Mike Antonucci scrutinizes the teachers' unions, sparking praise from some people and scorn from others.
In the cavernous convention hall where everyone in the crowd of thousands seems to be slipping out to get a Coke, looking for a friend, or heading for the displays, Michael Antonucci sits immovable.
Hour after daylightless hour he sits, a medium-size, mustachioed man jotting notes while what the National Education Association calls "the largest democratic assembly in the world" swirls around him. He has packed a tape recorder and a pouch of trail mix, the latter so he does not have to leave the hall until business is concluded for dinner.
At NEA conventions, like this one in Dallas a year ago, Antonucci is often alone at the draped table reserved for media types, whose fickle interests and jittery habits pull them out to the corridors and away from the convention. It's a safe bet, too, that he alone is going right back to his hotel room every night of the gathering to recount the day's proceedings for a couple thousand readers, some of whom will comment to him on his take the next day.
But, then, Mike Antonucci does what no one else does.
A hybrid of journalist and commentator who has tapped into the justly celebrated power of the Internet, the one-time U.S. Air Force navigator has made himself into the nation's leading observer—and critic—of the two national teachers' unions and their affiliates.
His weekly electronic newsletter, Communiqué, goes out to about 4,000 subscribers, and is surely seen by many more, including top union officials. Reporters for the mainstream media routinely call him when issues concerning the 2.7-million member NEA or the smaller American Federation of Teachers are afoot.
Chester E. Finn Jr., who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education during the Reagan administration and is now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, characterizes Communiqué as "by far the best source in America about doings inside the unions."
Paul T. Hill, a public affairs professor at the University of Washington, calls the newsletter "irreverent and smart."
And a veteran teacher and union activist in Lebanon, Pa., praises Antonucci for being first and factual. "[He] is amazingly able to be right on top of breaking issues, and it is rare that he reports something that he later has to amend or retract," writes Jerry Vath in an e-mail.
The three men are among some 300 people who replied to a reporter's request to tell why they subscribed to the free newsletter.
But others see Antonucci's work as sinister.
"Whatever entertainment and curiosity value he provides, and the occasional piece of information, that pales in comparison with the harm he is doing to an essential and democratic institution in our society," scolds Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York and probably the best-known inside proponent of union reform.
E-mail messages complain about distortions wrought by anti-union bias, failure to treat public education fairly, and "screwball propagandizing."
Union spokesmen tend to dismiss Antonucci with a studied everybody-has-a-right tolerance, while pointing out that conservatives are the natural audience for his beefs against traditional public schools. Many union leaders at the local level either haven't heard of the newsletter or pay it scant attention.
Fans and detractors alike, though, note that Antonucci has developed unparalleled sources inside the unions. Both camps generally credit him with a high level of accuracy on the facts, though naturally there's disagreement about how they're interpreted. And if anybody thought about it long enough, they'd praise him for plowing through heaps of documents only a union-policy junkie could love.
Not by his design—he picks up his own phone and has a wide e-mail correspondence—Antonucci is a bit of a mystery man. Many people don't know exactly how to explain a guy who devotes his witty pen to the every move of teachers' unions.
Among readers' suspicions, for instance, are that the newsletter is directly subsidized by conservative groups, that Antonucci himself has had a bitter run-in with a teachers' union, that his wife is a teacher, and that he himself is a former Central Intelligence Agency operative.
That last confusion probably stems from the name of Antonucci's business, the Education Intelligence Agency, which he bills as doing "public education research, analysis, and investigations."
None of the other ideas is true, either.
It is perfectly true, if imprecisely telling, that since Antonucci started writing to make a living in the early 1990s, his professional connections have largely been with conservative and free-market groups. Such groups are political opponents of the teachers' unions, which advocate for traditional public schools and generally support Democrats.
"I would not pretend to be a liberal Democrat or an union activist in order to prompt more information out of people," says the 44-year-old Antonucci. "I don't hide [my views], which I think makes what I hear from union people even more remarkable."
Working out of the spare bedroom in the apartment he shares with his wife, Jacintha, in Sacramento, Calif., he's an informational entrepreneur and small-L libertarian, riding the crest of the Internet wave. Most of his paid work is research and writing for others, he says, with the newsletter giving him the visibility to attract clients.
Those clients have included think tanks, taxpayer groups, foundations, politicians and their consultants, public school superintendents, charter school operators, and labor unions. Almost all of those for whom Antonucci does research require anonymity, which as a private business Antonucci is free to provide. Among the clients he will divulge are the Fordham Foundation, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and the School Employers Association of California.
With the newsletter, "I stumbled into a niche market," he observes. He considers himself "blessed and lucky" to be his own boss and makes what he says now amounts to "a decent living."
He is in his home office by 7:30 a.m., to accommodate East Coast time, answering the phone in a hoarse tenor voice that contains the ghost of the dem-dese-dose of his upbringing in the New York borough of Brooklyn. Just about every weekday, he checks some 80 to 100 publication Web sites, scouting teachers' union news in particular but also other education items.
On Mondays, he writes the Communiqué from a week's worth of gathering. On Fridays, he reviews something like 60 union Web sites out of the 350 or so bookmarked in his computer, choosing those that include meeting minutes or other documents related to union business. He also keeps voluminous files of documents by state for the purpose of adding background to news items. He is likely to check out interesting developments with whatever sources he has in that state, he says.
Antonucci estimates that 50 to 100 people with union ties have volunteered information more than once, and some much more frequently. But he does not fancy himself a spymaster. "It is very rare for me to go out and ask people to find things for me," he says. Rather, "people have their special interests, some on their state, some on everything that's not their state."
When he calls sources, he says, they are often people with the deepest pro-union sentiments who can give "the other side." Sometimes they call back, sometimes not.
Growing up working-class in Brooklyn, Antonucci segued from "eight years of nuns" to "four years of priests" when he attended a academically tough but tuition-free Jesuit high school across the river in Manhattan. He took an undergraduate degree in fine arts at New York City's School of Visual Arts, and worked with his father in the original klieg-light factory before joining the Air Force, despite never having been on a plane.
He served eight years, three of them in Japan guiding C-130 transport planes around the Pacific. Back in Sacramento, where he had trained, he acquired his only teaching experience—as a navigation instructor.
In 1990, he quit the Air Force midway through a master's degree in international affairs at California State University-Sacramento. While a student, he interned at a research institute in Philadelphia run by the Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes. The prolific Pipes has since become a well-known figure, cast in the spotlight after Sept. 11, 2001 by his previous warnings about the rise of Muslim terrorists. In connection with his internship, Antonucci helped research one of Pipes' books and wrote professionally for the first time.
He figured he'd end up with, say, the CIA, but writing was appealing, too. Focusing on the popular-history market, he sold the first story he proposed to Military History, an account of the Ottoman siege of Byzantine Constantinople in 1453. Regular Antonucci readers know that while he is perfectly capable of immersing himself in the unions' complicated political structures, sometimes he'd rather be in the Byzantium of old.
More writing jobs followed. He wound up in 1995 as the editor of an electronic newsletter on California politics for publisher Joseph Farah. Farah had presided over the conservative Sacramento Union newspaper, once owned by Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pittsburgh philanthropist who is well-known for favoring rightist causes. One of the foundations connected with Scaife also helped underwrite the Western Journalism Center, another project of Farah's, that for a while gave Antonucci an institutional home.
It was while editing Farah's electronic newsletter, Inside California, which went mostly to conservative political insiders, that Antonucci first glimpsed the niche he now occupies.
"Whenever I'd write about teachers' unions, it would get a huge reaction," he recalls. "I started to get a sense of the dearth of information about them."
Writing a paper for a conservative think tank on the California Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate, Antonucci began to hone the techniques that have served him well since. Interviews were OK, he says, but "I always found documentation would give me a more comprehensive picture." And once he started to spout off about union politics, he heard from dissidents inside the organization.
When Farah closed the California-politics newsletter in 1997, Antonucci almost took a job with one of the conservative and free-market think tanks that have sprung up in states around the nation. But then there were the possibilities of the Internet. "The world's largest library and at the same time a virtually no-cost method of publishing," he practically sighs.
Many of Antonucci's critics point out that his insider sources usually come with agendas.
"He's made himself available to people—from somebody who wants to get gossip out to somebody who wants to use him as a tool for internal union politics," observes Louis Malfaro, the president of Education Austin, a merged NEA-AFT local in Texas.
But despite those unnamed sources of dubious motivation, Malfaro credits Antonucci with a detailed and largely accurate account of the halting merger talks between the Texas AFT affiliate, the Texas Federation of Teachers, and the state's NEA affiliate, the Texas State Teachers Association.
Others marvel that he got a whiff of the scandal that engulfed the United Teachers of Dade beginning in April, a week before the FBI raided union headquarters.
But Antonucci makes mistakes, too. In the newsletter last summer, he claimed that the Columbus Education Association in Ohio was apparently seeking to disaffiliate from the NEA or one of its affiliates. In reality, the local sought a reorganization within the state affiliate, and wanted to join the AFT, but not leave the NEA.
A big reason for the goof, he says, is that no local president in central Ohio answered his e-mails. In other publications, that might mean no story for the moment. In the more personal and interactive mode of Communiqué, Antonucci dangles what might be the case and bids for more information.
He also sometimes shoots from the hip, especially when it comes to broader points. He challenged the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future's dire claims about teacher attrition, for instance, by comparing teachers' rates to those of other workers. A more salient comparison would have been limited to workers holding bachelor's degrees, as almost all teachers do.
And it can be hard to know whether his criticism is serious or merely meant to be provocative. In an item chiding presidential candidate Howard Dean for claiming that school vouchers segregate schools, Antonucci asks why more minorities don't move to Vermont. Ignoring demographic explanations, he suggests that it might be the state tax burden on personal income, "the third highest in the nation."
But if some of the zingers have more appeal on the right than the left, it's no sign that Antonucci takes his union readers for granted.
His 1998 account of the failure of a proposal to merge the two national teachers' unions brought him subscribers he never expected to attract, he says. After having been confined to what he calls "the conservative ghetto" of Farah's publications, Antonucci welcomed them.
"I want union people to read [the newsletter]," he says. "I think about them when I write."
That's infuriating to some. Mark Simon, who served for 12 years as the head of the Montgomery County Education Association in Maryland, tried unsuccessfully to get the head of the NEA's caucus for peace and justice to stop circulating Antonucci's newsletter.
"I think it's a travesty that people like Antonucci have any audience at all," fumes Simon, who considers it particularly appalling for the Californian to fill a serious need for communication among affiliates with a newsletter largely devoted to union shortcomings.
Where are the kudos when a union has done something positive? asks Simon.
Not my job, counters Antonucci. The national unions have giant machines to churn out good news, he says. He typically gives his readers the smelly stuff that leaks onto the floor.
"People now rely on me to provide that," he says without apology. "That's what I do."
Vol. 23, Issue 4, Pages 34-37