Column: Email No Substitute for Interview

Ward 4 council candidate's "media strategy" misguided
John Hilton, editor of The Ann Arbor Observer

John Hilton, editor of The Ann Arbor Observer

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.


  1. By Brian
    October 31, 2009 at 11:32 am | permalink

    Bravo. Someone calling it like it is. My respect for both the Chronicle and Observer publications just went up appreciably.

  2. By Patricia Lesko
    October 31, 2009 at 1:20 pm | permalink

    I have known John Hilton, as he writes above, since well before I had any gray hair and kids, and since graduate school he has published my pieces in the pub. he and Pat Garcia own! Long professional friendships are the ones that make work in an industry worth it all. Long-time professional relationships also mean that we will never agree on everything, particularly when it comes to politics or running a political campaign.

    If John calls something hogwash well, then, John calls something hogwash and we’ll agree to disagree.

    Hatim and I plotted out a media strategy that is brand new and to some of the publishing colleagues I have in Ann Arbor. It’s a strategy that’s common elsewhere; I will never claim to have invented it!

    Frankly, many of the folks who’ve run for Council have used, literally, the same printers, lit design, sign designers, media outlets, campaign advisors and strategies for a long time.

    Hatim Elhady will be the first student on Council in three decades, if elected. He’ll be the first Muslim. He will have unseated a five-term incumbent. To make history, to achieve that goal, I didn’t believe it would be prudent to run the same old campaign with the same old strategy, giving the same old interviews to the same reporters in the same ways.

    It’s a new world, John. You and others were looking for a campaign based on Tradition! Who decides the coverage? In Ann Arbor you and Judy McGovern have, and it has been that way for years thanks to a consistently small number of outlets. Blogs, WEMU’s increased interest in local news, this site,, A2Journal have changed the power dynamic through increasing the number of news outlets open to a candidate.

    Tevye the Milkman, from the play “Fiddler on the Roof,” puts it better than I: “It’s a new world, Goldie.” A Jew managing a campaign for a Arab candidate. I’m 24-years-older than Hatim Elhady. I’m a Democrat and gay. I am working on behalf of a young independent candidate because he shares my progressive values exponentially more than the Democratic incumbent ever has or ever will. He is running the kind of campaign we agreed to run.

    See you soon.

  3. By Dan Ryan
    October 31, 2009 at 2:08 pm | permalink

    Hmmm, it seems like Hatim got some really bad advice. Insisting on communicating with some media outlets only via email doesn’t sound like a brilliant new campaign strategy. It sounds pretty arrogant and stupid.

    So you pick one news outlet to give a face-to-face interview and spurn some others? Honestly, I’ve never heard of that in the context of someone trying to win a local election.

    Especially since Hatim is a complete unknown. Most people have never heard of him. Students don’t vote, and not everybody reads that closely. Why wouldn’t he want to get the most favorable coverage in the most media outlets? Nobody gets favorable coverage spurning the media.

  4. October 31, 2009 at 2:11 pm | permalink

    John – thanks for sharing the Observer’s experience with the candidate.

    Your piece is titled a “Column” (as was McGovern’s), and tagged by the Chronicle to appear under both “Govt.” and “Opinion” categories (as was McGovern’s). In her opening paragraphs McGovern wrote that hers was to be a “piece” (her descriptor) and instead is a “column.”

    In defending McGovern, Dave Askins noted the column title and opinion tagging on her content, and wrote, “It’s expected, as such, to reflect a first-person perspective, and conclusions and opinions associated with that perspective.”

    It’s not entirely clear when McGovern’s “piece” (which I presume would have been a “news story”) morphed into an opinion “column.”

    I think it’s fair to view The Chronicle’s format as a river of content. In this format I believe the publishers are asking the “Column” designation to carry a bit too much water. With newspapers, the layout and page headings helped readers distinguish news reporting from opinion. We knew when were on the op-ed page, and we knew from experience where the columns appeared.

    The “tagging” function generally employed on this site, and with these stories in particular, results in these opinion “columns” appearing in line with presumed objective news stories in the “Government” section.

    The readers and the publishers would be better served if the layout more clearly labled opinion pieces as such, perhaps by using the word “Opinion” instead of “Column” and perhaps by distinguishing them from news stories with color titles or backgrounds.

    The line between opinion and news seems increasingly blurred in the current media enviroment. McGovern’s piece/column/content amply illustrates how an assignment that starts as one thing can become something else, and how difficult it can for reporters, columnists, subjects, and readers to keep the distinctions clear.

  5. By obrien1988
    October 31, 2009 at 3:58 pm | permalink

    What amazes me is that in all the comments on both these “articles” no one has had the nerve to point out that this is truly a generation gap issue between old school newspaper reporters stung at being underappreciated (and many now unpaid) by a younger generation. All I’ve heard is whining by old style reporters who are upset at being left behind in the political arena. As a Gen Xer, I have absolutely no problem with any politician using email to answer reporters’ questions. I see it as a smart and economical use of time and money. I also find it annoying that the old school reporters cite a primary reason for a face-to-face interview is to basically try to catch the candidate in a moment of awkwardness. That barely a step away from the tabloids. You can try an hide behind a respectable old press badge, but I think you’re just trying to humilate someone who is younger and is not playing by the old rules. As for the Couric-Palin remarks, Sarah Palin had already publicaly said more than enough stupid things (I can see Russia) before that interview, and she has continued to do so at such a pace that it’s obvious we all would have figured it out. By the same type of arguement we could say that if someone younger and/or more comfortable with contempory communication (email) was already on the Council, perhaps the current email/IM fiasco that looks like it will cost taxpayer thousands of dollars to clear up would not have happened..thanks, old school reporters and council members! No one on the current council, or watching it as the old school reporters supposedly are, had the communication savvy to know that that sort of exchange would eventually come out. Our public schools give even kindergarteners basic internet/computer safety and communication rules, perhaps our council members should attend that class.

  6. By Julie
    October 31, 2009 at 4:30 pm | permalink

    I don’t know where my age puts me on the old school – new school continuum. However, I do know that as I exited my formal education and entered the workforce, it was my older, more experienced colleagues from whom I learned all sorts of nuanced and stragtegic and effective things. You dismiss all that institutional and societal learning with one big sweep of “old-school.” Just because it’s been around for a long time doesn’t mean it’s not useful. In fact, quite the contrary. As much as people are getting used to electronic communication and perhaps even entire electronic relationships… I would venture to say that there is much you cannot learn about someone that way. It is a dangerous way to evaluate a person for any reason. I for one would like my elected representatives to have to interview experienced journalists face-to-face, so that follow-up questions can be asked, conversation style. If we lose this, we face responses that have been worked-over by campaign managers and speech-writers and spouses, and I’m not willing to judge someone’s capability to think on his feet, or to make good decisions, based on email responses.

  7. By yet another
    October 31, 2009 at 5:31 pm | permalink


    Gen Xers and Yers should rest assured that relying on email as a protocol for conducting interviews of any kind will become very old school in the not-so-very-distant future. In the years ahead, interviewers will increasingly rely on advanced versions of software akin to Skype video chat. Whether conducted from across town or halfway around the world, the these communications will be up close and personal, as far as the questioning and responses are concerned. Gen Z reporters typically will record one-on-one or multi-party video discussions over IP and post these to their online sites. Voice-to-text utilities will speed up any desired transcription, but the original video is the format most of the public will want to access, usually via handheld smart phones.

    At that point, a future politician who insists on emailed questions & answers will seem every bit as odd and questionable as an elected public official of the late 20th century who preferred speaking to the press through first-class U.S. postal mail.

    Again, interviews handled through email do not allow for immediate follow-up questions. This is a big deal, and to minimalize it shows a substantial lowering in standards for reporting and investigative journalism.

  8. October 31, 2009 at 11:27 pm | permalink

    From a comic strip:

    Salesman: “Our device conforms to all international standards for communications.”

    Dilbert: “In other words, it doesn’t do anything useful, and it’s not your fault.”

    Salesman: “Is there somebody less experienced I could talk to?”

  9. By S. Ross
    November 1, 2009 at 10:14 am | permalink

    After reading John Hilton’s article in relation to email interviews, it occurred to me that there may be more to Elhady skipping these interviews than pure campaign strategy.

    Elhady granted interviews to the DAILY (early October and I assume one for Monday) and the AA.COM (last week). He refused interviews to the OBSERVER and CHRONICLE.

    I think it’s strange that he refused to give an interview to the two very experienced female reporters from the OBSERVER and CHRONICLE, but he agreed to be interviewed by the two relatively inexperienced male reporters from the DAILY and AA.COM.

  10. November 1, 2009 at 10:30 am | permalink

    O’Brien 1988′s kind of reasoning would have us throwing out the works of Aristotle, Bacon, Darwin because their ideas, theories, methods and processes are “old.” The underlying view seems to be that new technology rescinds principles, criteria, axioms and the like. I trust, believe and sincerely hope that he/she/it is not involved in education or any significant leadership position.

  11. November 1, 2009 at 10:49 am | permalink

    Thank you for this column. I am concerned that an interview is considered “tradition” and not appropriate for today’s new campaigns. In my opinion, this is either horrible advice, or a fundamentally flawed approach. Interviews are what differentiate a candidate from press releases, and an email interview is nothing more than a press release. I don’t put much faith behind press releases as a vetted method of learning, and hope others to the same. Tradition? I don’t buy it. If History has shown us anything, those who don’t give interviews generally have something to hide. Those who don’t, rarely turn down ANY interview, not matter the publication, audience, or circulation. (Especially given how close recent elections have been)

  12. By Jeff Meyers
    November 2, 2009 at 9:53 am | permalink

    Obrien- Your standards of inquiry for someone seeking a political leadership position are disturbingly low. I’m also a GenXer and find email ‘interviews’ with important subjects very problematic. It is akin to saying interviews via snail mail are an improvement over live and direct questioning. After all, the only difference between the two is speed and medium.

    Mr. Elhady granted live interviews with less experienced reporters and insisted on questionnaires from those who might actually challenge him on nuance, competency, fund of knowledge, positions and experience. I find that an ethically questionable tactic from someone who so vociferously calls for transparency in local govt. Personally and professionally I think his campaign should practice what it preaches.

  13. By Leah Gunn
    November 2, 2009 at 9:59 am | permalink

    What guarentee is there to assure us, the public, that the answers given by e-mail are actually those of the candidate and not written by one of the campaign “handlers”? This is why live conversation, face-to-face or on the phone is so important.

  14. By S. Ross
    November 2, 2009 at 10:15 am | permalink

    Here is a good reason why there needs to be an in-person or phone interview by an experienced reporter. In one of the few interviews Elhady would grant tothe Michigan Daily, he proposes moving the primary date to April. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why the Daily endorsed him. (However, no surprise with the students endorsing another student). What is surprising is that the reason for support is flawed because what Elhady proposed is illegal.

    An anonymous commenter on the Daily article put it best:
    Both the DAILY and Elhady have again shown their ignorance about the law and City government. Elhady advocates for an April primary election, but that is not allowed under State law. Elections can only be held in February, May, August, and November, and partisan primaries for November elections (which we have in Ann Arbor ) occur, by State law, in August. In other words, Elhady’s proposal for an April primary election is illegal. Yet the DAILY cited Elhady’s support for an illegal April primary election as a reason to support him. Once again, we see that the DAILY staff and editors are too naive to deserve any role in shaping City government.

    Is Elhady really that naive or is he just making false promises to get elected? We now know, fully admitted by Elhady and his campaign, that he strategically chose which newspapers to do an interview with. Is Elhady now strategically promising things that are illegal and not doable? An experienced reporter would have called him out on this.

    Maybe he should promise free tuition for all. It appears that the students might be gullible enough to believe him.

    So I will propose the question again as I did in my above post, but much more bluntly. Did Elhady refuse to be interviewed by two experienced female reporters because of sexism or because of their experience?

    Either way Elhady is not up to the job.

  15. By Alan Goldsmith
    November 2, 2009 at 12:31 pm | permalink

    If I were running for local office (and I am not..) I would take any and all questions, from phone calls, public forums, emails from voters, letters pages in comic books or even questions from jaded ex newspaper reporters looking to make the transition into the brave new world of online journalism. The more misinformed and cynical the question, the better. A public official should be open and available and that is one of the major reasons we need to replace several members of council. Elhady made a mistake by not making himself available for any media ‘outlet’ that wanted to ask questions.

    But having said that, the moral outrage that’s come out of this entire episode is…amazing. We (meaning the Chronicle and Observer in this situation) get THIS over whether to answer questions via email or on the phone. Not over secret council emails, the homeless crisis, the waste of taxpayer dollars. It’s over the style of journalism and someone who refused to play the game by the ‘rules’ Judy McGovern and the Chronicle wants to play by. How ARE Mr. Elhady want to answer questions via email. How DARE him. Lol.

    A few of the media folks on the message need to walk around the 4th Ward and see home many voters are outraged over whether Mr. Elady answered Judy McGovern’s questions. Taxes, schools. roads, education and the future of the city, yes. But I’m guessing you won’t find more than a couple of people who even know what you are talking about.

    Elhady made a mistake but if you want to talk about the topic of email mistakes, we can bring Ms. Higgins into the pool here too. I

  16. By David Lewis
    November 2, 2009 at 1:12 pm | permalink

    The response by the Chronicle has been in line with the attacks launched by the Elhady campaign. They went after the reporter and the publication rather than the substance.

    Of course he should have agreed to the interview but by agreeing to talk with an informed, experienced reporter he would have to respond to a follow up question. It is relatively easy to respond to the first question with campaign boilerplate but the follow up is the key to testing a candidate. It is understandable why his handlers would want to avoid that with an inexperienced candidate.

    But he should have done it anyway. Mr. Elhady has been misled by his handlers who have their own agenda, one that may differ from his. Their tactics appear overly aggressive and their advice at least in this matter, bad. Should he prevail in the election I hope he does not owe them too much or he will be dancing to their tune for a long time.

  17. By Michael Schils
    November 2, 2009 at 1:31 pm | permalink

    Speaking of email mistakes, what about Leah Gunn’s claim that she never received the email from Elhady’s manager several weeks ago? A claim that seems to have been refuted by the fact that the other reported recipients of the same email have confirmed receiving theirs. What is your response to this, Ms. Gunn, are we supposed to believe that you neither received the email nor were you made aware of its contents during the following weeks?

    Leah Gunn, you seem to know an awful lot about how to impersonate a candidate–how do we know the phone interview Higgins supposedly had with the reporter on the same day Higgins was a no-show at the LOWV forum was not actually you doing your best imitation of your candidate?

    I find it especially ironic that you are making such a big deal about the opposing candidate requesting an email interview, when your own candidate used email to make deals during council meetings! Which is more egregious, Ms. Gunn, and why didn’t McGovern ask your candidate (or you) about the email scandal during the phone interview? (All of her “hardball” questions must have been aimed at Elhady.)

    Also ironic, Ms. Gunn, is your cry for transparency when your own candidate has a history of disappearing and not being accessible. But anything to divert attention, right? Politics 101.

    Ross, your attempt to find sexism or some other improper motive behind Elhady’s decision is desperate. But the election is getting close, so its time to let the mud fly and see if any sticks, right?

  18. By michiganruth
    November 2, 2009 at 1:31 pm | permalink

    thanks for this column and for the (mostly) insightful comments. I still haven’t decided who to vote for, but I am more concerned about Elhady than I was before.

  19. By yet another
    November 2, 2009 at 10:45 pm | permalink

    Preface: After writing most of the comment below, I noticed today’s accusations made by S. Ross against Elhady over at Arbor Update. These, going beyond S. Ross’ earlier attempt above (comment #9) to smear Elhady as sexist, are far nastier than any individual comments made against McGovern and her election column. Higgins and/or her supporters are hereby urged to post at this site and also at AU to roundly condemn Ross’ malicious personal attacks.


    You’re right [in #15] to say that this extended back & forth on email vs. live interview distracts from other 4th Ward topics. There hasn’t been a whole lot said about actual concerns in the ward itself, which is unfortunate.

    Still, Elhady supporters, as a group, did just as much or more to ramp up the current row over his Chronicle & Observer non-interviews as have his critics. I don’t understand why, for over a week, various supporters keep stubbornly trying to defend his campaign’s indefensible position on the matter. Although the lack of a rational basis may help explain the move toward personalized nastiness in some of their comments (and I don’t mean your posts! — civility on your part has remained above this). The long thread (start) contains aspersions on editorial judgement as well as personal attacks on McGovern which go beyond a political slant (my brief summary on that is over here.

    A few months ago, I had a rather limited interest in the 4th Ward candidates, and had no issue with the prospect of Higgins, a former Republican, losing to an unknown independent with more good policy points than not. The bad behavior of some Elhady partisans became blatant enough to provoke me to start writing about it and click the “submit” button.

    Both ethically and practically speaking, the Elhady camp would have served itself much better to post just one medium-length comment below McGovern’s column, saying in so many words, “Sorry, we’re just not interested in doing direct interviews with the Chronicle and its reporter. We don’t mean to offend anyone, it’s just that we’ve decided to do some things differently in our campaign. If you have further questions, call or email the campaign manager.” Then, from that point forward, ignore further comments on the column and move ahead with their 4th Ward campaign elsewhere, letting later comments fall where they may. I’d still prefer a live interview, of course, but had campaign leaders taken this approach, the resulting damage would have been greatly limited, I believe. Instead, they chose to fan flames, setting themselves on fire in the process.

    An earlier, different example of bad treatment is found in a brief election exchange on Arbor Update. It starts with the illness message at #319 and goes until #324. When I first read this stretch, it took my breath away, becoming a negative turning point on how I felt about the way Elhady’s surrogates conduct themselves. Alan — I should note that your message at #323 stands out in contrast as a more sensitive, appropriate commentary. That no one else chose to step forward in this way, and that Elhady organizers let comments #320 and #324 stand without being publicly distanced and disowned was, unfortunately, very telling.