Ethical firestorm burning in Miami

A politician's suicide and a columnist's firing put an unwelcome spotlight on the Miami Herald.

Published August 7, 2005

A distraught politician blames the press for his problems, and at the center of the storm is a Miami Herald reporter whose ethics are under attack.

The year was 1987, the politician was Gary Hart, and the reporter was Tom Fiedler. After the Colorado senator denied rumors of womanizing and invited reporters to watch him, Fielder got a tip, staked out Hart's Washington townhouse and found him there with another woman.

The story derailed Hart's presidential hopes and ignited a national debate over how far journalists should go in covering politicians' private lives.

Fiedler, now the executive editor of the Herald, finds himself at the center of a new ethical firestorm after firing Jim DeFede, the paper's hard-hitting local columnist. DeFede lost his job for taping a phone conversation with a Miami politician, Arthur Teele, shortly before Teele killed himself in the newspaper's lobby on July 27.

More than 500 reporters and editors around the country, including nearly 200 current or former Herald employees, have signed a petition protesting the firing.

Fiedler and the Herald's publisher jointly fired DeFede late on a chaotic night, a few hours after Teele's suicide. DeFede lost his job even though he disclosed the taping and admitted his mistake.

"To me, it has the smell of corporate panic about it," said Carl Hiaasen, a Herald columnist and novelist. "I think there's a lot of very serious resentment at the newspaper, and I think the scars are going to take a long time to heal."

Surreptitiously taping a source is not only unethical, it's a crime, Fiedler said. In Florida, it is illegal to tape a conversation without a person's consent.

"When it comes to maintaining our integrity, we must be absolutists," Fiedler wrote in the Herald last Sunday. "There can be no parsing of ethics. We cannot be a little bit unethical."

To journalists across the country, the issue is not as clear cut.

Walker Lundy, a retired editor of papers in Philadelphia, St. Paul, Tallahassee and elsewhere, said DeFede's punishment did not fit the crime.

"A firing is about the worst thing an employer can do," Lundy said. "If you get fired for taping a phone call, then you'd have to be guillotined for making up sources. I think the paper is taking quite a hit on this. It's hard to imagine they'd be taking a hit on something less severe."

Jim Savage, the Herald's retired investigations editor who supervised Fiedler's Gary Hart coverage, said DeFede's conduct has to be weighed against a lack of criminal intent.

Like some others, Savage saw the firing as a rash decision in a moment of crisis.

"I would not have made such a momentous decision when they were literally cleaning up the blood from the lobby floor," Savage said.

Herald columnist Leonard Pitts called DeFede's firing a "travesty." San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll said recording Teele was "unethical, but these were extraordinary circumstances."

* * *

Teele, beset by criminal charges and facing financial ruin, shot himself about an hour after talking to DeFede. His suicide came on the day an alternative weekly, New Times, published lurid, unsubstantiated accusations about his sex life.

DeFede quickly told editors about the tape he had made of his conversation with Teele. He said he was talking to Teele as a friend, not as a reporter.

"I wanted to preserve a conversation the same way 911 calls are recorded," DeFede later wrote in the Miami Times. "I was trying to console and reassure Art with the obvious goal of calming him down."

DeFede said he impulsively recorded Teele without permission, "not thinking about whether it was legal or not legal, whether it was right or wrong."

That night, while writing a column about Teele's last hours, DeFede was asked to hand over the tape. Then he was summoned to the office of publisher Jesus Diaz, where he waited 25 minutes.

"When the door finally opens and they bring me in, I lock eyes with Jesus, who gives me this grim look," DeFede recalled. "I said, "Are you firing me?' He said, "Yes, I think I am.' "

Diaz, who had been publisher for only three weeks, said he kept DeFede waiting because he and Fiedler wanted to verify that the columnist continued to record Teele after he refused to go on the record. "That was important to us," Diaz said.

Fiedler said he was also troubled that DeFede planned to write a column based on a taped conversation that was not on the record. DeFede later said an editor assigned him to write the column, but Fiedler said editors were not aware that Teele refused to speak on the record about his problems.

DeFede, who had known Teele for 14 years, said: "This man came to me as a friend. He wanted me to tell his story."

Fiedler said that when DeFede explained his motive was to console a friend, he made things worse for himself.

"For him to argue that he did this to his friend, I think, compounds the error," Fiedler said in an interview. "To me, that gets into a matter of personal ethics and behavior, not a matter of conscience."

Compounding Fiedler's dilemma is that he did not talk to DeFede before deciding to fire him. Fiedler was at an editors' meeting in San Jose, Calif., that day. He and Diaz had spoken at length by phone, but at the moment Diaz fired DeFede, Fiedler was being frisked by airport security personnel and didn't have his cell phone.

"Murphy's Law kicked in," Fiedler said.

He returned to work the next morning and found his newsroom in a full-throated uproar.

Fiedler now says he wishes he had waited and fired DeFede in person, but adds that more time would not have changed his mind.

Eighteen years ago, at the height of the Gary Hart controversy, Fiedler offered a clue as to how he might one day handle a case like DeFede's.

Writing in the Herald, under the headline "The Honor Code and Public Indifference," Fiedler, a graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, deplored the lax ethics in society.

He said, "I accept the concepts of extenuating and mitigating circumstances and the penalty should fit the crime.

"That said, I refuse to let go entirely of the rigid notions of honesty and integrity I learned as a young man - and the equally rigid notion of expulsion as the only penalty for an honor violation."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Reporter Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com