"We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." So wrote Lord Macaulay back in 1830. What would Macaulay have written about the summary firing of Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede on Thursday?
Why was DeFede fired? On Thursday the columnist was called on the phone by a former Miami city commissioner called Arthur Teele Jr. DeFede had known him for many years. Teele has just been indicted on federal mail fraud and money laundering charges, and a male prostitute was claiming that Teele had enjoyed his sexual services and used cocaine with him.
As DeFede listened to the distraught Teele, he says he realized that the man was in a very bad way. "The idea that he might be thinking suicide was in my mind. I wanted to get what he was saying down to preserve what he was saying so I pushed the record button."
DeFede, at home, soon got a second call from Teele, who told him he was leaving a package for him at the Herald’s security desk. Minutes later DeFede got a call from the Herald telling him that Teele had shot himself fatally in the head in the lobby of The Herald.
"I’m stunned", DeFede said later. "I’m physically shaking and my first reaction looking down at the tape is, this is basically Teele’s suicide note. These are his final words about the torture that his life has been through, all this up and down. This is his last words; what do I do with it."
In other words DeFede has an incredible scoop, the sort of break reporters and editors dream about, a broken man’s last testament, Pulitzer Prize material.
What happens? DeFede gets fired.
First, a Miami Herald reporter interviews DeFede, who tells him about the tape. DeFede is immediately transferred to the Herald’s publisher, Jesus Diaz Jr, and the paper’s general counsel, Robert Beatty. He informs them about the tape and asks whether he can use it, since he’s recorded the conversation without Teele’s permission. Florida is one of a handful of states with a law banning recording without permission.
DeFede says the executives asked him to transcribe the tape before bringing it to the office (presumably hoping to cover their own asses). They also say that there may be some legal exposure for the illegal recording, but the paper will stand behind him.
DeFede does the transcription, goes to the office and starts to write his column. The paper uses his transcript in their news story. Two hours later, around 10.30pm, DeFede is summoned to the publisher’s office and fired. Diaz holds a press conference and mumbles some barely comprehensible claptrap to the effect that "we never said that this was not an issue, that this would be okay. So there was no change."
The Herald’s executive editor, Tom Fiedler, says "We expect our people to act in a highly ethical way, and Jim admitted that he had crossed that line, and I didn’t really see an alternative. If we have that expectation and someone fails to abide by it, knowingly fails to abide by it, regardless of that person’s talent, it means they can longer be a part of The Herald."
As the final pinnacle of absurdity, DeFede’s bosses concede that they weren’t sure whether DeFede had violated the law or not, since the ban does not apply to business conversations. Fiedler says this didn’t matter, since DeFede had violated a basic tenet of Herald policy. The suspicion is that Fiedler was obeying orders from high-ups in Knight-Ridder, the corporation that owns The Herald. Also, DeFede had trodden on a lot of political toes in Miami.
We’ve certainly traveled a long way from The Front Page, though Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur would have had a lot of fun with the Herald’s Pecksniffian executives.
It’s hard to decide where to dip one’s spoon into this stew of absurdity and bad faith, starting with the obvious point that to achieve any sort of moral consistency The Herald should never have published any portion of the infamous transcript.
We can imagine maybe a pro forma rap on the knuckles for DeFede, following by a hearty clap on the back and a bonus. That’s the way Hearst or Pulitzer would have done it and they would have been right.
For the executives of the Miami Herald to talk about high moral tone is as ridiculous as the New York Times trying to sell Judy Miller as the First Amendment’s Joan of Arc.
Back in the 1980s, the paper’s publishers broke under commercial and political pressure from the city’s ultra-right and reversed their editorial policies overnight. Ever since the paper has been the serf of the right-wing Cuban exile bloc in Miami, raising editorial cheers for every kind of right-wing villainy in Latin America, including the ongoing campaign to overthrow the Chavez government in Venezuela. All this in a bid to bolster advertising revenues and circulation.
In one area alone the Knight Ridder executives have exhibited consistency: stabbing their reporters in the back. After intense and profitable promotion of Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance series in the San Jose Mercury News on the CIA-contra-cocaine connection, Knight Ridder (which owns the Mercury News) crumbled under pressure and destroyed Webb by firing him. There wasn’t a word in any of Webb’s stories that ever needed to be retracted. In fact the only point of vulnerability was the over-the-top promotional material deployed by the Mercury News’ marketing department.
This ludicrous firing of DeFede came about because the newspaper industry is in a panic about its low standing with the public. On one poll, about half the country doesn’t believe a word it reads in the papers, reasonably so.
But the credibility of the press is not in the basement because reporters like DeFede record the last desperate words of a man about to blow his brains out. This brings us back to The New York Times and Judy Miller.
On the one hand we have DeFede losing his job because he forthrightly admitted he’d used a recorder to get the exact quotes. It would have been no big deal for him to have said that he’d just scribbled down what Teele was saying. And there’s no question of violated privilege because Teele is dead. In fact the tape places his death in a human context.
On the other hand we have Miller, a top saleslady for a terrible war, whose stories were mined with anonymous sources selling demonstrable falsehoods. Miller has never been publicly called to account by her own paper for selling fictions contrived by her political co-conspirators who had a political and financial interest in selling a war, in which a country is being destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.
It’s clear that within the New York Times there are reporters who are not comfortable with their paper’s beatification of Miller. Yesterday, July 28, there was an astonishing story in The Times by Doug Jehl, a good reporter. After fifteen paragraphs about the Rove-Plame affair and what various reporters, notably Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, had learned from their sources, Jehl suddenly ushered on Judith Miller, raising one of the most important, though mostly unasked questions about her role in the Plame affair.
Miller currently sits in the Alexandria federal detention center for refusing to disclose an anonymous source to the prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. She and her editor Bill Keller and Times lawyer Floyd Abrams hold up the banner of the First Amendment and say that Miller had every right to refuse to answer Fitzgerald because she is defending the inviolability of the source/reporter relationship.
But was Miller actually working as a reporter in the Plame case?
Here are the explosive paragraphs of Jehl’s story of July 28:
"Ms. Miller never wrote a story about the matter [i.e., the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA employee]. During that period Ms Miller was working primarily from the Washington bureau of The Times, reporting to Jill Abramson, who was the Washington bureau chief at the time, and was assigned to report for an article published July 20, 2003, about Iraq and the hunt for unconventional weapons, according to Ms Abramson, who is now managing editor of The Times.
"In e-mail messages this week, Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, and George Freeman, an assistant general counsel at the newspaper, declined to address written questions [from Jehl] about whether Ms Miller was assigned to report about Mr. Wilson’s trip, whether she tried to write a story about it, or whether she ever told editors or colleagues at the newspaper that she had obtained information about the role played by Ms Wilson [i.e. Valerie Plame]."
We can easily understand why Keller didn’t answer these pointed questions from one of his own star reporters. If the answer is No to Jehl’s questions, then, on the most charitable construction, Miller was simply gossiping. On a less charitable but more likely construction, she was working as a political co-conspirator in the White House campaign to discredit Joe Wilson, party of the daisy chain that included Bolton in the State Department, probably Miller’s favored source Chalabi, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby and ultimately Robert Novak.
Either way, it gets hard to sell Miller as a martyr to the First Amendment.
Despite the trumpeting of their own high ethical standards both The Times and The Herald have broken trust with their readers. The Times splashed one Miller fantasy after another on its front page, month after month. The Herald openly announces that it has a moral double standard. It blazons a transcript and then fires the man who switched on the recorder and got the real story. Then it preens in its ethical purity. This is a way to win respect?