Is Jilda Unruh Getting Stiffed?

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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, plus the 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!"

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Rebecca Wakefield

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