By Michael E. Miller
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It's no secret that the United Teachers of Dade hates WPLG-TV (Channel 10) reporter Jilda Unruh. In the past year Unruh has aired a number of stories about the powerful union and its leader, president Pat Tornillo. They've ranged from exposés on Tornillo's meddling in school district health-care contracts, to the "deplorable" living conditions of a union-owned apartment building for retired teachers, to the handsome compensation Tornillo enjoys as head honcho ($225,429), to the declining number of teachers electing to pay dues to a union some consider a relic of the painful Roger Cuevas era.
This past May 22, after fruitless months of griping and even a power luncheon with Channel 10 management, Tornillo had had enough. He penned a "Dear John" letter to station vice president and general manager John Garwood. In earnest prose, Tornillo decried the "biased, slanderous, libelous, and inaccurate news coverage of Channel 10, as it relates to the United Teachers of Dade.... UTD will challenge WPLG's 2005 licensure renewal and have [sic] engaged a former FCC attorney in Washington, D.C. to represent our claims. Additionally, we are interviewing [libel] representation locally."
Garwood made a cool reply to Tornillo's challenge on June 12, inviting UTD, essentially, to go pound sand. Of course he used more legally advisable language. Regarding the lunch to which Tornillo invited Garwood and news director Bill Pohovey (after a particularly cutting Unruh story last November depicting the union as borderline slumlord for allowing its federally subsidized housing project to fall into disrepair), Garwood noted that while UTD was obviously unhappy with the station's stories, staff didn't provide "any specific examples of errors or inaccuracies in the stories we had aired."
Some version of this scenario is played out every day between media outlets and the unhappy subjects of investigative reports. Normally a minor pissing match of this sort would be worthy of no more than a brief mention. Except for one thing. It appears to be working.
Case in point: Two weeks ago, the developing trailer-park soap opera that is the District 6 Miami-Dade County School Board race produced an amusing subplot involving two overgrown schoolboys working for opposing candidates. Carlos Manrique, a former state legislator and currently an inexplicably well-paid lobbyist ($71K plus a supplement) for the school district, was driving around Miami on errands that included work for his candidate, incumbent Manty Morse. Tailing him in a red Ford LTD with tinted windows was Ralph Arza, a state legislator and high school teacher working for Agustin "Gus'' Barrera, his brother-in-law and Morse's opponent.
When Manrique noticed this, according to a police report, he stopped his car in front of the Frankie Shannon Rolle senior center in Coconut Grove; the two men disembarked and began to argue, which eventually devolved into a brief shoving match. Manrique, in high agitation afterward, called 911 and filed a whiny complaint that came down to, "[he] pushed [me] first." When the Miami Herald got around to mentioning the incident five days later, the telling encounter had been reduced to a couple of dry sentences buried halfway down a story about the District 6 race.
The puzzling thing, though, was why, during the high political season, the Herald could afford to wait five days to break such a juicy tidbit. Perhaps because it thought a competitor already had it? This story began circulating among school district insiders and journalists within hours after it occurred the afternoon of August 20. I heard about it the next day, but was told, "Don't bother, Jilda's all over it." The story, no doubt to be told in Unruh's highly watchable news-ertainment style, was supposed to air sometime that Wednesday.
When it hadn't aired by Thursday afternoon, I began to wonder. I ran into Unruh at a meeting and asked her about it. She confirmed she had been working on a story about the episode, but it was yanked by her editor because "it was a nice piece for the newspapers, but not 'visual' enough" for Channel 10 viewers. Then I said, "Hey, Jilda, I noticed you haven't had any investigative reports on the school district in what, months now? Would that have anything to do with the teachers' union complaining to your station?" (A review of Unruh's public-records requests made to the school district in the past few months reveals she's been mining several interesting leads, yet the only education story of note she's aired since May was a brief venting session with former district business manager Joe Arriola.) I had also heard grousing from some of her sources in recent weeks that at least two other stories she'd been working on had been canned. Unruh, with a significant look, referred me to station general manager John Garwood for further explanation. "I'm not officially commenting," she said, shrugging.
UTD spokeswoman Annette Katz largely fails to contain a spasm of glee when told that Channel 10 may be putting higher hurdles in front of Unruh's stories because of the union's challenge. "Of course, we noticed [the virtual disappearance of Unruh's reports]," the loquacious redhead grins, "but we didn't know why." Katz says that after Garwood's response to the initial letter of complaint, UTD obliged his request to provide specific examples of Unruh's errors and biases in her union stories of the past two years. (Oddly, this wasn't included in the station's FCC-required public file when New Times reviewed it last week.) "It's not just one story," she grumbles. "There wasn't anything she did that didn't have claws in it." Katz says Garwood's response was that the station was "still investigating all the issues, and they will get back to us." While Katz declined to provide a detailed assessment of Unruh's journalistic "failings," she did offer a couple of examples. One from a recent story is that Unruh reported Tornillo's union-provided house was worth one million dollars when it was assessed at $94,172. (The entire property, plusthe house, is worth a million.) "That is a total factual error," Katz cackles. "She was trying to make the house sound like a palatial mansion." Katz reveals that UTD has retained two well-connected Republican litigators, D.C. attorney Stephen Yelverton and Miami attorney Tom Spencer, to pursue the license challenge.