by P.D. Lesko

John Hilton, Editor, The Ann Arbor Observer.

Dr. Mozhgan Savabiesfahani circulated her nominating petitions, collected her signatures and the Ann Arbor City Clerk judged that the candidate had collected at least 100 valid signatures of Ward 4 voters to appear on the August primary ballot. Along with Dr. Savabiesfahani, Ward 4 incumbent Elizabeth Nelson (D) and Dharma Akmon (D) will appear on the August 2 ballot. On June 20, Dr. Savabiesfahani sent an email to The Ann Arbor Independent in which she alleged John Hilton, co-owner and long-time editor of The Ann Arbor Observer, had imposed a media blackout on her candidacy. In an email shared with The A2Indy in response to Savabiesfahani’s question about the blackout, Hilton wrote: “Given the modest response to your previous campaign, we will mention you briefly in the article but will not be using the photo.”

Unlike the other two candidates in the Ward 4 Council race, Savabieasfahani was neither interviewed by the Observer’s freelance writer James Leonard, nor was she photographed for the upcoming article by the Observer’s freelance photographer.

John Hilton is a former auto worker. He purchased the Ann Arbor Observer and his position as its editor in 1986. He has no college degree and no formal training in journalism. Dr. Savabiesfahani is a woman of Persian descent. She is an environmental toxicologist who has authored over 30 scientific journal publications and a book entitled Pollution and Reproductive Damage. Her research at the University of Michigan has been funded by a National Research Award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In 2015, Savabiesfahani was awarded the Rachel Carson Prize.

Dr. Savabieasfahani speaking at an Ann Arbor City Council meeting in 2019.

In 2020, Dr. Savabiesfahani ran for Ward 4 City Council and captured a little over 10 percent of the vote.

Hilton’s email to Savabieasfahani in which he asserts his blackout of coverage of her candidacy for City Council in Ward 4 is justified by the “modest response to your previous campaign” is not credible in light of the Observer’s coverage of previous repeat City Council candidates.

Savabieasfahani is not the first local to run more than once for City Council or the first repeat candidate whose campaign elicited a “modest response.”

  • In 2017, Ward 5 resident David A. Silkworth ran for City Council and lost to Chip Smith. In 2020, Silkworth ran for City Council for a second time and snagged 19 percent of the vote. Both times Silkworth ran, the Observer included him in its political coverage.
  • In 2010 and 2012, former Ward 4 City Council member Jack Eaton (D) ran to unseat the incumbent, Margie Teall (D), and lost. When Eaton ran in 2013 against incumbent Marcia Higgins (D), Eaton won. All three of Eaton’s runs were included in the political coverage of the Ann Arbor Observer.
  • In 2015, Ward 4 resident Jaime Magiera challenged Eaton and lost. Magiera ran again in 2017 and lost. Both of Magiera’s candidacies were written up in great detail in the Ann Arbor Observer.

On June 18 Dr. Savabiesfahani posted the following to social media:

Today something unprecedented happened to me in Ann Arbor. You tell me what it means.

Ward 4 City Council candidate Elizabeth Nelson saw me today, June 18th, 2022, at the Juneteenth celebration in Ann Arbor.

She told me that she was surprised that I was not at the photo shoot for the Ann Arbor Observer a few days ago.

I asked her whether she (Nelson) told the Observer that I was also running for City Council?

Nelson said no, she didn’t tell them.

I told her “You should have.”

Nelson then said that she regrets having not told them.

Later, I finally reached James Leonard of the Ann Arbor Observer, who does their City Council election feature. I reached him on his cell phone. In fact, two years ago, he had interviewed me for his 2020 election coverage.

So Leonard, today, June 18, 2022, told me that yes, he was aware that I am running for City Council.

I asked Leonard why he didn’t contact me for his election article.

Leonard said that he doesn’t make those decisions, his editor does.

Leonard did not offer the editor’s name.

So I asked him.

Leonard finally told me that John Hilton is his editor at the Ann Arbor Observer.

Never, in the last 20 years, have I ever heard of any major Ann Arbor newspaper excluding a candidate from their interviews and photo shoots.

-Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani

Candidate for Ann Arbor City Council, Ward 4

Council member Elizabeth Nelson (D-Ward 4) confirmed that she did have this conversation with her opponent, Savabieasfahani. Nelson, in a phone call, said that she thinks Hilton’s decision to exclude one of the three candidates running in Ward 4 is wrong. Nelson added that excluding one candidate from news coverage “does a disservice to voters.”

The Ann Arbor Observer’s coverage of local politics has been sharply criticized by local readers. In 2020, 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.

“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), leaving “a critical gap in journalism: straight, fact-based reporting.”

“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 social media discussion of the Observer’s alleged ongoing problems with editorial accuracy and biases.

“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.

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.”

According to research by the non-profit Pew Reearch Center, “Overall, about eight-in-ten Americans (79%) say news organizations tend to favor one side when presenting the news on political and social issues, according to a survey conducted Feb. 18 to March 2, 2020. Far fewer (20%) say these organizations deal fairly with all sides. The share of Americans who say news organizations tend to favor one side has increased 7 percentage points since early 2019.”

The Pew research revealed that, “The most common reason that Americans see for unfair news coverage is the pushing of a political agenda.”

City records show that over the past several years Taylor has been mayor, the City of Ann Arbor has given the Ann Arbor Observer almost half a million dollars in advertising revenue. It is by and far the most money given by the City of Ann Arbor to any media outlet in the County. [The Ann Arbor Independent doesn’t accept advertising from local governments, public K-12 schools, colleges or universities.]

Dr. Savabieasfahani has been sharply critical of Ann Arbor’s Mayor Taylor, as well as his allies on City Council. She has, for the past several months, published a series of cartoons lampooning Taylor and his Council allies about a variety of issues, including their poor records on creating affordable housing, their refusal to adopt a $15 minimum wage for city workers, and Taylor’s opposition to involving the EPA in a cleanup of the 1,4 dioxane plume creeping toward the City’s drinking water source (Barton Pond). The Ward 4 candidate has accused Taylor openly of self-dealing and corruption. Former City Attorney Bruce Laidlaw agrees. He recently filed a formal grievance against Taylor with the Michigan Bar Association.

Dr. Savabieasfahani published this cartoon to her campaign Twitter account on June 17, one day before she discovered John Hilton had excluded her from his tabloid’s coverage of the Ward 4 City Council race.
Dr. Savabieasfahani published this cartoon to her campaign Twitter account on May 30.

In a 2020 piece about the Observer’s political coverage published by The A2Indy, John Hilton replied to accusations of bullying and misrepresenting the views of Council candidates 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.”

Thanks to Hilton’s decision to exclude Dr. Savabieasfahani, she won’t have the opportunity to articulate her positions to the Observer’s readers.

  • A2Independent: