"We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." So wrote Lord Macaulay back in 1830. With this bracing dictum in mind, let's go back to the July 28 firing by The Miami Herald of Jim DeFede.

Why was Defede fired? On Thursday, the columnist was called on the phone by former Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr. Defede had known him for many years. Teele had just been indicted on federal mail fraud and money laundering charges, and a male prostitute was claiming that Teele had enjoyed his sexual services and used cocaine with him.

As Defede listened to the distraught Teele, he says he realized that the man was in a very bad way. "The idea that he might be thinking suicide was in my mind. I wanted to get what he was saying down -- to preserve what he was saying -- so I pushed the record button."

Defede, at home, soon got a second call from Teele, who told him he was leaving a package for him at The Herald's security desk. Minutes later, Defede got a call from someone at the newspaper telling him that Teele had shot himself fatally in the head in the lobby of The Herald.

Defede said later, "My first reaction looking down at the tape is, this is basically Teele's suicide note."

In other words, Defede has an incredible scoop, the sort of break reporters and editors dream about, a broken man's last testament -- Pulitzer Prize material.

What happens? Defede gets fired.

First, a Miami Herald reporter asks Defede for an interview, and Defede tells him about the tape. Defede is immediately transferred to the Herald's publisher, Jesus Diaz Jr., and the paper's general counsel, Robert Beatty. He informs them about the tape and asks whether he can use it, since he recorded the conversation without Teele's permission. Florida is one of a handful of states with a law banning recording without permission.

Defede says the executives asked him to transcribe the tape before bringing it to the office (presumably hoping to cover their own a----). They also say that there may be some legal exposure for the illegal recording but the paper will stand behind him.

Defede does the transcription, goes to the office and starts to write his column. The paper uses his transcript in their news story. Two hours later, around 10.30 p.m., Defede is summoned to the publisher's office and fired. Diaz holds a press conference and mumbles some barely comprehensible claptrap to the effect that "we never said that this was not an issue, that this would be OK. So there was no change."

As the final pinnacle of absurdity, Defede's bosses concede that they weren't sure whether Defede had violated the law or not, since the ban does not apply to business conversations.

We've certainly traveled a long way from The Front Page, though Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur would have had a lot of fun with the Herald's Pecksniffian executives.

It's hard to decide where to dip one's spoon into this stew of absurdity and bad faith, starting with the obvious point that to achieve any sort of moral consistency The Herald should never have published any portion of the infamous transcript.

We can imagine maybe a pro forma rap on the knuckles for Defede, following by a hearty clap on the back and a bonus. That's the way Hearst or Pulitzer would have done it, and they would have been right.

For the executives of The Miami Herald to talk about high moral tone is as ridiculous as The New York Times trying to sell Judy Miller as the First Amendment's Joan of Arc.

Back in the 1980s, the Herald's publishers broke under commercial and political pressure from the city's ultra-right and reversed their editorial policies overnight.

Ever since then the paper has been the serf of the right-wing Cuban exile bloc in Miami, raising editorial cheers for every kind of right-wing villainy in Latin America, including the ongoing campaign to overthrow the Chavez government in Venezuela. All this in a bid to bolster advertising revenues and circulation.

In one area alone the Knight Ridder executives have exhibited consistency: stabbing their reporters in the back. After intense and profitable promotion of Gary Webb's Dark Alliance series in the San Jose Mercury News on the CIA-contra-cocaine connection, Knight Ridder (which owns the Mercury News) crumbled under pressure and destroyed Webb by firing him. There wasn't a word in any of Webb's stories that ever needed to be retracted. In fact, the only point of vulnerability was the over-the-top promotional material deployed by the Mercury News' marketing department.

This ludicrous firing of Defede came about because the newspaper industry is in a panic about its low standing with the public. On one poll, about half the country doesn't believe a word it reads in the papers, and reasonably so.

But the credibility of the press is not in the basement because reporters like Defede record the last desperate words of a man about to blow his brains out. This brings us back to The New York Times and Judy Miller.

On the one hand we have Defede losing his job because he forthrightly admitted he'd used a recorder to get the exact quotes. It would have been no big deal for him to have said that he'd just scribbled down what Teele was saying. And there's no question of violated privilege because Teele is dead. In fact, the tape places his death in a human context.

On the other hand we have Miller, a top saleslady for a terrible war, whose stories were mined with anonymous sources selling demonstrable falsehoods. Miller has never been publicly called to account by her own paper for selling fictions contrived by her political co-conspirators who had a political and financial interest in selling a war in which a country is being destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.

Despite the trumpeting of their own high ethical standards, both The N.Y. Times and The Miami Herald have broken trust with their readers. The Times splashed one Miller fantasy after another on its front page, month after month. The Herald openly announces that it has a moral double standard. It blazons a transcript and then fires the man who switched on the recorder and got the real story. Then it preens in its ethical purity. This is a way to win respect?

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.