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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

A Punishment Too Harsh?    

A stiff suspension without pay would have been the way to go in the case of fired Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Does every ethical transgression require the death penalty?

Journalism has been battered by a seemingly endless string of scandals in recent years. Commendably, the profession has moved aggressively to crack down on the malefactors and come clean with the public, often in excruciating detail.

Clearly, serial fabricators and plagiarizers like Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley need to be shown the door--as quickly as possible. But there are times when the ax seems like overkill. And then there are some really tough calls.

Which brings us to the saga of Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede. DeFede recorded a telephone conversation with a troubled Miami politico, former Miami Commissioner Arthur E. Teele Jr. Teele initiated the call and made clear that the conversation was off the record. DeFede never asked for permission to record it. But he thought Teele seemed to be in a very troubled state of mind, so he recorded it anyway, even though he may well have been violating Florida law.

After Teele committed suicide in the Herald lobby later that day, DeFede told Publisher Jesus Diaz about the recording. Soon DeFede was a former Miami Herald columnist.

DeFede's work by all accounts was stellar, and his firing triggered outrage in the Herald newsroom and the broader journalism community. A Web site quickly appeared with a petition calling for the ousted columnist's reinstatement. Hundreds of journalists have signed it. For his part, Herald Editor Tom Fiedler said he had no choice but to dismiss DeFede because his actions constituted a breach of trust.

I've worked with Tom Fiedler and know him to be as principled a journalist as there is. And I think news organizations' hard-line approach to transgressions has been admirable, and crucial. Journalism has to restore its credibility with the public, and it has to make clear in no uncertain terms that the field is no place for the ethically challenged.

But the punishment still has to fit the crime. And we're hardly in Jayson Blair territory here.

Think about it: DeFede, who had known Teele for a long time, was alarmed by what he was hearing from the embattled politician. He wanted to get it down exactly right. So he impulsively turned on the tape.

Was it the right thing to do? No. Should DeFede be punished? Of course. But it's awfully understandable. And it's hard to see any malicious intent. This isn't disgraced ex-Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Mike Gallagher illegally tapping into Chiquita's voice mail system.

I think this is a classic case where a stiff suspension without pay would have been the way to go. That's a win-win. It would make clear that DeFede had erred and that the Herald took the infraction seriously indeed. I doubt that he would have done it again.

It also would have preserved DeFede's column, a valued voice for Miami readers.

But it is an instance where reasonable people can disagree. I can understand Fiedler's take and consider it defensible, if overzealous.

One last thought: This decision is one that might have been made in a little less haste. Allowing some time to let emotions cool would have been a smart way to go, even if the final verdict were exactly the same.