Opinion: Michigan Daily’s reporting on councilmember’s remarks at a meeting doesn’t do the job the paper defined for itself

The Michigan Daily published a piece by Ben Rosenfeld early last week related to the arrest three months ago and subsequent conviction of sitting Ann Arbor councilmember Zachary Ackerman. He was charged initially for violating Michigan’s so-called “super drunk driving” law, and was convicted of a reduced charge of operating while impaired.

Here’s a link to the Wayback Machine’s archived version of The Daily’s piece: “Ann Arbor councilmember releases statement following drunken driving arrest

I covered the Ann Arbor City Council from 2008 to 2014 for The Ann Arbor Chronicle, an online publication that is now archived by the Ann Arbor District Library.

But it doesn’t take any historical knowledge of Ann Arbor’s political scene or its local government to understand that Rosenfeld and his editors botched the basic journalistic task they chose for themselves: Tell the reader what a councilmember said at the city council table on Monday, April 1, 2019.

On a superficial level, the piece features incoherent writing like this: “However, after pleading no contest and accepting the sentence in late January, Ackerman’s charge was reduced to a year’s probation.”

Even a layperson can recognize that probation is not a charge; probation is a sentence. Errors like those should have been easy for any editor to spot and correct.

I also think The Daily, which mission includes covering the University of Michigan community, should have reminded readers somewhere in this piece that Ackerman is a recent graduate of the university—just as the paper does routinely (in headlines about re-election bids, for example) when reporting other news about Ackerman.

More serious problems with Rosenfeld’s piece involve some journalistic fundamentals—beyond poor individual word choices. Some basics of the craft seem to have been ignored. These are the kind of errors that can’t be fixed with simple corrections or additions.

By way of example, consider this sentence, offered to readers as its own stand-alone paragraph, which reported the comments of Sgt. Kevin Gilmore, a Novi police detective:

Gilmore also explained that while Ackerman’s actions were reckless and dangerous, such arrests are made relatively frequently in law enforcement.

Let’s grant that Gilmore said what Rosenfeld reported him saying. But what sense does Gilmore’s statement of a “while-X, also-Y” type contrast make? And why does the writer think Gilmore’s highlight of this contrast is relevant to the story? Let’s look closer at the contrast: while-dangerous, also-common.

As a reader, I concluded initially from the sentence Rosenfeld wrote that Gilmore’s point is something like this: For Ackerman to drive super drunk was dangerous, but police arrest people for driving super drunk relatively frequently.

I found that to be a startling assertion: Super drunk driving arrests are relatively frequent?! Is that what Gilmore meant? And, wow, if that’s what he meant, is that really true? By what measure of “frequent”? Maybe the reporter will, in the paragraph’s next sentence, back it up with some stats.

But there’s no next sentence in the paragraph. And when I move to the next paragraph, I can discern that “such arrests” was supposed to describe not arrests of people who are driving super drunk, but rather arrests for drunk driving made as a result of a traffic crash.

So it turns out that Rosenfeld is using Gilmore as an authoritative source to answer for readers this question: How often do police discover a drunk driver through a traffic crash? That’s clear from this sentence: “It was nothing out of the ordinary in our line of work—a car accident where someone ended up being intoxicated,…”

That’s surely factually accurate. But is it relevant here?

Given one question to ask about frequency—in the context of a story of a councilmember arrested and charged for driving with blood alcohol content greater than 0.17—how many readers would choose this one: How common is it for police to discover someone is drunk behind the wheel because the person crashes into another car? I don’t think many readers would wonder about that, or need a statement attributed to a police officer to be persuaded that: If you’re drunk driving and you crash, the police will, not just frequently, but almost certainly, identify your intoxication, when they arrive to process the crash scene.

So readers are invited to consider information that is irrelevant to the chosen subject for the story, but which presentation likely has the effect of diminishing the significance of Ackerman’s offense. The Daily invites casual readers who are not parsing Rosenfeld’s prose precisely to conclude: What Ackerman did was dangerous, but hey, no worries, it was totally routine, according to a law enforcement officer.

About frequency there are at least two questions a reasonable reader might ask, given Ackerman’s situation: (1) How common are arrests under Michigan’s 0.17 BAC law?  (2) How common is it for a charge under the 0.17 law to be pleaded down to OWI?

Neither question is answered in Rosenfeld’s piece.

The fact that those two questions weren’t answered might be defended based on the idea that the news hook for this piece was not “public official was arrested and convicted.” And I think that’s a reasonable defense. That’s not the story they chose to write. In that context, the obvious question is: Why present readers with any information at all about frequency of drunk driving arrests?

When you’re scooped by another publication as The Daily was, sometimes there’s little left to do except run with a piece, like Rosenfeld’s, that is based on a different news hook. Here, it looks like The Daily settled on a news hook that could be paraphrased as: “councilmember says newsworthy things at meeting.” That’s the news hook that the headline and the introductory paragraph promote. The first paragraph ends with, “…[Ackerman] released a statement to the council on April 1.”

When I read the headline and the opening paragraph, I thought: OK, a councilmember said newsworthy stuff at a meeting—so what did this guy say at the meeting that was so newsworthy?

After reading the rest of the story, it’s not easy to answer that question. I can easily tell that Ackerman said several things, but it’s not instantly clear which, if any, of those things that Ackerman said, were things that he said specifically, or only, at the council table. Many of the things that Rosenfeld reports Ackerman to have said, are explicitly described as having been said somewhere other than the council table. He said them in an interview with MLive. Or he said them in an interview with The Daily.

It would make for an interesting exercise to list out all of the things in Rosenfeld’s story that might be defended as things that Ackerman is reported to have said specifically at the council table. How long is your list? (My own list is short, way too short to support The Daily’s chosen news hook, but not empty.)

Consider these questions about your list. Where do your list items appear in the story? Does their placement support the news hook? Was anything on the list different from what he’d said previously to councilmembers privately or to a news reporter? How does The Daily let the reader know that the new information was new and different? Did The Daily introduce any item on your list with phrasing like, “Ackerman revealed at the meeting for the first time publicly that,…”

For readers who complete that exercise, the answers to those questions would, I think, show that The Daily didn’t come close to completing the task that the paper itself and its reporter set for themselves: Tell readers what Ackerman said at the meeting and why it was newsworthy. A reader who completes the exercise can see The Daily failed to complete its self-defined mission, even without knowing what Ackerman said at the meeting.

What, if anything, did Ackerman say at the meeting that was newsworthy?

I think it’s newsworthy when a councilmember publicly complains about other councilmembers. It’s all the more newsworthy, when the complaint is about the appropriateness of three specific councilmembers (Jack Eaton, Kathy Griswold, and Elizabeth Nelson) “researching” what Ackerman called an “archaic state law from 1954,” that requires the governor to remove city officials for “habitual drunkenness” upon being presented with evidence of it.

Ackerman’s complaint is evident on review of the meeting video, which is easily accessible online. I don’t think there’s any reasonable debate about the fact that Ackerman’s public complaint counts as newsworthy.

Ackerman’s complaint about his council colleagues is not mentioned in Rosenfeld’s piece.

When you’ve set yourself the task, as The Daily and Rosenfeld did, of telling readers what Ackerman said at the meeting about his drunk driving arrest, it’s hard to imagine why Ackerman’s complaint about his fellow councilmembers would not make its way into your story. And given that The Daily’s story appeared a week after the meeting, it’s hard to understand why Ackerman’s remarks were not throughly analyzed, with commentary from legal experts. Rosenfeld apparently chose to shield his readers from a newsworthy part of Ackerman’s remarks.

Ackerman’s complaint was even more newsworthy, because in his remarks at the council table, Ackerman misrepresented the state law in two material ways, both of which played to his rhetorical advantage.

First, at the council table Ackerman didn’t provide some useful information about the law’s history. It was first enacted in 1954, as he stated, but was amended in 1982, effective 1983. It looks like in 1982, the legislature still thought the statute was a good enough law to bother amending it. That bears on Ackerman’s claim that it’s “archaic.” (By way of comparison, Ann Arbor’s City Charter was adopted in 1956.)

Second, while it’s true that the statute mentions “habitual drunkenness,” that’s not the provision in the law, on a list of several provisions, that stands out as relevant in Ackerman’s situation. The provision that looks relevant to Ackerman’s case, and which has nothing to do with a health condition, is the one the statute describes as “convicted of being drunk.” It seems true that Ackerman was convicted of being drunk—while driving.

Suppressing the “conviction” feature of the state law made it easy for Ackerman at the council table to leverage the law’s mention of “habitual drunkenness”—to say that he thinks it’s possible to infer, from some emailed communications, that three other councilmembers are thinking of trying to have the governor remove him on the basis of his “health condition.”

I don’t know how a news reporter can set himself the task of reporting Ackerman’s remarks at a meeting, and then not report these specific remarks of Ackerman’s—about a state law that could require the governor to remove him from the city council.

As an aside, I can’t find any reporting by MLive on Ackerman’s meeting remarks in the couple of weeks since he made them. It’s possible that I missed MLive’s coverage, when I searched.

If the reason I can’t find any MLive coverage is that it doesn’t exist, it looks like the largest media outlet in Ann Arbor, which seems to have someone on staff paid to write about the Ann Arbor city council, thinks that Ackerman’s remarks about his possible removal from office, made at a public meeting almost two weeks ago, were not newsworthy.

In sum, the criticism I’m making is not that Rosenfeld and The Daily wrote and published a piece that is unbalanced in favor of Ackerman. That’s a separate (and useless) question.

My criticism is: Rosenfeld and The Daily failed dramatically to complete the journalistic task they chose for themselves. I think they owe their readers a better effort in the future.