Taking Sides: More than 500 Journalists Support DeFede

Tom Fiedler got his first look at it when the numbers were still pretty low.

His name was at the top of the page along with that of his boss: "An open letter to Miami Herald Publisher Jesus Diaz and Executive Editor Tom Fiedler."

As Fiedler scrolled down the page, the names of more than 100 journalists crawled up the left margin of JournalistsForDeFede.com. He didn't have to scroll too far before spotting names from his own staff list:

Number 17: reporter Elinor J. Brecher.
Number 18: copy editor Joe Modzelewski
Number 29: columnist Dave Barry (on leave)
Number 30: foreign correspondent Frances Robles
Number 31: sports writer Michelle Kaufman

By 8:50 p.m. Tuesday evening, the list had grown to 513 names: 99 of them were current Herald employees, interspersed with the names of other journalists from around the country, 92 of whom had worked at the Herald earlier in their careers.

Fiedler recognized the names, knew many of the faces behind them, and counted them among his friends. He still does.

As editor of the newspaper that fired metro columnist Jim DeFede last week, Fiedler has found himself at the center of a journalistic maelstrom. Readers have written letters about it. Herald columnists have devoted dozens of column inches to it. 

Peter Wallsten, a former political writer and Tallahassee bureau chief for The Herald who now covers the White House for the Los Angeles Times, created the online petition July 28. 

The Herald fired DeFede the day before, on July 27, after he told his editors that he had taped a telephone conversation with Arthur E. Teele Jr., a former city commissioner who later killed himself in the newspaper's lobby.

In a column published July 31, Fiedler said he fired DeFede partly because he had violated a Florida law that prohibits such taping without the consent of both parties. But more importantly, he said, DeFede lost his job because the taping represented a breach of trust between the newspaper and its readers.

"It's all about trust," Fiedler wrote. "I could suspend Jim for a time, and he would, I am sure, never repeat his mistake. But the message that would send to all others who deal with us is that The Herald tolerates those who have breached that trust, even if just once."

Challenging that decision, the petition in support of DeFede reads: "We are writing as journalists to express our sadness, distress and disappointment at the way the newspaper has treated Jim DeFede. He has been an important face of the newspaper in a community that has embraced him."

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Fiedler said he received a number of phone calls and e-mails from fellow journalists who had added their names to the petition site. He said they told him that they didn't want to blind-side him.

...what I have seen is an impressive list of influential and, from my view, respected group of colleagues
-- Tom Fiedler

"I must say that what I have seen is an impressive list of influential and, from my view, respected group of colleagues," Fiedler said. "And it's a tremendous tribute to Jim's impact, and the respect with which Jim is held by so many people in our business. I certainly recognize that."

For a group of people often averse to joining, signing or endorsing anything in the public eye, the letter represents a departure from business as usual in the newsroom.

To the extent that signing the petition moves journalists out of the role of observers and into the role of participants in the story as it unfolds, it raises potentially tricky issues of independence and conflict of interest.

"I haven't really given it much thought yet," Fielder said when asked if a reporter who signed the petition would be disqualified from covering the DeFede story. He said the paper had produced only one news story so far about the firing. 

"I have no qualms or concerns about somebody who's an opinion columnist signing the petition and expressing their opinions," he said. "But for a reporter… I hate to be the one to make that judgment, since I'm involved in [the story]."

If a staff member is not actively covering the DeFede story, Fiedler said, he does not object to his or her decision to sign the petition.

"I would discourage a reporter from signing a petition that might be designed toward influencing public policy," he said. "That would clearly constitute a conflict of interest, just like putting a bumper sticker on their car for a candidate… but signing a petition that is more or less within the profession, I see no ethical issue arising there."

Nicholas Spangler, a features columnist at The Herald, said he experienced no pressure in the newsroom –- either in favor of signing or against. 

"Certainly nobody from management leaned on us not to sign it," he said. "Nobody from management said a word about it. I think, as a matter of fact, my immediate supervisor may have signed on to it."

He added: "We're allowed to sign a petition, right? I didn't think that by doing that I was putting myself at any risk. I didn't think that I was hurting the newspaper. I thought about this and I thought … it's a little thing I could do just to let my bosses know what I think, and let them know that I took Jim's firing pretty seriously."

Said Wallsten, one of the organizers: "It's not in my nature to organize anything. I'm an observer -– and an objective observer. But in this case, this was about my friend, my colleague, and someone I believe to be a first-rate journalist. And the one thing that I believe journalists should stand up for is great journalism."

Wallsten's name is followed on the list by fellow Herald alum Charlie Savage, who covers the Supreme Court and Homeland Security issues for the Boston Globe. Wallsten recruited him to help build support for the petition.
Reporters in newsrooms from Anchorage to Philadelphia signed on as well. At number 17 on the list, metro reporter Elinor Brecher was the first Herald reporter to add her name.  

I signed it because I thought that Jim was too hastily judged
-- Elinor Brecher

"I signed it because I thought that Jim was too hastily judged, that there was not a proper investigation of all the factors before the decision was made, and that the punishment did not fit whatever the crime would have turned out to be," Brecher said. "My main issue is that it was done in such haste without a full investigation."

Brecher has spent 16 of her 28 years in journalism at the Herald. She recalled signing a paper petition about an internal newsroom issue at an earlier job, but said this was the first time she has ever signed an online petition. It was the extraordinary nature of the situation that pushed her to add her name to the list, she said.

"This is something deeply personal to people at The Herald, but it also transcends our particular workplace to general principles and standards," she said.

Herald alums Savage and Wallsten both said they launched the petition out of loyalty to the paper.

"Everyone who's ever worked for The Miami Herald has a great affection for that paper and wants it to be excellent," Savage said. "Jim was a huge asset to that because he may be the best political watchdog reporter and columnist in South Florida."

The goal of the letter, Wallsten said, is twofold: to encourage Herald editors to reconsider their decision and re-hire DeFede, and to help maintain his reputation as a respected member of the journalism community.

He added: "Oftentimes, the way that this business is going is that people who are fired from newspapers, in most cases, have become disgraced journalists and in most cases, that is appropriate. I wanted to make sure it was clear to the journalism community that Jim is well regarded and that he remains a first-rate journalist. I believe that the goal of protecting Jim’s professional standing has been achieved with this letter."

Wallsten acknowledges that it must have been a big step for many journalists to add their names to the letter.

Heidi Carr, an assistant city editor at The Herald, said she mulled the decision for days before becoming number 501 early Tuesday evening.

"I would have signed it immediately, and then I thought, 'You know, I don't want to rush into this,'" she said. "Frankly, I didn't want to do a knee-jerk reaction because I felt that there were so many questions."

Even before she decided to add her name to the letter, Carr e-mailed a link of the site to three or four former Herald colleagues who now work at different papers. Word of the petition quickly spread through The Herald newsroom and beyond, via internal postings and e-mail messages, she said. 

"It's not (that) there's any fear of recriminations… it's not that at all," she said. "I think in a newsroom, where we tout the First Amendment rights, it's absolutely encouraged that we can disagree among ourselves and with the bosses."

Walker Lundy, retired editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer -- a Knight Ridder newspaper, like The Herald -- was number 438 on the list. The petition, he said, will help separate DeFede from a long line of "journalistic miscreants" who have been fired from other newspapers. Journalists should be able, in a situation such as this, to express their opinion without fear of retribution, he said.

"I think most editors feel as I do that people in journalism have their First Amendment rights, too," said Lundy. "This is just a statement that 'We think you made the wrong decision, and we hope you'll reconsider.' That sounds pretty respectful to me."

He said this is the first petition he has signed in all of his years as a journalist.

Lundy added: "When I was working, I didn't think it was appropriate for the editor of the paper to sign a petition, because I already had the biggest soapbox in town. But now I'm a free bird and thought that the petition might cause the people who made the decision to rethink it."

So far, Fiedler said, the petition hasn't made him rescind his initial decision to fire DeFede. But he didn't slam the door shut, either.

"I hate to say it's a done deal, because I don't know if the last word has been offered," he said. "I don't know what I don't know… But I have not heard anything in recent days that would essentially alter the decision that I made Wednesday night."

Wallsten and Savage said they planned to cut off signature submissions to the Web site at midnight Tuesday. They said they will print the site -– it amounted to 42 pages by 8 p.m. Tuesday -- and send the stack of paper to Fiedler and Diaz on Wednesday.

Fiedler is open to the petition -- and his newsroom's involvement in it: "I welcome the discussion and I again have great respect for the people who have put it together."

He also said: "I think the newsroom is a place where there has to be a lot of latitude for discussions. If we were a place where people felt they had to speak in one voice, what a dull, intellectually constipated place we would be."

  • Meg Martin

    Meg Martin was last year's Naughton Fellow for Poynter Online. She spent six weeks in 2005 in Poynter's Summer Program for Recent College Graduates before beginning her fellowship.


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