Miami Herald’s Double Standard on Firing Columnists?

It’s all about trust, right?

Buried well inside the Miami Herald’s local section is a small story headlined, “Herald columnist faces contempt-of-court charge“.

It seems that Herald columnist Ana Veciana-Suarez, who writes a column on the hardships of middle-class family life and childrearing, is accused of lying when she failed to disclose her father’s 1974 conviction for conspiring to distribute cocaine. Veciana-Suarez, then a high school student, was the only witness in his defense.

The issue arose when she was called for jury service in a 2003 civil trial and, as is usually the case, the potential jurors were asked about their experiences with the justice system. The failure to disclose is a misdemeanor, albeit one that could theoretically cause a mistrial.

The Herald’s article is surprisingly coy about Veciana-Suarez. There is no sign that the reporter on the story even attempted to interview her, not even a ‘no comment.’ Her lawyer is quoted however, as saying, that Veciana-Suarez plans to admit she erred in failing to disclose the information about her father.

There’s also a quote from Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler, ”Ana has kept the newspaper fully apprised about this legal proceeding, which has not yet reached its conclusion,” Fiedler said. “Until then, it is premature for us to take any action affecting her assignment as a columnist and staff writer.”

That’s quite an odd quote. Contrast the treatment of DeFede when he admitted to a possibly illegal recording of a conversation (arguably felonious, arguably a misdemeanor, arguably not illegal at all) with a friend and source (links). The Herald didn’t wait for the conclusion of the legal proceedings then. Heck, it didn’t even wait to see if charges were filed (and ultimately they weren’t).

Contrast what DeFede got, which could charitably be called the bum’s rush, with the treatment of Veciana-Suarez, who apparently now, long after the fact, admits (or plans to admit) to lying to a judge so she could serve on a jury, an offense that I would think is of substantially greater potential public cost (retrials are expensive) and even moral turpitude, which I think was completely absent in DeFede’s case.

Here’s how Fiedler justified firing DeFede in a column written shortly after the fact,

Jim’s action in tape-recording his conversation may have been illegal in Florida (although not in every state) and unethical. But is that cause to fire him?

My heart argued fiercely with my head Wednesday night that a lesser penalty would do. Jim, fine man and journalist that he is, readily admitted both the action and the violation. He said he would not only accept a punishment such as suspension, but that he would publicly defend a decision to impose it.

My heart didn’t carry the argument. Generally, tape recording someone without his or her knowledge is against state law. That factored in the firing decision; all of us are expected to act within the law.

But the possibility that a law was violated was neither the only factor nor, I believe, the most important one in my decision.

Fundamental tenet

What Jim acknowledged doing violated one of the most fundamental tenets of journalistic ethics, which holds that in all our dealings we act without hidden motives or practices.

But fundamentally, this isn’t a question of the law. It’s a question of how Herald journalists, and particularly our most visible and most experienced, are expected to operate.

When it comes to maintaining our integrity, we must be absolutists. There can be no parsing of ethics. We cannot be a little bit unethical.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be times when we’ll find it necessary to do undercover investigations or to test laws that run counter to decency. We’ll do that, and we’ll accept the consequences as an institution.

Breach of trust

But extraordinary cases aside, the people with whom we deal cannot think that they can trust us some of the time, even most of the time. They have to know that they can trust us all the time, in every encounter.

When we tell them a conversation is off the record, it will remain so. And when we don’t tell them that their words are being recorded, they can know that they aren’t.

It’s all about trust. 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.

Once, my head tells me, is too often.

When it comes to maintaining our integrity, we must be absolutists. There can be no parsing of ethics. We cannot be a little bit unethical. So why exactly is Veciana-Suarez still employed at the Herald?

Update: Since this post is getting linked to by big-time bloggers, I should explain for new readers that I thought the Herald’s decision to fire DeFede was a mistake, and that the imposition of a hair-trigger absolutism wasn’t the best policy for a newspaper.

In fact, I think it’s a bad policy for most private institutions as we should often in our private conduct temper justice with mercy, law with equity. That said, there are some public institutions, the Judiciary, for example, where a hair-trigger rule is indeed appropriate. And some relationships of special trust (fiduciaries, clerics) where we can demand more than usual. But these are exceptions. Fiedler argues reporters are one of those special cases too; I don’t agree they need to be so strict.

But put that aside for a minute. I think lying in court is a bigger deal than taping a distressed buddy in the heat of the moment. I didn’t think the taping should be a firing offense for the Herald; I could see easily it for the lying. What I will need a lot of explaining to understand is how the first could be a firing offense, but not the second.

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10 Responses to Miami Herald’s Double Standard on Firing Columnists?

  1. cafl says:

    Wasn’t the “firing behavior” done while performing the job? Also, your comment that the other columnist lied to get herself on a jury seems strange. Mightn’t she have been motivated by a desire not to draw negative publicity on her father? I haven’t looked at the background reporting to know, but few people regard getting on a jury as a reward, more a duty. (I’m not suggesting that the lying was justified.)

  2. Bob Higgins says:

    Just how do her actions in a civil trial have anything to do with the performance of her job? The two cases are not even remotely similar.

    If you want to argue DeFede’s firing was unjust there’s a pretty good argument to be made. But to try to make a connection to this case — which had nothing to do with any actions related to her job with the Miami Herald — is a ridiculous stretch.

  3. Carl Cronan says:

    A law professor telling a newspaper editor how to do his job? Get in line back there behind the politician, the car dealership owner and the old lady who still reads the stock tables. These are two totally different circumstances. Let’s let a judge decide Ana’s fate before the Herald has to.

  4. C.E. Petit says:

    Mr Cronan, I don’t think Professor Froomkin thinks that would be wrong; rather the opposite. Instead, I think he’s suggesting that Mr DeFede should get the same treatment as that apparently being offered to Ms Veciana-Suarez, which is exactly what you suggest is appropriate.

    Without knowing more of the facts, such as exactly what Ms Veciana-Suarez was asked, I think it difficult to conclude that she “lied” until the end of the proceeding. Perhaps she should have been more forthright in volunteering information; on the other hand, most jury questionnaires are less than clear. If the question was worded in a way that a reasonable person might have thought it meant “have you ever been a party in the justice system or the victim of a crime?”, things are a lot greyer than they need be. Most laypersons would probably not interpret that to include being a witness at the trial of a family member! That uncertainty justifies a “wait and see” attitude; the uncertainty over whether Mr DeFede committed a criminal act (however serious or trivial) also does so.

  5. Brian Boru says:

    I’ve done jury duty in two different jurisdictions and don’t recall ever being asked about my father (or mother or siblings). Which is strange, being asked (Miami) or not being asked (PG County Maryland, New Orleans)?

  6. Michael says:

    C.E. Petit has it right: what I meant is that DeFede was treated too harshly, and the evidence of that is that the same standards are not being used in this case — which suggests to me that the reasons given in the DeFede case don’t hold up, either because they were untrue or (more likely) because they were unreasonable. I should also add that I didn’t mean to suggest the motive in the Veciana-Suarez case was a particular desire to serve on a jury, rather that service (and the risk of taint of a trial) was the obvious and foreseeable consequence of the failure to disclose–and that one can reasonably be held to account for the ordinary and foreseeable consequences of a one’s acts, or failures to act, even if the actual motive wasn’t evil. It does seem to me that the likely consequences of tainting a trial are potentially more serious than taping a call. You can erase the tape more easily than you can re-do the trial.

    As regards Carl Cronan’s comment, if the Herald was able to shoot from the hip on DeFede, why is this case less clear? Here is what we know now: we know there is an accusation of that Veciana-Suarez ”obstructed the administration of justice and disobeyed the court by willfully and contrary to her oath failing to truthfully respond to inquiries” during jury selection before the 2003 federal trial. And we know that she plans to admit a failure to disclose when there was an obligation to do so. What more is needed? I don’t mean that rhetorically. I’m serious: Under the DeFede standard, what more is needed?

    As for the question about who am I to complain about how editors do their jobs? Well, I’m a subscriber. I thought that the right to kvetch came with the daily edition, just as unsolicited advice is often found in the editorials themselves.

    Bring back DeFede and all is forgiven.

  7. Rachel Cohen says:

    She seems to be kind of a dip. What prosecutor would let her on a jury anyway? And considering her family “trauma”, I’d question her open-mindedness, if I were a prosecutor. All she had to do was raise her hand, and be excused. Did she hope to get a column out of the experience? I think that paper should be embarrassed–the public now has to support the cost of a re-trial.

    Do I think it’s a firing offense? I’m not sure, but she’s not such a fabulous writer that the paper could never replace her.

  8. orangeblossom says:

    In the passage quoted, Fiedler flat-out says that the possibility of criminal charges was not the primary consideration in the decision to fire DeFede.

    Like it or not (I don’t – I think Fiedler should have at least come back to Miami and heard DeFede out) DeFede was fired because he 1) taped a source without permission and 2) revealed off-the-record information. DeFede admitted to doing so, he clearly knew it was against the newspaper’s ethics policies and he had to know that firing was one of the possible penalties. Given that this was a first offense, and that he came forward and was obviously remorseful, a case clearly could be made for mercy… but the Herald brass didn’t see it that way.

    As others have pointed out, there’s no sense in comparing the Veciana-Suarez and DeFede cases. Her case lacks the intersection between personal and professional misconduct (maybe there would have been if her boss had asked her to lie to get OUT of jury duty) and thus there is no inconsistency. Her case is more comparable to a reporter who gets popped for DUI.

  9. Peter says:

    The difference obviously is that the tape recording in DeFede’s case was done as part of the job for which the Herald employed him. The man he tape-recording, while a friend, was a well-known (former) public official in the midst of embarrassing disclosures about his personal and professional contact. In Veciana-Suarez’s case the lying was part of her private life (as a citizen-juror). To fire someone for that, even if convicted of a misdemeanor, would be like firing someone for any number of misdemeanors that one could have totally unrelated to their job performance.

  10. orangeblossom says:

    I should also mention that journalists have a fairly inflexible mandate to avoid friendships with public officials. DeFede had no business “acting as a friend” (his excuse for continuing the taping after Teel indicated off-the-record.) That may well have been strike two as far as Herald officials were concerned.

    Note: I am not saying reporters/columnists should be soulless automatons who stand by and watch someone kill themselves, and it’s not unheard of for boundaries to relax between reporter and source. But arms-length is the rule. Encouraging confidence is one thing, but playing buddies is unfair to the source and damaging to the journo and the publication s/he writes for.

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