The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, apparently responding to recent Dallas Observer stories about its newsroom turmoil, is forcing the syndicator of nationally known columnist Molly Ivins to pull her column from the pages of the Observer.
Observer Editor Peter Elkind characterizes the decision as a "blatant case of retaliation," but says there is little the Observer can do to keep Ivins' column. "This is a brazen attempt at retaliation for stories we have written about the Star-Telegram that its publisher and editor didn't like," Elkind says.
Anita Tobias, executive vice president of Creators Syndicate, which distributes Ivins' column, says Star-Telegram Vice President Mike Blackman informed the company about two weeks ago that it now considers the Observer "competition." Because Ivins is a paid member of the Star-Telegram staff, the Fort Worth daily has the power to prohibit Creators Syndicate from selling the column to "competing" newspapers.
The Observer's rights to publish Ivins' column, which has appeared in the paper since July of 1992, will cease in early March.
The Observer--which prints 100,000 free copies each week--distributes 5,500 copies weekly in Fort Worth. In Tarrant County, including Arlington and the Midcities, the Observer circulates 16,500 newspapers. The Star-Telegram's paid daily circulation, although in decline, is about 248,000.
Three years ago, Star-Telegram publisher Rich Connor brushed aside the competition issue, and approved the Observer's use of Ivins' column. Connor apparently changed his mind shortly after two stories appeared in the Observer examining the turmoil that has ensued since Connor installed Debbie Price as the paper's top editor, including a story on Price's transfer of a youth-section editor who is gay. That Observer story was followed nationally by The New York Times and the Associated Press.
Ivins, who works out of the S-T's Austin bureau, says a midlevel editor called about two weeks ago and told her that "the Observer has been coming over and writing about Fort Worth and the Observer was now considered a competitive publication." The editor told Ivins that her column would be denied to the Observer.
"I told them, 'Well, it's no skin off my nose, but you guys are going to look like petty shits,'" Ivins says. "My middle management person said, 'Oh, no, they really think it is a competitive paper, and really just a little bit of the decision is revenge for that unfortunate article about Debbie.'"
The Observer article, "Snoozepaper," published January 4, detailed how numerous veteran reporters and editors at the Star-Telegram have become disillusioned under Price's reign. Current and former newsroom employees characterized Price as a tyrannical boss with dubious journalistic judgment who is disliked by much of her staff. The story also explored the paper's editorial decline and its kid-glove treatment of rich and influential members of the community, a timidity many attributed to Connor's inordinate influence over Price, his editorial protege.
A second Observer article, published two weeks later, revealed that Price had transferred a gay editor from the paper's children's section after a complaint from a member of the ultraconservative American Family Association. An AFA spokesman, applauding the transfer, said cartoons the editor had drawn for a gay paper showed he was "preoccupied with pedophilia."
Last Monday, Elkind received a terse letter from Tobias at Creators Syndicate serving "as notification of the cancellation of Molly Ivins in the Dallas Observer." The Star-Telegram insisted that the column be canceled, Tobias says, and the syndicate had no choice but to comply.
"The decision is not ours," Tobias says. "Our contract with Molly is subject to the terms of her contract with Fort Worth. We received a phone call from Mike Blackman at the Star-Telegram. The communication was that the permission the Star-Telegram had given us to sell Molly's column to the Dallas Observer was being rescinded."
Ivins said she regretted her bosses' decision, but could not fight it. "Look, I work for the Star-Telegram," Ivins says.
Publisher Connor did not return numerous phone calls from the Observer. Blackman, who oversees the Star-Telegram's editorial pages, where Ivin's column is printed, declined to comment on his phone call to Creators Syndicate. "It was my responsibility and I did it," Blackman said. Asked the basis for the decision, Blackman said, "I guess whatever they [Creators Syndicate] tell you."
Tobias says she was told the Star-Telegram's decision was prompted by its belief that the Observer now represents "competition in Fort Worth."
Elkind scoffs at that explanation, noting that Ivins' column runs only once a week in the Observer, usually days after the same writing has appeared in the Star-Telegram.
He says the decision was small-minded vindictiveness. "The Star-Telegram is trying to punish us for daring to write about them," Elkind says. "I think it's despicable for a newspaper to be using these sorts of tactics. They publish stories that scrutinize and criticize, but they seem to think they're above scrutiny or criticism themselves."
Although the Observer is exploring its options, Elkind says, there is probably little the paper can do about the cancellation. "It's within their rights," he says. "But it's pretty shameful behavior."
The cancellation silences Ivins' voice in Dallas after almost 14 years. Ivins began writing for the defunct Dallas Times Herald in 1982, where she was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. She stayed with the paper until it was purchased and closed by the A.H. Belo Corporation in December 1991.
Several months later, Ivins signed on with the Star-Telegram, and the Observer reintroduced her to the Dallas market in the summer of 1992.
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Known for her folksy wit and liberal bent, Ivins is the Star-Telegram's sole claim to national reputation. Her column is syndicated in about 300 papers across the country. Her first book, a collection of columns published in 1990, ascended to the New York Times bestseller list. Just last week, Ivins signed on to become a regular commentator on 60 Minutes, and she is also regularly featured on National Public Radio.
Ivins says it is unfortunate that her column will no longer appear in a Dallas publication. "I regret it in that I know that I have some old fans who have appreciated the Observer running it," she says. "They can't get it elsewhere."
Elkind says Ivins' voice will be missed by both the paper and the city.
"What's a shame is that Molly Ivins is cut off from one of the largest markets in the country," Elkind says.
The paper hasn't decided what to replace the column with as yet. "You can't just fill the Molly Ivins slot with somebody else.