the likes of Tony Ridder.

The answer now seems all too obvious.


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