The day after what he terms a "chaotic" departure from the Tampa Tribune, where he wrote for 17 years, Michael Fechter was taking it easy, lounging around the house and (at our request) reflecting on his career at the daily.
Fechter was one of the longest-serving hard news journalists in the paper's Metro section. While he has had his share of high-profile stories, it is the series of pieces he did on former University of South Florida professor and accused terrorist Sami Al-Arian that will forever define his career there.
"I'm proud of the Al-Arian stories and the paper's commitment to it," he said. "In the same sense, it's not the only thing I did. It just happened to play out the longest."
For his critics, it was both no surprise and a measure of vindication when Fechter last week tendered his resignation to the newspaper's Metro editor. He ultimately revealed to his bosses that he was leaving to join the highest-profile Al-Arian persecutor out there, Steven Emerson.
Fechter called his critics' denouncement of his reporting "silly" and said anyone who calls for a reassessment of his work because of the new job should "knock yourself out, because it's a paper trail."
He will serve as editor-in-chief of Emerson's Investigative Project on Terrorism website, work that he considers "to be crucial to our national security."
For years, the family and supporters of the still-imprisoned Al-Arian insisted that their nemesis and most dogged chronicler was doing the bidding of anti-Arab forces. Fechter's job switch gave them more ammo for their argument.
"It just proves what we've known and asserted all along," said Laila Al-Arian, Sami's daughter. "I can say we're not surprised by it."
Ahmed Bedier of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, "The Tampa Tribune should revisit his work and act accordingly." He characterized Fechter's reporting on Al-Arian as subjective and slanted. "Fechter was not serving journalism but was serving the interests of an anti-Muslim agenda."
Tribune Editor Janet Coats said the newspaper has no plans to re-examine Fechter's work, which has been criticized by Salon.com as part of a "prime-time smearing" of Al-Arian.
"I don't feel there is anything in the stories that needs to be re-examined," Coats said. "It's not as if Fechter had a pipeline directly to our presses." His work, she explained, was supervised and edited extensively to ensure its accuracy.
Much of Fechter's investigation into Al-Arian and his former USF think-tank came before Coats arrived as editor, but she lauded his journalistic abilities. "The experiences I have had with Michael's stories have all shown me a reporter who is conservative and very careful in his investigative work."
It is the second time that Fechter's professional and personal life has wandered publicly over to the side of those criticizing and prosecuting Al-Arian. Earlier this year, Creative Loafing revealed that Fechter was dating one of the prosecutors in Al-Arian's trial, Cherie Krigsman. He said at that time their relationship didn't begin until after the jury verdict in the case.
Fechter leaves a long legacy of work at the Trib, including breaking the story about Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher's messy divorce, publishing long-missing court documents that detailed his extramarital affair and other unsavory accusations. He also worked on investigations of Greater Ministries and the effort to bring the U.S.S. Forrestal aircaft carrier to Tampa.
But it was Emerson's 1994 PBS special, Jihad in America, that suggested that Al-Arian was a major player in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and set Fechter in motion. Emerson is controversial; Creative Loafing's senior group editor John Sugg has written numerous stories questioning Emerson's techniques and objectivity (see below). Emerson sued Creative Loafing (then Weekly Planet) and Sugg for defamation in 1999, but dropped the case four years later — right after Al-Arian was indicted.
So what does Fechter say to his critics upon his departure from daily news?
"It's silly, it's just plain silly, and your colleague [Sugg] is just plain silly in what he says and does," Fechter said. "A lot of this debate has been people distorting what I wrote and what I did. We wrote that Sami had connections to people and groups that he lied about for a decade, and one of the entities that he lied to was his employer."
Fechter insists the Al-Arian trial — botched prosecution and acquittals notwithstanding — proved him correct.