The Miami Herald acted out of fear and panic in firing columnist Jim DeFede, panelists concluded at “Tale of the Tape,” an event held Thursday in Studio C of the School of Communication.
DeFede was fired on July 27 after former Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele committed suicide in the lobby of the Herald’s offices downtown. Teele had spoken with the columnist before killing himself and DeFede had tape recorded part of their conversation without Teele’s consent, a controversial issue in journalism ethics.
The event, which was sponsored by the School and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), was composed of two panels, one with DeFede and one with local experts analyzing media coverage of ethnic communities. The Herald was invited but declined to participate.
Teele, who had been convicted in state court and was facing charges involving corruption, called DeFede twice shortly before killing himself. According to DeFede, five minutes into his first conversation with Teele, he turned on his tape recorder out of concern. DeFede spoke to an audience of about 150, which included students from UM, Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University, as well as members of SPJ.
Under Florida law, a phone conversation cannot be taped without the consent of the person being recorded.
“The better reading of the law is that for safety’s sake, you should have the consent of everyone on the tape,” said Samuel A. Terilli, assistant professor of journalism and former general counsel to the Herald. “But the law is vague.”
Terilli added that, had he still been counsel at the newspaper, he would have defended the columnist.
However, DeFede was fired three hours after going to his editors with the taped conversation.
“I’d been told that if you have a question, you come forward to your bosses,” he said. “I thought when I was speaking to the newspaper’s attorney, I was going to my attorney. But I was mistaken.”
DeFede said he was fired “out of panic” by managers without journalistic or First Amendment expertise. These managers felt the African-American community would revolt with Teele’s death and somehow blame the newspaper, according to DeFede.
Marvin Dunn, who participated in the second panel, disagreed with the Herald’s view.
“The Miami Herald did not [correctly]judge what the black community thought,” said Dunn, a psychology professor and author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century.
Both panels touched upon public speculation that the tape was used as an excuse to oust the sometimes controversial Defede.
Lisandro Perez, who worked as a consultant for the Herald in the ’80s, said DeFede’s columns on Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles brought trouble for the Herald within the Cuban community-a community the newspaper has strived to serve.
“The Herald took a policy of no irritation,” said Perez, who is a professor of sociology and founder of FIU’s Cuban Research Institute. “Now, the Herald and El Nuevo Herald only have columnists that are safe.”
DeFede said he wanted his job back and left openings for the Herald to change its mind. Now, he said he hopes to stay in South Florida.
DeFede’s case has been covered by media outlets ranging from MSNBC to The Washington Post to Granma, the Cuban government’s newspaper, but the Herald has hardly revisited the case since July.
“That’s the power,” DeFede said, “of having a one-newspaper town.”
Patricia Mazzei can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.