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Prominent Miamians who take bribes, get divorced, or don women's underwear in public need no longer fret that Joan Fleischman will find out. The Miami Herald's gossip columnist is one of several newsroom staffers who have accepted buyouts. Her final "Talk of Our Town" column ran last weekend. "I am ready for a change," she says. "I've been a South Florida journalist for 33 years, and this opportunity comes at a perfect time."
Fleischman started at the Herald in 1978, after graduating from the University of Miami and spending three years with the Miami Beach Sun Reporter. She worked as a general assignment reporter and soon moved on to the police beat, where she broke perhaps the most stunning tale ever told in these parts: the Miami river cops scandal; as many as 100 police officers ripped off drug dealers and even killed some.
She covered state and federal courts and became known around the newsroom as fast-talking, fast-thinking, and voluble. Her interviews could often be heard from 100 yards away. Herald legend Gene Miller, her longtime editor, once said, "We need more people like that 'round here."
Fleischman was given the gossip column in 1992. She documented the goings-on of local celebrities, cops, and lawyers. Recent highlights include her coverage of professional baseball player Alex Rodriguez's divorce and disgraced ex-lawyer Sam Burstyn's release from federal prison.
She cites a story about a discriminatory tipping policy at a Washington Avenue restaurant called Thai Toni as one of her most significant pieces. It led to the county passing an ordinance outlawing such behavior.
Of course, not everyone admires Fleischman. Freelance photographer Bill Cooke claims the 55-year-old gossip maven rewrites press releases, plugs friends and favorite haunts, and wastes column space writing about lawsuits. "While I think Joan and her editors ... allowed her column to become more frivolous and petty in recent years," Cooke says, "there's no denying the impact her stories had on daily life and those in power in South Florida."
Responds Fleischman: "I always liked Bill Cooke and think he is a fine photographer."