Last Updated Mar 20, 2008 4:56 PM EDT
I recommend this tactic when appropriate. Times when it is appropriate include: when time is short and the interview subject doesn't have time for a verbal interview; when the journalist has a known track record as a bully, distorter or poor interviewer; and when the interview subject has something terrible to hide and wants to avoid as much scrutiny as possible.
None of these conditions existed, as far as I can tell, in the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor News case. To summarize, the Ann Arbor News was preparing a story on "how and why many student-athletes land in the [university's] general studies degree program." The series, which ran this week, is a damning portrayal of the use of easy courses to keep student athletes from losing their eligibility to play big-time collegiate sports.
This is sad but hardly devastating. Big-time college athletics is a corrupt system through and through.
The paper sought an in-person or phone interview with university president Mary Sue Coleman, who would only agree to an email interview, which the paper declined. So as a result, the series ran without comment from the leader of the university.
From the story:
A university spokesman said Coleman was too busy to be interviewed, but eventually offered to answer questions via e-mail.Too busy? Puh-leeze. That line begs for a Freedom of Information Act request to review her schedule. How could she not have an hour or two to prepare for and give an interview? After all, she was willing to be interviewed by email, and that would have required some time, even if an underling drafted the responses.
It was lame of Michigan to duck legitimate questions about its student-athlete program. Once again, here we are talking about something we would have heard little about if they had just given the interview.
The paper isn't without fault, either. I don't blame them for not wanting to be manipulated, but they could have accepted her emailed answers and reprinted them with a caveat about their origin. To get into a tiff about the terms of the interview so that a major figure in the story is excluded is short-sighted and detracts from the impact of the story.