Deadly power of the press

Suicide came hours before Fla. expose

July 29, 2005|By Nick Madigan | By Nick Madigan,SUN STAFF

The power of the press may be both a cliche and even, these days, an oxymoron, but certain stories, particularly those that expose corruption and personal mendacity, can still have devastating effects.

The suicide on Wednesday of a former Miami city commissioner in the lobby of The Miami Herald is a tragic example of just such power, and follows a long line of similar acts of desperation.

Arthur Teele Jr., 59, indicted earlier this month on 26 counts of federal mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering, took his life just a few hours before a lengthy story about his case, headlined "Tales of Teele: Sleaze Stories," was to appear in Miami New Times, an alternative weekly newspaper that specializes in "unflinching exposure of Miami's steamy political life," according to its Web site.

Teele had seen an online version of the story, according to the Associated Press.

On the Web site, The New Times restricted itself yesterday to saying that Teele, who was "revealed through police surveillance reports to lead a bizarre secret life," had killed himself, and posted 10 other stories about Teele's checkered career that the paper has published during the past decade. (A call to the editor of New Times, Jim Mullin, was not returned.)

A headline over the latest story said, "Male prostitutes and multiple mistresses, drug money in Gucci shopping bags, bribery and extortion conspiracies. And you thought you'd heard it all about Art Teele."

"The once-powerful politician," the story went on, "is possessed of a seemingly insatiable craving for all things illicit - adulterous sex, illegal drugs, bribery and extortion."

While it was impossible to determine immediately whether the allegations themselves had any direct effect on Teele's state of mind - or indeed whether they were true - his death raised anew the possibility that an abundance of investigative zeal had resulted in an unintended tragedy.

Although it is fair to say that such probes by reporters, acting in their capacity as public watchdogs, are normally coupled with investigations by detectives and district attorneys' offices, the very nature of journalism requires that the worst of the offenses be splashed across front pages and beamed by TV and radio into thousands of homes. Such exposure can be overwhelming.

Still, there is usually no way of knowing how the subject of such scrutiny will react. In Teele's case, it appears that he simply could not handle the pressure of both the indictments and the relentless focus of the press.

"You can't escape the fact that what this man did was irrational and unhinged," said Matthew Felling, a former Capitol Hill reporter for McClendon News Service and now media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "No journalist can know that a politician would choose death over disgrace."

Journalists, Felling said, are "paid to be writers, not therapists." "A journalist must write the truth as he has found it through diligent reporting, and let the repercussions play out on their own," Felling said. "If the reporters did so, they should sleep well at night. But if they fudged some salacious details, their consciences and the court proceedings will catch up with them."

Like others, Felling expressed sympathy for both sides, saying that his heart went out to Teele's wife, who had posted bond for him to keep him out of jail, and to the reporters "who were practicing their vocation."

"I would not want to be in their shoes," he said.

Teele's suicide was by no means the first instance of a man taking his life in the face of humiliating publicity.

In January 1987, the Pennsylvania state treasurer, R. Budd Dwyer, convicted in a bribery case, shot himself during a press conference after criticizing the media, the prosecutor and judge in his case, and former Gov. Dick Thornburgh.

Dwyer had been expected to resign at the press conference. But as horrified reporters looked on, Dwyer, 47, married and the father of two, pulled a revolver from an envelope, put it into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

In May 1996, the nation's top Navy officer, Admiral Jeremy Boorda, 56, shot himself shortly before he was to meet with a reporter for Newsweek, which was preparing to report that Boorda had worn two Vietnam combat medals for valor that he was never officially awarded.

Boorda, the father of four and the first enlisted sailor to become the Chief of Naval Operations, killed himself at the Washington Navy Yard when he heard from an aide what the subject of the interview was to be. In a statement after Boorda's death, Newsweek editor Maynard Parker said the magazine had not reached any conclusions about the medals, and was simply investigating the allegations.

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