Detroit Media Needs to be Just as Hard on M.L. Elrick as They Were on Mike Duggan

When Duggan ran for mayor, he was bombarded with questions around whether a white man could represent a majority-Black city. Are local reporters going soft on their former colleague, Elrick, already – or is it too early to say?

M.L. Elrick

As several journalists in the Detroit market like to remind me, I used to work for Mike Duggan – not that I would ever forget, because, why would I? Being the city of Detroit’s first chief storyteller is an honor I’m still proud of nearly two years after leaving the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center and moving out of the city full time.

I saw a lot of things working for the mayor that one might be surprised to learn. For one, the man drinks a lot of lemon Vitamin Water. I mean, there would be cases of the stuff outside his office door on the 11th floor. I probably wasn’t supposed to say that. But for as much as I saw inside city hall, I also developed an acute understanding of how people on the outside tried to come to their own conclusions as to what was going on there.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s no secret that, for decades, the Detroit press and whomever is elected to serve in Detroit’s city government have had contentious relationships. From Bill Bonds famously clashing with Mayor Coleman Young, to Steve Wilson hounding former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick everywhere, to dustups between former City Council President Charles Pugh and investigative reporter Steve Neavling, local journalists’ role in holding the powerful accountable hasn’t always been easy. They are expected to ask tough questions, and inform the public if they aren’t answered.

Mayor Duggan has gotten a lot of tough questions, starting before my time working for him. One that stands out to me is from before he was even elected: Why should a white man be mayor of Detroit, a majority-Black city?

I’d figured since Detroit press had no hesitation asking Duggan that question, they’d ask the same of M.L. Elrick, a former Detroit Free Press investigative reporter who recently announced that he’s running for Detroit City Council to represent District 4. 

Now, unless Elrick has a situation like his former Fox 2 colleague Charlie LeDuff, where he’s recently discovered he has a Black ancestor, I’m assuming that Elrick is 100% white. But in the press Elrick has done since his announcement, race in the context of representing Detroit hasn’t come up. In fact, Elrick has yet to be subject to any tough, uncomfortable questioning whatsoever.

Besides general announcements about Elrick’s campaign – he says “I’m a candidate” in a video interview with Deadline Detroit, which we’ll revisit in just a sec – and his departure from the Freep, no one really goes deep with the Pulitzer winner unless it’s about why he won the Pulitzer Prize in the first place.

We all know that Elrick’s name will be inextricably tied to former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for the rest of their respective lives, so there’s no need for me even to repeat why. What I would like to know as a Detroit taxpayer – I may not physically be there as I write this, but I do own an apartment in town – is what makes Elrick fit to represent this city?

read and watched brief interviews with two of his former employers, and I watched on Deadline Detroit as Craig Fahle, a white man in Grosse Pointe interviewed Elrick, a white man living on the border of Grosse Pointe, for the answer for that question, since these are among three of the most in-depth things he’s done outside of his own podcast.

I read and sat through each to see if there would be other tough questions, like: Why should a white man represent the majority-Black District 4? What makes a journalist qualified to be on the city council? 

I was wondering if anyone would ask if Elrick has the financial acumen to make executive decisions on how Detroit’s budget – which runs in the triple-digit millions year after year – should be spent. Has he been a manager of a staff? Does he know how to work in team environments, as being on council – at least from my purview working at the municipal center – requires collaboration? 

And if he was queried on this, I wondered if anyone would ask if any of this stuff was learned at the Freep, Fox 2 or any of Elrick’s other employers – or even from the “school commission” he served on. Elrick has not disclosed which school commission that is in any interview, but it might be safe to say it’s St. Clare School in Grosse Pointe Park, where both of his daughters attended

And what exactly will Elrick’s policy be? He has said in almost every interview that “accountability” is a priority, and it’s like, well duh, accountability is the bare minimum for holding public office. I’d like to know what Elrick’s exact plans are for District 4. In the interview with Fahle, Elrick mentioned an annual fundraiser at Clark Park, which, I suppose, is all well and good for District 6 where Clark Park is located.

Nobody has asked exactly what Elrick plans to do in his own neighborhood, but, as Neavling mentioned in his Metro Times write-up, Elrick used to work at a paint shop on the east side. So, a reader might surmise that knowing the difference between eggshell and high-gloss is a perfectly suitable qualification for dealing with the Detroit Police Department’s facial recognition technology or approving demolition contracts for minority contractors. 

And that’s the problem. This is not to scrutinize Elrick – although, as someone who is now running for public office, he absolutely should be, on every level – but rather to ask Detroit media what happened to all the energy that reporters had for my former boss, and why isn’t an ounce of that being spent on their colleague? 

Who is Elrick up against in D4? No one has really mentioned it, but just a quick tour of Wayne County’s public campaign finance reporting website shows that two other candidates – both Black men – are currently vying for the seat soon to be left open by current occupant Andre Spivey.

The other candidates are Anemashaun Bomani, last seen in a December Detroit News piece about Kwanzaa that made no mention of his campaign, and Toson Knight, a former District 4 deputy district manager in the mayor’s office (and, full disclosure, Fahle is another former co-worker).

It’s worth noting that Fahle interviewed Knight for Deadline Detroit as he did Elrick. It’s also worth noting that Knight’s interview is nearly 10 minutes shorter than Elrick’s, is a lot less conversational and familiar. 

Compare Fahle jokingly saying that he’s known Elrick “since the first grade” to him saying that he and Knight “worked together in the mayor’s office”, and touches on subjects like Black Lives Matter and police-resident relations that did not come up with the former Freep reporter. And it’s also worth noting that on the Deadline Detroit YouTube channel, where both of those videos reside, visitors are greeted with a video from Elrick encouraging readers to support the publication.

I’m dropping a lot of names here, which brings me to another question reporters haven’t asked Elrick: Is he running off his own fame? If you didn’t know Elrick’s Freep byline, you certainly knew him from his time at Fox 2 – which is largely how Pugh, a former anchor there, was able to ascend to city council president by gaining more votes than any other candidate running that year. If Black office-seekers with last names like Durhal, Conyers and Sheffield are subject to these sorts of questions around recognizance, shouldn’t a white man be asked the same? 

I mean, it’s not like reporters in Detroit will shy away from holding media figures accountable when they’re on the public dime. Didn’t we all have a front-row seat to the Make Your Date snafu when reporters grilled former Fox 2 reporter Alexis Wiley about her role in that situation while serving as the mayor’s chief of staff? And wasn’t Fahle himself taken to task every time the Detroit Land Bank Authority was under scrutiny, when the former WDET morning host was serving as the agency’s spokesman?

And speaking of the public dime, nobody, not even the number-crunchers at Crain’s Detroit Business, has even mentioned that Elrick will be taking a public salary if elected. I mean, it sure seems like that when journalists cross over into Detroit city government time and time and time again, the amount of money they bring home in every paycheck comes up. A Detroit councilperson makes $82,749 annually, by the way. 

So why is Elrick getting the softball treatment so far? I know why, and we should all be able to tell at this point. Elrick benefits from a system that the vast majority of people working in Detroit journalism – some of the stats speak for themselves – want to protect. In many ways, Duggan and Elrick are cut from the same cloth. They’re both white suburban men who have come into the city to make their mark. 

The difference is, Duggan never worked in a newsroom. Elrick has been in three Detroit newsrooms – one with repeat stints – and I suspect that Detroit’s majority-white press-pass holders don’t know how to approach his situation now that he wants to close his steno pad for good.

He’ll continue to benefit from media protection unless all these white journalists – Elrick has yet to sit with any Black journalist since announcing his campaign, but there sure are a lot of white men on his last episode of “Soul of Detroit” – get it together.

The hardest question Elrick has received so far came in the Fahle interview, when the two briefly, and I do mean briefly, broached the role race played in Kilpatrick’s sentencing, and whether the recently commuted former mayor was oversentenced after the Freep’s reporting exposed his wrongdoing. Elrick made a generic statement about the incarceration rates of young Black men before segueing back to why Kilpatrick, specifically, was punished the way he was.

The thing is, though, Detroit City Council ain’t got shit to do with how many years any Black man serves in prison. What I need to know is whether Elrick will make sure people of color in Detroit have the same opportunity to succeed as all the white people he lives around in East English Village.

Not a single journalist in Detroit has asked this. Do they even have the capacity – or the balls – to ask a white man, who, as Fahle notes, “has reached the pinnacle of journalism,” these types of things?

I’d like to reiterate that this isn’t about Elrick, specifically. After all, both Elrick and I are alumni of the same university, its journalism program and the student newspaper that served the campus and college town. I’ve been invited to his house parties. I’ve had drinks with the guy.

And, no, I’m not sitting around hoping he’ll read this and call me to be his press secretary, in the vein of Kilpatrick calling him for the same gig – which he mentioned to Fahle. But one thing he said in his interview with Fahle is that he’s not afraid of tough questions. It’s time for people to actually start asking them.

UPDATE, published Feb. 3, 2021: Since publication, both Fahle and Elrick reached out to me via text. Fahle says he is expecting to do more interviews with District 4 city council candidates as they come along, while Elrick referred me to an episode of Authentically Detroit, a podcast hosted by Eastside Community Network CEO Donna Givens Davidson and Bridge Detroit engagement director Orlando Bailey.

Elrick says Bridge Detroit “asked a ton of tough questions last month” regarding his candidacy, though, it should be noted that Bridge Detroit isn’t asking the questions in the podcast. As noted in the beginning of the episode, Authentically Detroit is “powered by the Eastside Community Network, and sponsored by none other than the Ford Foundation” and is a “content partner of the new Bridge Detroit.”

Bailey began hosting Authentically Detroit as an employee of Eastside Community Network and has retained his role as host following his joining Bridge Detroit in 2020. Because the already existing podcast is a “partner” of Bridge Detroit and not produced by the news organization itself, this would make Elrick’s claim inaccurate.

In the hour and 30-minute long episode Elrick refers to, Givens Davidson and Elrick spend the first hour discussing Elrick’s past role as a journalist and some key stories he’s covered. Givens Davidson also spends considerable time airing frustrations with issues in local journalism, city, state and national politics, and conditions of Detroit.

It is not until the 59-minute mark that Bailey addresses Elrick’s city council run, to which Elrick jokingly replies, “Oh right! I forgot I’m running for something!” I presume this is an example of the “tough” questions Elrick refers to in the text exchange. Givens Davidson (who is not a journalist, as evidenced by an early-episode misunderstanding of how stories from wire services are shared at news organizations – “I’m a rookie, I don’t know how any of this works”) and Bailey question Elrick over his goals for city council if he’s elected.

It should be noted that several times during the half-hour exchange at the end of the episode, the conversation frequently swings back to Elrick’s journalism career and the subjects he’s covered over the years. After a careful listen of the episode, Elrick does not explicitly address race as it relates to his city council run, nor does he acknowledge his own race except jokingly referring to “all these M.L.s” present during a vote counting measure at TCF Center last fall.

And while Givens Davidson and Bailey do touch on race in other contexts – Givens Davidson discusses when Elrick pursued Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castenada-Lopez, mentioning that she is the first Latina councilperson in Detroit, and Bailey brings up the Black Lives Matter protests in Detroit last summer – Elrick does not, except briefly referring to “our own George Floyd,” a Black driver who was harassed by white Southfield police officers in 2019. It should be noted that Gene Bell, the driver, survived his run-in with the police, while Floyd, a Minneapolis driver, did not.

When asked twice if his appearance on the podcast would clarify any issues brought up in this original column, Elrick did not respond, only saying, “If you want to interview me for a story, let me know. The record speaks for itself.” Neither Bridge Detroit nor the Authentically Detroit podcast has featured any other District 4 candidates. 

Aaron Foley was the City of Detroit’s chief storyteller from 2017 to 2019 and BLAC’s editor from 2015 to 2017. He is now director of the Black Media Initiative at the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. Reach him at @aaronkfoley on Twitter – or text him if you were mentioned in any of the 1,900 words above.

COMMENTS