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.
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.