The Agony of DeFede

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 Herald patriarch John Knight, got into a fistfight with a press operator, and a suspicious fire nearly burned down the building. Eventually, the Herald beat 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 Herald lobby 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.)

"I don't think it was honest," a reporter says. "How does removing a byline change anything?"

Two weeks later, on Friday, August 19, another incident angered the newsroom. Staff Writer Jay Weaver penned a lengthy piece about DeFede's attempt to recover a duffle bag Teele was carrying the night of his suicide. Weaver, who declined comment, called DeFede's lawyer, Dan Gelber, to do a lengthy fact-check of the story when it was complete.

The next morning, though, a three-paragraph story appeared on page 3 of the local section. It included not a single quote. "It wasn't as long as my index finger," Gelber says. Adds a reporter: "I read the story [on the computer], and then I woke up in the morning, and it was a brief. That's not right."

Fiedler had nothing to do with either editing decision. He says he has avoided editing stories related to the issue because he's involved in it. "I have made sure that my finger doesn't get on the scale in any stories related to this," he says. He did question Metro Editor Manny Garcia (who declined comment) -- and Garcia told him the byline has been removed to avoid the appearance of conflict.

"They should have assigned a reporter to cover this from the start, one person who was objective." one reporter comments. "They had a plan for if the shuttle crashed but nothing for this... The question some people in the newsroom are asking themselves is whether Tom [Fiedler] is in this over his head."

Fiedler responds that he tried to recruit someone from outside the paper to do a lengthy story on the DeFede affair but found no takers. "I think the idea of an ombudsman here is a good one," Fiedler says. "But that would have to come from a higher place than mine."

Discontent over the DeFede firing, as well as concern over health benefits and other issues, caused Fiedler to call meetings recently with various departments within the newsroom. "I want to confront... acknowledge that there were some people interested in the guild," the executive editor says. "If what underlies that interest were concerns about policies that I had, then I wanted to talk about them."

Photographer Nuri Vallbona attended one of the meetings: "I said if there is a union out there, sign me up. My bosses have been very good to us, but outside the newsroom, there is such a lack of respect. The train [headed for unionization] left the station long before Jim DeFede, but this has galvanized the troops."

It seems doubtful that a union will ever be formed at the Herald. Given the weakened condition of the Newspaper Guild and the nascent state of activities at the Herald, it seems nigh impossible. But the degree of discontent clearly shows that managers, including Fiedler, need to rethink the way they deal with the city and their employees.

DeFede, who worked at New Times before the Herald, is a beloved character in South Florida. A pizza man recently told the columnist: "I'm praying for you." A Herald newspaper hawker gave him a thumbs-up signal and said: "Hang in there, DeFede." And a little old lady approached him at a Publix to hug him.

"I've been really touched by these people's sentiments," DeFede says. "Complete strangers."

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse