In her criticism of Judy McGovern’s column on the Fourth Ward election, Pat Lesko writes that the Ann Arbor Observer “interviewed” her candidate, Hatim Elhady, by email. Observer profiles editor Eve Silberman did indeed exchange emails with Elhady about his candidacy. Neither she nor I, however, considered that exchange an “interview.”
Our experience trying to talk to Elhady was much like The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s. The candidate simply refused to speak to Silberman, either on the phone or in person. He didn’t mention any “media strategy,” nor did he indicate that there were any circumstances in which he would answer questions in real time. So you can imagine our shock to learn, from Lesko’s comment on The Chronicle, that he later granted “live” interviews to other reporters.
I admire Lesko both personally and professionally. She’s written some fine stories for the Observer, and I think she’s done a great job building the Adjunct Advocate. But for her to claim that she and Elhady selected the publications he talked to based on “audience reach” is, to put it as politely as possible, hogwash.
The Ann Arbor Observer has, by far, the biggest circulation of any publication in Washtenaw County. Contrary to Lesko’s claims, The Chronicle has an impressive online audience, with a particularly strong following among opinion leaders. The reporters that the Observer and Chronicle assigned to interview Elhady have covered Ann Arbor for a combined total of more than 40 years. Yet he shut them both out – choosing instead to speak to much less experienced reporters.
Why does it matter? Because in a world where even city council candidates boast of their “media strategies,” a live interview is our only chance to learn what (and how) politicians really think – without their handlers in the room. As “Yet Another” asked in the comment thread following McGovern’s column, “What if, about a year ago, news anchor Katie Couric had allowed Sarah Palin to answer by email the questions she asked her live & in person?”
I’d say that for one thing, we’d know a lot less about Sarah Palin. For another, she might be vice president today.
Palin could only envy Lesko and Elhady’s media strategy – but like any trick play, it will only work once. Silberman used Elhady’s bland email answers in our November election coverage because he refused to do a live interview. Next time, we’ll call his bluff – and tell our readers why.
Of course, that’s exactly what Judy McGovern and The Chronicle did. I admire McGovern, Dave Askins, and Mary Morgan for having the brains and the courage to take a stand on behalf of their readers. The next time a politician tries to hide behind an email “interview,” the Ann Arbor Observer will do the same.
About the writer: John Hilton is editor and co-owner of The Ann Arbor Observer.