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ASBESTOS MAIDEN

The new enfant terrible at the Dallas Times Herald has sharpened her pen on Walker Railey, Ross Perot, DART, and the county jails. Who will columnist Laura Miller aim for next?
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BY THE END OF THE FIRST WEEK, SHE HAD SPARKED an angry press conference at the Dallas Police Department and had provoked Ron Chapman at KVIL to call her a meddling Yankee, “as Texan as George Bush.” By the end of the first week, she was adored at cocktail parties, debated in church meetings, and blasted by neighborhood organizations. By the end of the first week, hardly a single reasonably informed person in Dallas did not love, hate, defend, or denounce Dallas Times Herald columnist Laura Miller.

It began with a pair of columns enlarging on the Walker Railey saga. Miller landed the first comprehensive interviews with the family of the comatose Peggy Railey, victim of an unknown strangler. Readers took notice right away. But reaction quickened to a boil when, on her third start from the box, the new columnist scored then-police chief Billy Prince for his remarks following the January 23 murder of officer John Glenn Chase. Billy Prince, she wrote, was a “fibber,”

The choice of words was unfortunate. Everyone involved agrees to that now. But Billy “The Fibber” Prince picked up a nickname he may never shake. And when Prince turned out not to be fibbing at all, Miller was nailed with a reputation for inaccuracy she’ll struggle long to overcome. Still, with just three bylines, the new columnist bludgeoned her way into the consciousness of this com-1 munity as few other journalists have done before. In calling the police chief a liar because he claimed a frenzied crowd had urged a deranged man to kill, Miller instantly became the center of controversy and a household word. Which is precisely what the Times Herald employed her to accomplish.

“The whole idea of a column is to get the paper talked about,” says Times Herald editor David Burgin. “I’ve never seen anybody hit a town so fast and so hard. Laura drags up feelings from people’s guts, and that creates controversy. But controversy is good. It’s healthy. We hired Laura because we wanted somebody who was not afraid to get into the issues and take the heat.”

In taking the heat-or in dishing it out-Laura Miller is the asbestos maiden. Through less than six months of anchoring the Times Herald Metro page three times a week, she has scorched myriad local icons and roasted a herd of sacred cows. Dallas Area Rapid Transit executive director Charles Anderson has refuted her columns in print. Local Chamber of Commerce bigwigs have pressed quietly for her ouster. Billionaire H. Ross Perot has renounced her roundly in a series of public gatherings. Even Dallas Times Herald publisher Art Wible stewed over Miller’s Billy Prince diatribe and vented his steam on the editorial page.

“I don’t worry about whether people like what I write,” Miller insists. “I try not to pay any attention to who gets mad about what I have to say or who agrees with me. I try to stir up some debate and add something to the dialogue. There’s a certain amount of pressure in this kind of job, but it just goes with the territory.”

In many cities, Miller’s iconoclastic blend of reporting and opinion snugly fits the journalistic tradition. Newspapers in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, among others, clawed their way to greatness on the bare talons of foaming mad-dog columnists. From Tammany Hall to Frank Rizzo to the Cook County, Illinois, judicial scandals, the fulminations of local columnists have brought civil justice, social change, and journalistic glory.

But Dallas is accustomed to columnists of a more genteel stripe. Though Blackie Sherrod and Skip Bayless may touch off their shares of acrimony among sports fans, other columnists here typically are as friendly as John Anders or as funny as Dick Hitt. Alice Love’s adventures in the skin trade and Jim Schutze’s self-deprecating commentary were as biting as Dallas knew until Laura Miller coiled up and struck town.

“I don’t think people here are really used to the kind of column I’m writing,” says Miller. “In New York City, every paper has three or four hard-hitting columnists and there are four daily papers. But I’m the only one doing this here, so I stick out like a sore thumb.”

It is the big-city, swashbuckling style of column writing that Miller means to practice here, whether Dallas is ready or not. Her heroes are the old-style, tough-as-nails journalists like Jimmy Breslin in New York and Mike Royko in Chicago. Her fuel is unfocused, righteous anger, the passion of a crusader, the zeal of a fanatic. She sprays lethal words and sentences like machine gun bullets at social ills on every side. Some hit their mark. Some stray wide. But if an innocent bystander falls to a Miller fusillade, well, baby, war is hell.

On meeting her, you’d hardly take Laura Miller for a journalistic Sergeant Rock. Not yet thirty, she is tall, trim, and striking, with the impeccable grooming and patrician grace of a woman to the manner born. She smiles easily and often, and her conversation reveals uncommon breadth and depth. Something in her manner causes new acquaintances to feel like old friends, and she reciprocates with a personal warmth rarely evident in her writing.

At the same time, Miller stretches backward to let you know she’s tough. She seems to cherish a mental image of herself as an Eighties Dorothy Parker, lacing her discourse with hard-boiled cynicism and four-letter words at unexpected moments. Occasionally, the effect is genuinely startling. Just as often, though, the gutter words ring forced and awkward in a way that reminds you of the guy in No Time For Sergeants who always tried to cuss but could never get it right.

A sidewalk psychologist might read such contradictions as signs of insecurity or hints that Miller believes there is something she must prove. More likely, though, the inconsistencies merely reflect her youth and inexperience. Column writing is a craft most often practiced by journalists with years of leavening in police courts and school board meetings. Miller has little such seasoning. She is a bristling child prodigy in a land of unflappable graybeards.

“She is still a baby columnist,” says Gil Spencer, editor of the New York Daily News, where Miller worked for a year before joining the Times Herald. “She is still developing and she needs a lot of help in terms of editing. You’re talking about a kid who is raring back and trying to throw the fast ball. A lot of columnists do that before they learn to throw the change-up.”

Indeed, Miller is a tenderfoot in the newspaper business. Other than the year in New York, her only real reporting experience was gained at The Dallas Morning News from 1983 to 1986. But her résumé suggests the spunk and hustle that her editors have valued more highly than years in the trenches of daily journalism.

Born to a well-to-do family-her father is former president of Neiman-Marcus, now chairman of Marshall Field’s-Miller grew up in the nicer neighborhoods of Baltimore; Concord, Massachusetts; and Stamford, Connecticut. She studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin and regrets, a little, that she entered too late to be part of the student unrest that rocked the Madison campus during the Vietnam era.

When Newspaper Guild members walked out of the two Madison dailies and started their own tabloid in the fell of 1977, Miller begged to write features for the strike paper and worked the copy desk on weekends. She also signed on as a campus correspondent for Time Inc. and provided snippets of stories to Time, People, Fortune, and Discover. She served student internships at the Dallas Times Herald. Woman’s Day magazine, and the Los Angeles Times.

After graduation in 1980, Miller landed a job with the community news department of the Miami Herald. Typically, reporters who produce the so-called neighbor sections of the Herald are regarded as less than full-fledged journalists by the staff in the main newsroom. They cover church socials, high school plays, and similar trivia and rarely write about events that shake the community, much less the world.

But Herald old-timers remember Laura Miller as a little different from the run-of-the-mill neighbor news staffer. “She was a very aggressive young reporter,” recalls national news director Mike Haggerty. “She went out and found stories that were good enough for the main news sections. She got a lot of bylines and she was very good.”

On her first anniversary with the Herald, Miller walked into her boss’s office and resigned. She had been saving money to travel, she said, and it was time to go.

For the next nine months, she hitchhiked through Scotland and rode trains across most of Europe. She soaked up the sights, but she also found herself working as a foreign correspondent. When war erupted in the Falkland Islands, the Miami Herald sought her out to report English reaction. The paper also relied on her to cover IRA bombings, to report on Grace Kelly’s funeral, and to write an analytical magazine piece about life in Eastern Europe. A few of her dispatches from abroad appeared not only in Miami, but also in The Dallas Morning News.

On returning to the U.S. in late 1982, Miller received offers to join the staffs of three papers-the Miami Herald, the Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, and The Dallas Morning News. She selected the Morning News.

“I was hired to cover county government, but I didn’t like it very much,” Miller says of her reporting days here. “After six or seven months, I started to ignore my beat because I wanted to do something else. I carved myself out a kind of investigative projects beat, where I was usually assigned to cover things the Herald was working on that we didn’t have.”

In 1985 and 1986, the self-defined projects beat paid off with two major stories. One revealed that University of Texas football coaches routinely supplied cash to players. The other explored possible financial irregularities at the State Fair of Texas.

Editors at the Morning News will not discuss Miller’s time there for the record. Off the record, though, they uniformly agree that her investigative work on these two prized stories was mediocre. She was slow and recalcitrant, they say, much too much the prima donna. Worse, her editors say, the young reporter sometimes pressed her crusades at the expense of the facts. Often, her information was off-base or out-of-date. Always, her stories required tediously cautious editing.

Miller retorts that Morning News editors were much too sensitive to the pressures of the Dallas establishment. On the Fair Park investigation, for example, she claims one editor held back her stories for fear they might damage an impending bond issue. On another occasion, she claims, a Morning News executive who was close to the Fair Park board telephoned her at home to shout that she was “sick” and “hung out with sleazy people.”

Whatever the truth of the situation, it appears that few among Morning News staffers rued her departure. “I like her a lot personally,” says one supervising editor. “But I don’t think it was any great loss when she left.”

Initially, Miller thought her path out of Dallas would lead to Baltimore, Maryland, where she had accepted a job with the Sun papers. But the New York Daily News offered a chance to write a column. “It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime chances,” Miller explains, “I told the people in Baltimore I wasn’t coming and went to New York.”

As Miller relates her New York experience, editor Spencer intended for her work to alternate with pieces by Jimmy Breslin. “Breslin went into the editor’s office,” she says, doing her best to imitate the older columnist’s gruff voice and New York brogue. “He said, ’I understand you hired a broad. I don’t want no broad on my page.’ Spencer gave in and put my column farther back in the paper.”

The story may be an example of the kind of problem with facts that Morning News editors attribute to Miller. Or it may simply be the result of misunderstanding or faulty memory. At any rate, Spencer says it didn’t happen. “That’s just not accurate,” says the New York editor. “We wouldn’t even have considered putting her on Breslin’s page for a long, long time. I don’t know as we ever would have done that.”

According to Spencer, Miller spent three months in New York writing trial columns that never saw print. Her first published efforts appeared once a week on an inside page. Later, she was moved forward to page twelve, where her column ran twice weekly.

During the nine months that her point-of-view pieces appeared in the Daily News, she wrote on subjects ranging from people who travel on the Queen Elizabeth II to courtroom shenanigans involving a local judge to oppressive management practices at a major insurance company. “There were the usual shrieks of controversy,” says Spencer. “Laura liked to jump into the middle of an issue. But we have a lot of controversial columnists, and we encourage them to be provocative.”

At about the time she accepted the New York Daily News job, Miller married Steve Wolens, a Dallas attorney who represents Oak Cliff in the Texas legislature. During most of her year at the Daily News, Miller commuted to Dallas to spend weekends with her husband.

“It got to be too much,” Miller says. “It was very grueling and it wasn’t fair to me as a developing writer or to the paper I was working for. When my contract ran out after one year, I decided to leave the Daily News and come back to Dallas. I didn’t have a job here at the time, but I thought I could probably find something.”

As it happened. Spencer at the Daily News is good friends with David Burgin, editor at the Dallas Times Herald. Spencer called his old buddy, Burgin, and said, “Hey, there’s somebody leaving here to go back to Dallas. She’s good, and you ought to take a look at her.” Burgin took a look and hired Laura Miller.

“A column is the window through which you see the soul of a newspaper,” says Burgin. “A columnist must have three qualities to present that window effectively. A columnist must have style, point of view, and reporting skills to collect information. I felt Laura had the reporting skills and the point of view. I’ve never seen anybody her age who is as sophisticated and passionately interested in local issues as she is. I thought we could help her develop the style.”

Miller reported for her first day at the Times Herald on January 18. She turned down Burgin’s offer to find her a private office. She wanted a desk in the newsroom, where the real business of reporting goes on. Her second day, Tuesday, she went to work in earnest.

“1 had been really interested in the Walker Railey story,” she says, “and I wanted my first column to be about that. But I wasn’t sure what I could get. Without telling anybody in the newsroom, I went out Tuesday morning and drove to Tyler to see if I could find Peggy Railey’s family.

“I had a phone book with their address, but I couldn’t find it. I went to the county tax office and got an address on a rural route. I drove to this little town and went to the post office, which was closed. I banged on the back door until a mail carrier came out. He told me how to find the house.”

When she finally arrived at the home of the stricken woman’s family, only the grand-mother was there, Miller says. The woman refused to talk. “I said I was exhausted and could I have a cup of tea. She gave me a cup of tea and a piece of cheesecake, and we started talking. Later, Peggy’s father came home and joined us.”

For Laura Miller, this bit of hard-nosed reporting paid off in two columns. Her debut in the Times Herald revealed for the first time that Peggy Railey’s family was bitter and angry at the former Dallas minister who had been their in-law. They believed Railey had tried to kill his wife, Miller reported. If the police did nothing, they might sue.

On January 23, the Saturday before that first column appeared, police officer John Glenn Chase was shot to death in downtown Dallas. Within hours, Chief Prince declared that an angry crowd had goaded the gunman into firing the fatal shots. Miller was skeptical. She interviewed witnesses and police officers. She asked to review witness statements, but the request was denied. Finally she wrote her Billy-Prince-is-a-fibber column. It appeared on Friday, January 29.

“When I turned it in, I apologized to Burgin because I thought that, compared to the Railey columns, it was light fare,” says Miller. “1 certainly didn’t think it would be very controversial.”

Of course, the column went off like a bomb. The police department reacted by calling a press conference and producing witness statements-the very statements Miller had requested-showing that some in the crowd had, indeed, shouted “Kill him! Kill him!” to encourage the murderer. Clearly, Prince was not fibbing. It was the columnist who was wrong. A correction, perhaps an apology, seemed in order. No such statement was issued, either by Miller or by Times Herald management.

“I started doing a day-by-day count on the premise that, surely, sometime, she would do a retraction,” says KVIL’s Ron Chapman, who blasted the Times Herald on his morning show daily for at least a week. “I am still amazed that she has never done any kind of retraction. She out-and-out called the chief a liar, a fibber, and it was subsequently proved that he hadn’t lied. To not apologize after that is incredibly irresponsible.”

Burgin shrugs off the Billy Prince column, saying it was a good lesson for his fledgling columnist. “What she didn’t understand when she started here is the power of a col-umn and the precision demanded,” says the editor. “You’re dealing with nitroglycerine. Picking the right word and the right phrase and pace and tone become critical… I think the Billy Prince episode is a good example of how one word can color the whole thing. I think Laura learned from that, and I think she’ll be a better columnist from now on because of it.”

David Burgin defends the work of his newest column writer at the Times Herald. At the same time, he concedes that she has caused the newspaper-and him-a few embarrassing moments.

The most uncomfortable came when Miller wrote a column about an incident in which, she claimed, Ross Perot’s daughter-in-law was stopped by police officers. Though the officers found a gun in the car, the story went, they let the young woman off, thinking they were doing Perot a favor. But, Miller wrote, Perot later upbraided the policemen involved, claiming they were rude. (Perot, incidentally, vigorously insists that Miller’s facts were wrong.) When Miller tried to tell the story in a column, Perot singed the phone lines, according to Times Herald executives. Burgin and Times Herald owner William Dean Singleton gave in and Miller’s column never ran. Shortly afterwards, a Times Herald reporter, Roger With-erspoon, who leaked the unfinished column to this writer, came within an inch of his job. He was booted off the editorial page, relegated to reporting duty in the newsroom.

Millrt will not comment on the Perot in cident except to say, “David Burgin has gone to bat for me every other time there has been a question. If I had felt really strongly about this particular column, I think he would have run it.”

Miller insists that her work should be judged, not on the strength of one triumph or one mistake, but on its continuing quality. She points to columns baring Perot’s zealous anti-drug proposal to block all roads leading to South Dallas and shake down every house inside the perimeter. She mentions a series examining finances inside the DART organization. Like the Billy Prince piece, these items angered certain people. But they were quality work, she believes.

“I look at issues,” she says, “And every issue has at least two sides. Whenever I write about an issue, I’m going to make at least one side angry. Of course it’s a little risky, but I’m comfortable with it.”

Gil Spencer, Miller’s editor in New York, expresses a similar sentiment. “I think she’s going to make some mistakes, but Burgin will back her up. He’s brave. So is she.”

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