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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.
Garwood, thrilled to be called while on Labor Day vacation, answers: "If I responded every time someone threatens my license, that's all I'd be doing. We don't wither under threats, just like you guys don't. They think our coverage is biased, but it's not inaccurate."
Without seeing the UTD's planned FCC complaint, it's hard to evaluate how effective it's likely to be. Historically, successful challenges to station licenses are uncommon. Attorney Spencer, known locally for his role on the Bush/Cheney legal team during the 2000 vote-count debacle, admits the unusual case is likely to be "a big uphill battle," but if the union can prove that Channel 10 has engaged in egregious behavior over a long period of time, it may convince the FCC. The last time WPLG's license was seriously challenged was in 1973, when Richard Nixon and cronies were looking for a way to twist the nipples of the Washington Post by pressuring the FCC to award the licenses of Post-owned television stations to other operators. One of those stations was WPLG (the call letters come from former Post owner Philip L. Graham). Unfortunately for Nixon, the effort failed, and WPLG has remained a Post-Newsweek vehicle.
Asked whether there's a connection between UTD's threats to challenge the license or, as implied in Tornillo's letter, file a lawsuit and Unruh's long dry spell on education stories, Garwood emits a deep chuckle. "It has nothing to do with that," he maintains. "We don't run stories just to do them. When we have something, we go with it. Jilda's working on some things and they will be coming out." Then, sensing the inherent drama in the situation, Garwood adds conspiratorially, "Stay tuned, there will be more to come."
A virtual guarantee that the highly entertaining clash between two of this town's titans will continue. The union has not hidden its enmity toward Unruh. After several of her reports, UTD fired back on its Website, or in the pages of its monthly newsletter to members (Katz produces both). After Unruh's May story, Katz wrote a column titled "Channel 10 makes up their news (again)." In the piece, she crows about the station's ratings slide in recent years, and suggests it may have something to do with Unruh's "yellow journalism" and Channel 10's obvious lack of a "competent, honest, and ethical editor" to rein her in.
Unruh's May report on the union's "financial dealings" focused on financial statements, and county and state records detailing Tornillo's princely salary ($225,429, as mentioned above, plus a $17,700 allowance, and the home and grounds provided by the union). Unruh included UTD's explanation that Tornillo leases the home from the union and his paycheck is docked $2700 a month, but she cast doubt on it by saying that the information doesn't appear anywhere on state financial disclosure forms. The report also revealed that ten UTD executives make more than $100,000 a year, plus allowances and, for some, allegedly interest-free loans.
The most fascinating aspect of the report, however, was watching the two old pros going at it -- the 46-year-old blond "Pitbull in Pumps" (a nickname she picked up from an old producer at a station in Tulsa) cornering the cagey 76-year-old union bear with her questions. Unruh: "Why don't you explain [the lease on the home] to us?" Tornillo: "Why do I have to explain it to you? Why do I have to explain it to Jilda Unruh?" The story ended with an enraged Tornillo fairly spluttering. "We're going to challenge you from here on every time," he threatened. "Every time you open your mouth!"
Unruh is no stranger to controversy. Last year lobbyist Ric Sisser (a close ally of Tornillo) filed a lawsuit and won a temporary restraining order against Unruh after she barged into his hospital room, where he was being treated for congestive heart failure. She had done so because he had ducked her attempts for weeks to ask him about his role in school land and health-care contracts.
Then last summer, Unruh's former fiancé, school computer specialist Robert Seitz, made news when he flipped out after she broke off their relationship. According to Herald reports, Seitz allegedly engaged in stalking-type behavior, attempted to force a ring on her finger at her office, and faked a Pakistani accent during phone calls to her apartment.
In other cases, Unruh's barnstorming approach has had positive results. Miami-Dade Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler resigned March 14 from her part-time job at the school district after Unruh reported in February that she was not actually working the hours she had claimed on her time sheets. Unruh and a camera crew surreptitiously followed Carey-Shuler for two weeks, documenting her activities, which didn't appear to have anything to do with her job in the school district's alternative-education division. New Times later revealed that the county's ethics commission and possibly the State Attorney's Office were investigating the commissioner. Carey-Shuler seems to confirm as much in a lamenting letter sent March 13 to superintendent Merrett Stierheim. "I find it shocking, repulsive and, quite frankly, unbelievable that I am being investigated for doing my job, on the allegations of a news reporter who stalked me for 14 days." Stierheim accepted her subsequent resignation "with regret."