Ann Arbor Observer’s Coverage of Local Politics Criticized Sharply By Its Readers

Ann Arbor Observer’s Coverage of Local Politics Criticized Sharply By Its Readers

Update: In its Aug. 2017 City Council candidate article written by James Leonard, the Observer states a married candidate’s “girlfriend” donated thousands to his campaign. The woman named as David Silkworth’s “girlfriend” is, in fact, his wife, Tanya Ridella-Mehlos. In the Observer’s April 2016 issue, writer James Leonard interviewed Silkworth and his wife for an article about the deer cull. The Aug. 2017 issue of the tabloid in which Ridella-Mehlos is identified as the married candidate’s “girlfriend” was mailed in to 50,000 Ann Arbor residents.

by Patricia Lesko

Note: The Ann Arbor Independent was given dozens of emails from a three-year period by members of City Council as well as Council candidates who ran for local elected office between 2014 and 2017. With the emails, these individuals alleged that The Ann Arbor Observer’s political coverage was biased and frequently included falsehoods about candidates’ statements, voting records, and campaign finances, etc…. The emails shared with the newspaper were to and from the Observer’s editor and co-owner John Hilton, as well as to and from the Observer’s freelance political writer James Leonard.

Both Hilton and Leonard answered questions about the allegations.

In addition to the emails provided to the newspaper, and interviews, all of James Leonard’s political reporting published by John Hilton in the Observer between 2008-2016 was examined in order to determine whether the allegations of inaccuracy were credible. In some instances, the emailed complaints and requests for corrections resulted in corrections to Observer articles, but not always.

Several of the Council candidates and Council members interviewed requested anonymity because they feared retaliation in upcoming coverage of local politics by the Observer. Candidates were granted anonymity; Council members were not. (Full disclosure: I have written for the Ann Arbor Observer.)

Local. Trusted?

“Local. Trusted. Journalism.” These are the first three words of the Ann Arbor Observer’s advertiser media kit. The Observer is locally-owned, but its co-owners’ and editor’s focus on what critics say is one-sided, horse race political coverage. To some, this means the Observer’s local reporting can’t be trusted. To others, the Observer’s political coverage isn’t reporting at all. In an interview with Concentrate Media, David Askins, the co-owner and editor of the now defunct, said that the Ann Arbor Observer focuses on narrative journalism (storytelling), leavinga critical gap in journalism: straight, fact-based reporting.”

The Observer’s delivery of free print copies to all permanent residents of the Ann Arbor School district means its coverage of local politics is widely-distributed, but that doesn’t mean the tabloid’s readers like what’s delivered to their mailboxes.

“I’ve pretty much given up on any journalistic integrity coming from the Observer. Their bias has been repeatedly demonstrated,” said Ann Arbor resident Deanne Neiburger in a public discussion of the Observer’s alleged ongoing problems with editorial accuracy and biases.

Tom Wieder (Photo courtesy of T. Wieder.)
Tom Wieder (Photo courtesy of T. Wieder.)

“Maybe it’s just that I’m not up on these things, but the Observer strikes me as coverage that has a certain slant,” said Tom Wieder, a local attorney, pictured left.

When pointed out to John Hilton that in the Ann Arbor Observer’s political articles there is the “forward-thinking,” “like-minded” “activist coalition” of Council members loyal to Mayor Chris Taylor, and the so-called “back to basics” “critics” who “block” progress, Hilton objected. He responded via email: “You say that Jim Leonard described council’s dominant faction as ‘forward-thinking.’ That is a brazen misrepresentation. In fact, that was a direct quote from the faction’s leader, Christopher Taylor.”

In 2014, Tom Wieder represented Ann Arbor barber Bob Dascola in a federal lawsuit which sought to void the Charter’s one-year residency requirement for City Council candidates. In August 2014, a few days before the Democratic primary election, the Observer criticized Dascola for having Wieder accompany the candidate to an interview. The tabloid also took Dascola to task for having answered interview questions via email:

“Unlike any council candidate in five years, Dascola agreed to be interviewed only via email with follow-up questions in person. Asked why, he explains, ‘I’m new at this, and it helps me to see what’s coming at me.’ And unlike any other candidate, Dascola had someone accompany him to the interview: attorney Tom Wieder, who secured Dascola’s place on the ballot by winning a federal court decision invalidating the city’s residency requirements.”

The Observer’s August 2014 article led readers to believe that Dascola had made an unreasonable request to be interviewed by email. Observer editor and co-owner John Hilton wrote an essay in Oct. 2009 criticizing another first-time Council candidate for, allegedly, trying to “hide” behind an email interview.

When asked if, given his public and intense criticism of email interviews he preferred to be interviewed for this article face-to-face, Hilton’s email response to the invitation was a single sentence: “No, I do not prefer to be interviewed in person.”

When asked to sit down for an interview, James Leonard responded that he was “exceedingly disinclined to talk about myself or my work.” Two weeks later, when invited to respond to specific comments made about his reporting, he chose to answer his critics, via email, including reviewing and refining his own quotes prior to publication.

Hilton’s emailed answers to questions for this article were, in turn, irate, sarcastic, bullying, defensive and thoughtful. The content and tone of Hilton’s email didn’t surprise one Council candidate who read it. That candidate’s views were mischaracterized in print (the Observer article mentioning that candidate was corrected the month after the August primary election). That candidate alleged: “Just look at the Observer’s attacks on [former Ward 3 Council member Stephen] Kunselman. There are people John [Hilton] likes and people he doesn’t and his newspaper’s articles reflect that. These people he likes are the Hieftje/Taylor people. The [Observer’s] articles about Brad O’Furey (“Campaign Manager to the Stars,” Jan. 2016) and Chris Taylor (“Mr. Congeniality”) were one-sided…kiss-ass. Articles that never should have seen the light of day.”

Comments from media experts, educators and practitioners suggest Hilton’s dictates about email interviews and his public criticisms of candidates who request them were anachronistic in 2009 and that Dascola’s 2014 request was, indeed, reasonable, as were the requests from other council candidates in 2016 and 2017 who asked to be interviewed by email. In an email shared with the A2 Indy, James Leonard writes to one of those candidates that the Observer has only ever interviewed candidates face-to-face.

The NPR Ethics Handbook for reporters, used widely by journalists, makes clear that such deceptions are unacceptable: “Journalists who conduct themselves honestly prove themselves worthy of trust. In the course of our work, we are genuine and candid.”

Experts’ opinions suggest email interviews could ameliorate some of the criticisms of the Observer’s political coverage.

Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal told the American Journalism Review that email interviews provide a written record of the conversation, “so there’s no real room for being accused of misquoting.” Golden used email to communicate with a few sources for his extensive 2003 series on admission preferences at American universities, which won a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting. “An email is like having the transcript of a court case. They can’t really say you got the quote wrong,” he added.

The Poynter Institute’s Butch Ward, the former Philadelphia Inquirer managing editor, told the American Journalism Review in an article about using email interviews that email interviews “give sources the chance to gather more accurate information and collect their thoughts rather than giving an immediate knee-jerk response that may be off the mark.”

Several former and current City Council candidates described their interactions with the Observer similarly: the candidates alleged that the tabloid’s editor and its freelance political reporter James Leonard “bully and misquote” candidates—particularly those challenging the local hegemony.

Emails shared with The Ann Arbor Independent showed that in several instances, Leonard’s emailed questions to Council candidates involved hyperbole and conjecture. For example, in an email Leonard asks a candidate for Council to answer whether “Jane Lumm, Steve Kunselman or Jack Eaton [would] have been elected if they ran [sic] in an even years [sic]?” In other emails Leonard asks candidates to comment on the thoughts and feelings of their opponents.

In an email exchange with a Council candidate about campaign finances, Observer Editor John Hilton writes, “Just to share what we’ve previously published on the subject, in 2014, Jim did look at old campaign finance reports dating back to 2009.”

Hilton’s email is far from candid.

The article to which Hilton refers in his effort to draw one Council candidate further into a discussion about the campaign finances of another candidate, is a Feb. 2014 article which was rewritten as a result of the misreading of the campaign finance reports of dozens of Council candidates. Hilton neglects to reveal in his email to the candidate that what the Observer “had previously published on the subject” had misinformed 50,000 Ann Arbor readers concerning the campaign finances and donation histories of multiple city residents. Rather than publicly retract the article and publicly apologize to those individuals incorrectly named and pictured in print, Hilton posted a “rewritten” version online with the same individuals incorrectly pictured.

It was an editorial decision that violates the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics concerning how corrections should be made and presented to readers.

In a trio of Leonard’s emails shared with the A2Indy, a candidate provided the same answer in writing to Leonard’s questions about alleged donations to local candidates from out-of-state real estate developers: “I will not know who has contributed to any other campaign until the campaign finance reports are filed on July 28.  I would rather not comment about other candidate’s campaign contributions until we have better information….These answers are the honest truth. Any other version would not be accurate.”

On July 4, 2017 Leonard sent that candidate yet another email, this time with the definitions of words. He writes, “Hearsay: ‘information received from other people that one cannot adequately substantiate; rumor. Hearsay: ‘synonyms: rumor, gossip, tittle-tattle, idle talk.'”

In a July 2017 email from James Leonard to a different council candidate shared with The A2 Indy Leonard writes: “Do you support [Ward 5 Council Democratic candidate David] Silkworth? And just so you understand: Silkworth has accused his opponent of being ‘not honest’ – an amazing charge – and if you support him, we’ll have several questions about that, too.”

On July 4, Leonard emailed that same candidate yet again, “Are you endorsing any candidates – are you endorsing the candidates that are endorsing you?”

The candidate viewed Leonard’s July 2 email as “threatening” and replied the same day: “I’m focused on knocking doors and meeting…voters, and do not have time to take a position on other ward races.”

Silkworth’s allegation concerning his opponent Council member Chip Smith being “not honest,” was based on two articles (here and here). The articles examined Smith’s use of his city-owned computer during public meetings, Council members’ city web server records, emails, text messages and instant messages obtained using FOIA and published by The Ann Arbor Independent.

Public records turned over to The Ann Arbor Independent in April and May 2017 revealed Ward 5 Council member Chip Smith (D) (along with other Council members) had worked to stage and script public comments delivered by homeless individuals at an April 17, 2017 Council meeting where Smith voted to sell the Library Lot for $10 million to Chicago developer Core Spaces. The City Clerk’s FOIA log shows that as of July 24, James Leonard had not filed a request to obtain Council member Smith’s emails and texts related to that April 17 meeting in order to verify Smith’s claims, including false statements Smith made to Leonard that the writer then sent by email to a number of candidates in search of comments.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics requires reporters to “[t]ake responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.”

Another candidate fielded multiple emails from Leonard about campaign finances (public records available on the County Clerk’s website). The candidate finally responded, “I have to make the concerns of…voters my priority right now.”

The next day, Leonard sent the candidate another email consisting of: “????”

When told that Council candidates whom he has interviewed allege he’s a bully who goes about writing his political reporting pieces with an agenda, Leonard responded, “Don’t know to whom you refer – got any examples?”

Council members, including Ward 4 Council member Jack Eaton (D), confirmed that they’ve refused to be interviewed by Leonard and responded only to his written questions via email. When asked why Council members preferred to interact with him in writing, Leonard claimed it was “news to him.”

Libby Hunter is a retired music teacher who lives on the city’s west side. Her father was a newspaper editor and she grew up in the news business. She said, “Since I follow local government, I summon up the courage to read the Observer most months, if only to see how Jim Leonard has decided to present things. Then I can explain to friends what really happened. Unfortunately, it’s not a publication that seeks to report truth, and usually represents issues from the angle of the reigning majority power players.  What’s disturbing at times is Leonard’s gratuitous nastiness, and that John Hilton is fine with it, year after year.”

U-M Ross School of Business lecturer staffer Kai Petainen disagrees: “I think it’s quite common for media to take a biased approach one way or the other on issues….I’m ok with other media folks being biased in their coverage as well.  Likewise in the national news I don’t mind MSNBC and Fox News, as both provide me with angles that I hadn’t considered. It doesn’t mean that I agree or disagree with everything they say, but it allows me to think about other angles as well.”

Former member of the Ann Arbor Planning Commission (and a Ward 4 Council candidate in 2016 and now 2017) Diane Giannola has called Leonard’s coverage of local politics “brilliant.” Likewise, DDA Board member Joan Lowenstein in a 2014 blog entry praised Leonard’s writing as “excellent.”

Hilton replied to the accusations of bullying with, “How politicians feel about us is beyond our control. All we can do is encourage them to articulate their positions, then describe those positions accurately to our readers.”

Of his interviews with Leonard for the Observer Ward 4 resident Jaime Magiera—who is running against incumbent Jack Eaton (D-Ward 4) for a second time—quipped in a public discussion about the Observer’s political coverage, “Can’t wait to see how my words were mutilated this time.”

“The Observer gets away with its horribly one-sided portrayals of certain candidates for local office, I think, because people read the horrid articles and think, ‘Well, at least it’s not me they’re trashing.’ That mentality allows the bullying that goes on in the Observer’s coverage of our neighbors who run for local office to continue. It’s reprehensible and it needs to stop,” said one long-time Ann Arbor resident.

“Too Critical”

James Leonard’s author bio. from the University of Michigan Press is candid:

Leonard moved to Ann Arbor…to attend the University of Michigan School of Music, from which he graduated in 1980 with a Masters in Music Theory. He worked in, managed, and later owned record stores in Ann Arbor from 1977 through 2001, then went bankrupt along with the stores when music downloading became popular. Leonard began writing music criticism for the Ann Arbor News in 1983, [and] was fired for being too critical in 1988….

James Leonard has been writing features on politics, government and religion for the Observer since 2001. He is the author of one book, Living the Faith: A Life of Tom Monaghan, a biography of Tom Monaghan, published by The University of Michigan Press in 2012.

A 2017 review of Leonard’s book by Joseph Pearce, Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, the author of five books and the co-editor the the St. Austin Review, touches on many of the complaints and criticisms of Leonard’s political writing and candidate profiles published by the Observer. Pearce calls Leonard’s book a “hackiography, in which Mr. Leonard seeks to hack his subject to pieces.”

Jim Leonard has been writing for the Ann Arbor Observer since 2001. (Photo courtesy of Lucy Anne Lance)

Pearce writes: “…James Leonard’s, Living the Faith: A Life of Tom Monaghan, a volume which has to be one of the most vitriolic biographies ever written. Throughout its almost four hundred sprawling and largely self-opinionated pages, the author makes little or no effort to either sympathize or empathize with his subject, preferring instead to sit in supercilious judgment, passing sentence with barely-concealed scorn on every aspect of Tom Monaghan’s life and beliefs. As I read this biography, I was appalled by the pride and prejudice of the author and by the catalogue of rudimentary factual errors which protruded with irritating regularity from its pages.”

Pearce then produces a litany of what he alleges are Leonard’s factual inaccuracies in the book:

  • “On the very first page, he misquotes the words of the Hail Mary, probably the most famous of all Catholic prayers….”
  • “Two pages later, Mr. Leonard tells us that a miter is “the ancient papal head-dress recently readopted by Pope Benedict XVI.” This simply beggars belief, displaying an ignorance that would embarrass the average eighth grader. A miter is, of course, the traditional headdress of all bishops of the Catholic Church, and, for that matter, all bishops of the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Church.”
  • “Mr. Leonard remarks that ‘Waldstein then went on to criticize Desmond Hume… the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher,’ confusing the philosopher, David Hume, whom Waldstein was obviously discussing, with Desmond Hume, the character in a recent ABC television series!”

When asked about Pearce’s criticisms, Jim Leonard replied, “As Upton Sinclair wrote: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!'”

Writers Write and Editors Edit 

As the saying goes, “Writers write and editors edit.” While Ann Arbor residents, Council members and Council candidates fume about Jim Leonard’s mistakes, responsibility for the accuracy of the editorial content in the Observer rests with co-owner and head editor John Hilton.

On the one hand, reporting mistakes happen. The Ann Arbor Independent has been asked to correct articles and does so. These corrections are featured prominently on

“Overall, research suggests that between 40 and 60 percent of newspaper news stories have some type of error, be it factual or something of a more subjective nature,” said Craig Silverman. Silverman is the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. Silverman added, “But here’s the other part of the equation: Research found that only two percent of factual errors were corrected.”

The Ann Arbor Observer prints corrections. Some of the elected officials and candidates who claim that they have been misquoted and misrepresented in James Leonard’s articles allege the mistakes are the result of intentionality.

“Ask yourself,” said a 2015 Council candidate. “Why does the Observer give Jim Leonard these pieces to write year after year? Then you have to remember that John Hilton takes these already flawed articles and makes them worse with his editing.”

John Hilton disagrees vehemently.

Observer pageIn June of 2017, the Observer published a piece by Jim Leonard in its “UpFront” section (left) about the implications of an eight-member “supermajority” on City Council. There were three errors of fact in the first three paragraphs: Ackerman defeated Kunselman in 2015, not 2016. Kunselman is running against Ackerman this year (not Grand). David Silkworth opposed Chuck Warpehoski (D-Ward 5) in the general election last year.

When asked by a reader about one of the errors, John Hilton told the reader in an email shared with The A2 Indy, “That was a dump error on who Steve will be challenging, and you’re not the first to point it out. We will of course run a correction in the July issue.” Hilton did not acknowledge that the piece contained multiple errors nor did he explain what “the dump” was or how it accounted for the multiple errors of fact in Leonard’s published piece.

When asked whether errors had been inserted into his June 2017 UpFront piece during the editing process, Leonard responded that, “John [Hilton] thought that I corrected the piece and I thought that he did. The resulting error will be corrected in the next issue.” After reviewing his quotes, Leonard added an apology: “Sure am sorry to have screwed up.”

Leonard’s response answers at least some of the persistent questions about why his mistakes end up in print so frequently, making an experienced writer with a Master’s Degree in Music from the University of Michigan appear as though he is incompetent. The Observer’s masthead includes seven “editorial staff” including John Hilton, who is listed as both the editor and the online editor.

In his email answers to questions, Hilton praised former Ann Arbor News staffer and former publisher Mary Morgan and her husband David Askins in their method of correcting articles: “I greatly admired Mary Morgan and Dave Askins’ work at the Ann Arbor Chronicle, including the way they handled corrections….” Morgan and her husband Askins, however, took to Facebook to criticize the Observer. Leonard’s June 2017 article triggered a public discussion of the Observer’s perceived long-standing problems with biases, accuracy and the way the tabloid alerts readers to corrections.

“Three factual errors in three grafs of this Observer UpFront piece. Aaargh,” said Mary Morgan.

Morgan’s husband David Askins chimed in about the June 2017 piece, as well: “The Observer lacks even the basic mechanism of a Corrections section. When facts are mangled, they’re sometimes (not always) acknowledged through the Calls & Letters section, diluted by other items in Calls & Letters that don’t involve errors of fact, and diluted by the wholly unnecessary narrative about who it was who pointed out the error. A typical Observer ‘correction’ includes some attempt to salvage or the accuracy of the point in question — which has on at least one occasion led to the need to correct a previous attempt at a correction.”

Former Ward 3 Council member and current Council candidate Stephen Kunselman added his two-cents, “That’s Jim for ya.”

Leonard portrayed Kunselman as an uninformed, bullying, conspiracy theorist in the Observer’s Dec. 2013 piece “Curbing the DDA.” Online, at the bottom of that article, are multiple corrections including the now-infamous: “A correction in our February issue was itself mistaken: we wrote that the DDA’s annual reports were filed with the city and state, but not published in a newspaper of record. In fact, the reports were neither filed or published–just as Steve Kunselman and Sumi Kailasapathy had contended.”

In a public discussion about the June 2017 UpFront article and Observer corrections, David Askins mocked John Hilton’s editing: “An Observer-style ‘correction’ to the mistakes noted here: Stephen Kunselman emailed us to let us that we should have said that he was beaten by Zaque Ackerman last odd-year cycle instead of last year. We correctly reported that Kunselman had challenged Grand, but should have made more clear that that the Kunselman-Grand race took place in 2013 and was not going to be repeated this fall. And Dan Smith, Chip Smith’s dad, called to point out that some readers might have understood our use of him to mean Chip, when it in fact referred to Chuck Warpehoski. And the following month we’d get: Zachary Ackerman emailed us to alert us to an alternative spelling of his name we’d used in a Call & Letter item. And Dan Smith emailed us to let us know that he’s not related to Chip Smith, despite the obvious similarity in last names.”

Vivienne Armentrout is a former county commissioner. She ran for Ann Arbor City Council in 2008 and again in 2012 and also used to write for the Observer. Of the June 2017 article she said, “We should simply be able to trust that simple facts are accurate and can then account for bias as we choose. This distresses me.”

An Ann Arbor neighborhood listserv member posted a discussion thread on May 27 about the Observer’s June 2017 UpFront piece: “wow–The Worst writing in the observer!!!” Another member of the listserv replied: “Sadly, the inaccuracies are pretty typical of the Ann Arbor Observer’s political reporting.”

On the surface, Leonard’s explanation that the errors in the June 2017  piece had slipped in due to confusion, suggests a slip-up on his part. Yet, in its Feb. 2014 issue, the Ann Arbor Observer published a list of the “top 10” donors to candidates for local office along with their photos. [Full disclosure: I was included erroneously in this list.] Leonard’s article identified as top donors people who were not.

Ann Arbor Observer President and Publisher Patricia Garcia. (Image from her Twitter account profile.)
Ann Arbor Observer President and Publisher Patricia Garcia. (Image from her Twitter account profile.)

When asked about the piece, Publisher Patricia Garcia explained that John Hilton had not checked Leonard’s work, but had relied on the freelancer’s accuracy, a mistake Hilton would go on to repeat, to the chagrin of other Ann Arborites and local candidates.

After multiple complaints about factual inaccuracies in that 2014 article, it was subsequently rewritten. The top donor to Ann Arbor mayoral and Council races between 2009-2013 was identified (incorrectly again) to be Dennis Dahlmann, a local developer. Dahlmann is also the life partner of Patricia Garcia, the co-owner and publisher of The Ann Arbor Observer. Dahlmann was quoted in the Feb. 2014 article by Leonard, without noting Dahlmann’s connection to the tabloid’s publisher/owner.

John Hilton apologized for Leonard’s error via email; he wrote that he planned to acknowledge the error in the Observer’s March 2014 issue and print a revised piece in the April 2014 issue.

“Someone Who Told Ann Arbor’s Stories Accurately”

John Hilton, a former autoworker, said in a 2009 interview, “The first time I saw the Observer I fell in love with it.” In 1979, he decided he wanted to write for the tabloid. His first freelance story appeared in the Observer in 1980. Hilton (and Garcia) purchased the publication in 1986; he installed himself in the post of head editor and has held that job ever since.

In a 2010 interview with the now defunct Ann Arbor Journal, in response to the question “How would you like to be remembered?” John Hilton answered: “As someone who cared about Ann Arbor and told its stories accurately and fairly.”

In a video interview in June 2017, Hilton is less eloquent. Even though the interviewer says Hilton was given the questions in advance, Hilton’s answers ramble and he can’t remember the name of the federal agency that employs his sister. He describes MLive’s political reporting as “outstanding.”

To characterize the Observer’s City Council campaign coverage as fair and accurate elicits eye rolls and groans from those who say they’ve “suffered through it” and who allege Leonard, Hilton and the Observer incapable of providing even-handed coverage of local politics. (Jim Leonard commented that his critics “are entitled to their opinions.” Hilton said, “How politicians feel about us is beyond our control.”)

Ruth Kraut works for Washtenaw County and writes a blog about the Ann Arbor Public Schools. She said in a public discussion about the Observer, “I don’t know what their bias is, but facts like who ran for what in the recent past should be accurate.”

Yet, on its Facebook page, the Observer is rated highly.

One Facebook reviewer writes, “I look forward to reading the Observer every month in its paper form. It’s the ONLY paper news source I read — everything else is on line. The calendar of events is very useful, and I like hearing about new and recently-failed businesses.” The reader goes on to write, “PS — Another reason we like the Observer: since it is the only newspaper we receive, we use the previous month’s edition to light our charcoal.”

The tabloid accepts advertisements from candidates for local office, and doesn’t publish candidate endorsements. However, the Observer is dogged by allegations that the publication does, indeed, take sides in local politics.

The August 2015 piece titled, “Who’ll Control Council” prompted a rash of complaints from elected officials about Leonard’s coverage, in particular Leonard’s handling of the race between former Ward 5 Council member Mike Anglin and challenger Chip Smith.

In the introduction to that piece Leonard writes, “Naturally, the candidates disagree on issues like development, safety services, and affordable housing.” Later, Mike Anglin and Chip Smith are both quoted as saying they believe the city needs more affordable housing. At the bottom of the article online is the notification that: “This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2015 Ann Arbor Observer. The electoral records of Mike Anglin and Sabra Briere, and Chip Smith’s neighborhood, have been corrected.”

In a Sept. 2015 piece titled “Taylor’s Win,” Leonard tells the Observer’s readers, “In fourteen years as mayor, John Hieftje never publicly opposed the reelection of a fellow councilmember.” Hieftje routinely campaigned door-to-door with challengers to incumbents he wanted to see replaced. The same piece praises the “supermajority” voting block of Taylor and his “activist coalition.” Leonard writes that the three Council members who are not a part of that coalition will “no longer be able to block decisions like budget changes and land sales.”

In Leonard’s pieces for the Observer, Stephen Kunselman is dubbed “a consistent critic.” Jane Lumm (I-Ward 2), Jack Eaton (D-Ward 4) and Sumi Kailasapathy (D-Ward 1), likewise, are repeatedly referred to as “critics” by the Observer. Chris Taylor is “Mr. Congeniality” and his “activist coalition” is referred to in Leonard’s articles for the Observer as “like-minded.” Taylor is the self-anointed “forward-thinking” member of council.

One person who’s not complaining about the Observer is Kathy Griswold, a former member of the Ann Arbor Board of Education and a pedestrian safety activist. She is a member of A2 Safe Transport. A2 Safe Transport is a group of parents who are advocating for improved pedestrian and bike safety in Ann Arbor, particularly around schools.

“Jim Leonard has been fair in his coverage (“Tragedy on Fuller Road,” Dec. 2016) of our group A2 Safe Transport,” she says. Nonetheless, below Leonard’s Dec. 2016 article is a notation that: “This article has been edited since it was published in the December 2016 Ann Arbor Observer. The school of the student who died in an apparent suicide has been corrected.”

Democratic Primary Season in Ann Arbor 

In late-July 2017, the Ann Arbor Observer will circulate to 50,000 Ann Arbor residents its annual article about the candidates running for Ann Arbor City Council.

Leonard’s past articles about local politics published by the Observer have titles such as “Who Will Control Council?” “The Activist Coalition vs. the Back-to-Basics Caucus,” “Satan for Mayor,” “Curbing the DDA,” “Eaton’s Bridge,” “Taking on the Council Party” and “Mr. Congeniality.” Such writing is described by those who study journalism as “horse race” coverage of local politics.

John Hilton disagrees, “Our political coverage is meant to help Ann Arborites understand the city’s circumstances and choices, not to promote a candidate or cause. To call it ‘horserace journalism’ is not just false—it’s absurd. We have always placed political contests in the context of the issues at stake, asking how an election’s outcome might shape the city going forward.”

Yet, in his email answers to The A2 Indy’s questions, Hilton describes local politics in terms of  “electoral battles,” “struggles,” and “contests.” He refers to Mayor Chris Taylor and his political allies as a “faction.”

Thomas Patterson is the the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School. In his book We the People he makes a case that the news media must deliver more “knowledge based” reporting, reporting based on verified information and expertise on substantive issues, and less on “squabbles and conflicts.”

When asked if horse race reporting contributes to why some local elected officials and candidates for Council criticize the Observer’s political reporting, Jim Leonard said, “[I] wouldn’t say so.”

A 2016 report, from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, underscores the role that the press can play in anointing — or sinking — a candidate, as well as keeping voters under-informed by focusing only on the horse race instead of the candidates or relevant issues. Extensive focus on the horse race also leaves less time for substantive coverage, the report said.

In 2007, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, “One of my pet peeves about political reporting is the fact that some of my journalistic colleagues seem to want to be in another business – namely, theater criticism. Instead of telling us what candidates are actually saying – and whether it’s true or false, sensible or silly – they tell us how it went over, and how they think it affects the horse race.”

Krugman then pointed out that not only does horse race political journalism fail to inform the public about what matters, the way things look to insider pundits “can be very different from the way they look to real people.”

Robert Karl Manoff is the co-director the Center for War, Peace and the New Media at New York University. He writes, “Candidates blame the press for focusing on the ‘horse race’ to the exclusion of ‘the real issues.’ Journalists blame the candidates for failing to talk about such issues or for obscuring their positions when they do. Privately, both the candidates and the press blame the situation on the public, which is said to have neither the patience nor — let’s face it — the intelligence to care about what really matters.”

Leonard’s 2017 interview questions to those candidates whom the Observer’s co-owner identifies as allied with the so-called Back to Basics Caucus (Council members who are frequently referred to in Observer articles as “blocking” the “Activist Coalition’s” “forward-thinking” plans) suggest readers can expect the same kind of coverage. The Observer’s horse race coverage in which the candidates’ words will be “mutilated,” to quote Jaime Magiera, will be mailed to over 50,000 homes in Ann Arbor days before the August 8 primary election. In Sept., factual inaccuracies may be corrected in what David Askins criticized as a thinly-veiled effort to save face and prove the accuracy of the points in question.

The Observer’s chronically under-informed and frequently misinformed readers, alas, may continue to be none the wiser.

20 Responses to "Ann Arbor Observer’s Coverage of Local Politics Criticized Sharply By Its Readers"

  1. Pingback: 2017 City Council Aug. 8 Primary Election Coverage Round-up | The Ann Arbor Independent

  2. ehunter   July 28, 2017 at 9:59 am

    I will contact the Observer to stop my “subscription.” The useful part of the tabloid, the event listings, can be viewed online.

  3. Carol Hall   July 25, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t surprised when I read this, but I’m still disappointed. It does seem like the Observer’s reporter Mr. Leonard always seems to find something unflattering to write about those who challenge the folks in charge. He is almost never critical of those who have the support of this mayor and/or the last one. Mr. Hilton’s answers to the questions about his newspaper’s articles don’t appear to recognize this pattern. It’s my belief that people who run for city council should expect to have the attention of the media, and the media should focus on what the issues of the day might be. Asking people to make pronouncements about the feelings or thoughts of other candidates is just silly and irrelevant.

  4. Andy Schotz   July 25, 2017 at 2:13 am

    Just FYI: The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics is not a set of rules, requirements, or mandates; as such, there are no “violations” of it.

    It is a set of guidelines to help journalists make good decisions as they do their work. Different people may interpret the principles (i.e., what constitutes a conflict of interest) in different ways.

    I am a member of the SPJ national board (speaking only for myself) and a former chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee.

    • The Ann Arbor Independent Editorial Team   July 25, 2017 at 3:56 am

      @Andy thanks for the comment. There’s a link to the SPJ code for those who are interested in delving into the details. You bring up an interesting point. If a code of ethics exists and those who fail to adhere to it are disciplined (fired or suspended, for instance) as happens at newspapers that use the SPJ code, is the code merely a guideline or suggestion?

  5. CE Michaels   July 24, 2017 at 9:12 pm

    “No, I do not prefer to be interviewed in person.” It’s not hard to figure out why John Hilton didn’t want to be interviewed in person. How could he possibly explain away such a long list of avoidable mistakes? The hypocrisy of both John Hilton and James Leonard boggles in the mind. Thank you for what looks to have been a very time-consuming investigation into the complaints of those who reached out to you. I’ll be taking what is published about the council candidates in the next issue of the Ann Arbor Observer with a truckload of salt.

  6. Todd   July 24, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    So the Observer printed the writer’s mistakes and then corrected them later? What’s the big deal?

    • councilcandidate   July 24, 2017 at 4:21 pm

      What’s the big deal? Obviously you’ve never been the victim of a Jim Leonard/John Hilton smear. Run for council and then come back and talk about how it’s not a big deal that the Observer just printed the writer’s mistakes about YOUR life, opinions and your efforts to run for office. John Hilton is an incompetent editor and Jim Leonard is totally incapable of fact-based reporting.

      • Dave D.   July 24, 2017 at 4:26 pm

        Is John Hilton incompetent or is he kissing up to the people in power by trashing their competitors? Maybe it’s good for business to keep printing Leonard’s mistakes and then as Jeff Hayner said printing a tiny retraction after the election.

        • ehunter   July 25, 2017 at 8:45 pm

          I suppose showing bias openly issue after issue could be called incompetent.

  7. Susan Q.   July 24, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    “Hearsay: ‘information received from other people that one cannot adequately substantiate; rumor. Hearsay: ‘synonyms: rumor, gossip, tittle-tattle, idle talk.’” The Observer’s reporter sent this in an email to a candidate for local office? This shows so little courtesy and no respect for the people who simply want to be participants in the public process. Shame on this reporter and shame on the owners of The Ann Arbor Observer. If you truly want to serve our community, start with hiring people who are professional and then supervising them responsibly.

    • Linda Kaplan   July 24, 2017 at 8:40 pm

      Well said Susan Q! If I made this many mistakes in my job and embarrassed my employer, I’d be gone in a heart beat.

  8. Jeff Hayner   July 24, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    I felt I was treated reasonably fair in my 2013 campaign interview with Mr. Leonard. It may have helped that I knew him from his days as a music store owner, and we share a love and knowledge of music, and local artists.

    The process was a bit odd, we met at Sweetwater’s downtown, and he was already in a seat towards the back. When the interview was over and I was leaving I happened to look into the other small back room and there was Sabra Briere, sitting in the corner closest to the adjoining hallway. I had to wonder if she had been eavesdropping on our conversation, or was told by Mr. Leonard about our conversation, especially when a week later her campaign flyer arrived stating that she was “the independent voice of city council” which is what I had told Leonard was my reason for running – because city council needed an independent voice. Indeed you may recall I ran as an Independent, no party affiliation. Of course it is an old campaign ploy to co-opt your opponent’s message – we saw it time and time again from Briere and the Taylor faction, claiming to care about basic services and safety while voting against funding for any of it.

    My only complaint about the final piece was the manner in which this subject, near and dear to me, was handled; that of asking U of M to participate in a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) program with the city. In email follow-up questions I sent Mr. Leonard several links to studies showing the value of such programs, and how they had been accomplished in other college towns (including at Brown, former home of current U of M president Mark Schlissel) If I recall correctly in the article the subject was introduced with a quote from U of M PR man Jim Kosteva shutting down any such talk, then a line saying I was for it, and the last word was given to a factually incorrect quote from Sabra Briere, calling it a no-go that had had already been tried. (really? by who?)

    I have also clipped and saved “corrections” to errors I have challenged, that have been printed the month after an article appears. As this story points out, it has become something of a habit with The Observer to print distorted or factually incorrect information in the critical pre-election issue, then print a tiny retraction after it’s over. It’s a clever dodge, and for those readers who don’t follow politics or issues closely, the damage is done. The most egregious example IMO was that of the millage calculation leading up to the 2014 AAATA Transit expansion vote – they had halved the amount in their story.

    If this is how things are “Observed” by the staff and editors one has to wonder, from just what sort of ethical perspective are they observing?

    • councilcandidate   July 24, 2017 at 2:45 pm

      @Jeff Hayner

      From what sort of ethical perspective are they observing? The perspective that made you look like a fool for making a perfectly reasonable suggestion that U-M participate in a PILOT program.

  9. ICPJ donor no more   July 24, 2017 at 11:42 am

    “Local. Trusted. Journalism.” As if.

  10. councilcandidate   July 24, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Of course The Observer publishes horserace coverage of local politics. So does MLive and that’s probably why John Hilton loves MLive’s coverage of local politics. John Hilton is deluding himself in trying to claim he does anything other than give his readers crappy horserace coverage. He’s also deluding himself if he thinks that kind of writing serves the best interests of Ann Arbor and voters who read it. As for Jim Leonard, he writes for The Observer because Hilton likes what he writes. Hilton finally found someone with fewer scruples than he has and less attention to the truth and detail. It’s a perfect match.

  11. Tim O'Connell   July 24, 2017 at 10:41 am

    Wow. Just wow.

  12. Kai Petainen   July 24, 2017 at 8:12 am

    One clarification. My title at the UofM is not a ‘lecturer’ as I am not faculty. I’m part of the staff. My thoughts are mine alone in a political matter and don’t represent the thoughts of the UofM or Ross.

    • The Ann Arbor Independent Editorial Team   July 24, 2017 at 11:06 am

      @Kai Petainen as always, thanks for your comment. On your LinkedIn page (, you list yourself as an Adjunct Finance Lecturer. In the UM Salary spreadsheet released last year, you are classified as a lecturer. Strange. Which title would you prefer to be used? Let me know and the change will be made.

      • Kai Petainen   July 24, 2017 at 11:47 am

        On the LinkedIn page it lists that title from Jan 2011 to Apr 2015. In the most recent public salary database at UofM it lists me as ‘Laboratory/Classroom Svcs Mgr’, so I’m a Trading Floor Manager at the Ross School of Business. I do lecture and teach topics to classes and clubs, but I just want to make sure that I don’t misrepresent myself as a faculty ‘lecturer’.


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