Crash Dummy

Unions glom onto the DeFede legacy

"I don't think it was honest," a reporter says. "How does removing a byline change anything?"

Two weeks later, on Friday, August 19, another incident angered the newsroom. Staff writer Jay Weaver penned a lengthy piece about DeFede's attempt to recover a book bag Teele was carrying the night of his suicide. Weaver, who declined comment, called DeFede's lawyer, Dan Gelber, to fact-check the story when it was complete.

The next morning, though, a three-paragraph story appeared on page 3 of the local section. It included not a single quote. "It wasn't as long as my index finger," Gelber says. Adds a reporter: "I read the story [on the computer], and then I woke up in the morning, and it was a brief. That's not right."

Fiedler had nothing to do with either editing decision. He says he has avoided editing stories related to the issue because he's involved in it. "I have made sure that my finger doesn't get on the scale in any stories related to this," he says. He did question metro editor Manny Garcia (who declined comment), and Garcia told him the byline had been removed to avoid the appearance of conflict.

"They should have assigned a reporter to cover this from the start, one person who was objective," one reporter comments. "They had a plan for if the shuttle crashed but nothing for this.... The question some people in the newsroom are asking themselves is whether Tom [Fiedler] is in this over his head."

Fiedler responds that he tried to recruit someone from outside the paper to write a lengthy story about the DeFede affair but found no takers. "I think the idea of an ombudsman here is a good one," Fiedler says. "But that would have to come from a higher place than mine."

Discontent over the DeFede firing, as well as concern over health benefits and other issues, caused Fiedler to call meetings recently with various departments within the newsroom. (On Tuesday the executive editor told Editor and Publisher magazine that "guilds essentially ensure mediocrity.")

"I want to confront ... acknowledge that there were some people interested in the guild," Fiedler says. "If what underlies that interest were concerns about policies that I had, then I wanted to talk about them."

Photographer Nuri Vallbona attended one of the meetings. "I said if there is a union out there, sign me up," said Vallbona. "My bosses have been very good to us, but outside the newsroom, there is such a lack of respect. The train [headed for unionization] left the station long before Jim DeFede, but this has galvanized the troops."

It seems doubtful a union will ever be formed at the Herald. Given the weakened condition of the Newspaper Guild and the nascent state of activities at the Herald, it seems nigh impossible. But the degree of discontent clearly shows that managers, including Fiedler, need to rethink the way they deal with the city and their employees.

DeFede, who worked at New Times before the Herald, is a beloved character in South Florida. A pizza man recently told the columnist: "I'm praying for you." A Herald newspaper hawker gave him a thumbs-up signal and said, "Hang in there, DeFede." And a little old lady approached him at a Publix to hug him.

"I've been really touched by these people's sentiments," DeFede says. "Complete strangers."

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