Dallas Observer Grapples With Coverage of Former Columnist

Paper's Editor Concedes: "It's been difficult."

Pity Dallas Observer Editor Julie Lyons. She’s in a tough spot. Ever since her friend and the paper’s former star columnist, Laura Miller, was elected to the Dallas City Council this spring, she’s had the unenviable task of deciding how to cover the city’s newest politician.

“It’s been difficult,” Lyons concedes. “She’s been in office now, what? — a month and a half? — and she’s already established herself as a major player…. We can’t claim to say we cover City Hall without writing about her. It’s unavoidable.”

It didn’t take long for the unavoidable to become reality. During the second week of June — little more than a month into Miller’s young term — an Observer story dubbed, “Cursed are the Peacemakers,” contained the following subhead: “Councilwoman Laura Miller steps right into the line of fire — and ends up wounded — in a war over a hospital parking lot”.

In the piece, Miller admits that she “stumbled very badly” trying to mediate a dispute between Methodist Medical Center and the Oak Cliff neighborhood.

After interviewing local activist Pam Conely, the Observer’s Jim Schutze wrote: “Conley, a very intense, wiry, big-eyed lady who can go from coquette to bulldog in the blink of an eye, says she’s proud of having intimidated Miller during a lonely elevator ride at City Hall, especially after Miller had appeared at Conley’s neighborhood meeting using a lot of swear words.

“‘Normally,’ Conley says, ‘you assume somebody who talks like that can take it, but … ‘”

The story continues: “Here Conley gets a real big grin.

“‘She shriveled up like that when I went after her on that elevator,’ she says, showing off a squeezed-tight fist.”

Miller laughs off the story, saying, “It’s interesting that they [the Observer] chose to do this long piece on this obscure zoning issue.” Between chuckles, she quickly adds, “If I hadn’t been so friendly with an old reporter [peer], the piece would have been unsalvageable.”

Lyons, however, says Miller’s glib responses are just a cloak.

“After the story ran, Laura and I spoke about it. She was stung by it,” she says. “Sure, she was thick-skinned as a journalist, but I think it would be tough for anyone to make the transition she’s going through. No one — Laura included — wants that splashed across the paper like that.”

Miller’s metamorphosis from huntress to the hunted has impacted Lyons on a multitude of plains. For starters, she and Miller have agreed that all of their phone conversations are off the record. Moreover, if there’s a story that will likely involve Miller, Lyons has made sure that the assignment goes to one of her reporters who aren’t chummy with the councilwoman. Lyons, who is one of Miller’s constituents, also says she’s tried to shy away from situations where using a quote from Miller might be construed as favorable bias on behalf of the Observer.

“There was a story,” says Lyons, “which involved a conflict between two municipal judges. We could have interviewed her for it. But we didn’t. We purposefully avoided her because it could have been read as us pulling punches.”

As much as Lyons labors to annul the conflict-of-interest perception, she knows she will be flogged no matter what she does.

“We’re not going to be partial to her; we aren’t going to pull punches,” she says. “But we aren’t going to say that we’re 100 percent objective either. There are people who will say that the Observer is Laura’s mouthpiece until the day we die. That’s baloney. We will be just as aggressive with her as we are with any council member.–

Lyons has yet to pen a story that involves Miller. So, what happens if the day comes when Lyons has no choice but to include her friend in the copy?

“I’ll be sure to tell our readers that we’re friends,” she says.