Excitement v. information: On the last two Rachel Maddow programs, Maddow has wasted a fair amount of time on pointless topics. As always, she has also spent time just generally clowning around.
Down in Maine, will Governor Paul LePage deliver a state of the state address? Or will he just send a letter to the legislature, with which he is feuding?
Maddow has spent almost as much time on this question—surely, no one in Maine even cares—as she has on the topic she described in this manner last night:
MADDOW (1/26/16): As you know, we're going to have a show tomorrow night from Flint, Michigan. We're doing what's basically a town hall on the mass lead poisoning of that city and what's going to happen next in that city because of it.A bit later on, Maddow described tonight's program like this:
MADDOW: So as you have heard, tomorrow night we're going to be broadcasting the show from Flint, Michigan. We're going to be hosting a town hall there on the water crisis, on this American disaster in Flint created when the state government lead-poisoned that whole town.We'll definitely be watching tonight's program. The program is officially titled this way:
We're going to be joined by many of the people central to the story of what has happened in Flint and elected officials like Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, local champions like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who's the doctor who first exposed the elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint's kids. But most importantly, the people who are going to be there tomorrow in bulk are the people of Flint...
AN AMERICAN DISASTER:Maddow has spent a lot of time on this matter since her first report on the subject on December 15. How good a job has she done with the subject?
THE CRISIS IN FLINT
We think she's created a lot of excitement, and a whole lot less information.
The excitement is obvious in the way she and MSNBC are describing the situation. According to Maddow, tonight's program concerns the "mass poisoning" of Flint. The current situation is an "American disaster"—a disaster "created when the state government lead-poisoned that whole town."
That's very dramatic language. On a journalistic basis, the language is somewhat hard to square with some of the basic facts on the ground—basic facts on the ground in Flint and also around the nation.
What kinds of information has Maddow been skipping as she gives us the thrill of a "mass poisoning" crisis joined to a partisan narrative? For that, we recommend Kevin Drum's recent post, which includes a very informative graphic about the rates of lead exposure in Flint since 1998.
We think Drum's graphic is highly instructive. This is the bulk of his text:
DRUM (1/25/16): I wanted to get a read on historical levels of lead poisoning of children in Flint, Michigan, so I put together the chart on the right...What you see is very steady and impressive progress from 1998 to 2013, with the number of children showing elevated blood lead levels (above 5 micrograms per deciliter) declining from approximately 50 percent to 3.6 percent.The recent events in Flint involve a giant governmental failure. We're already hearing about similar failures elsewhere; see today's New York Times.
Then Flint stopped using Detroit water and switched to Flint River water, which corroded the scale on their lead pipes and allowed lead to leach into the water. The number of children with elevated lead levels rose to 5.1 percent and then 6.4 percent.
In late 2015, Flint switched back to Detroit water. Preliminary testing suggests that this had a beneficial effect: the number of children with elevated lead levels dropped back to 3.0 percent. However, these numbers are still very tentative, so take them with a grain of salt.
That said, are we talking about a "mass poisoning," an "American disaster" which was created "when the state government lead-poisoned that whole town?"
According to Drum's homegrown calculations, the percentage of kids with elevated blood lead levels rose from 3.6 percent to 6.4 percent in the wake of the change in Flint's water supply. By way of contrast:
As recently as 1998, a full 50 percent of children in Flint displayed that elevated level!
In recent years, Drum has done a lot of journalism about lead exposure. In his post, he explains the methods by which he created his data, though it gets pretty technical.
A second set of numbers is also worth noting. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha—"Dr. Mona" to Maddow viewers—is Maddow's "bad-ass" "hero" of the mess in Flint.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha did the original survey of children in Flint which helped convince the state government that rates of elevated exposure to lead were rising. According to the results of her survey, 2.1 percent of Flint's kids had elevated levels before the change in water supply—a figure which rose to 4.0 percent in the period from January through September 2015.
Should a journalist be describing that as a "mass poisoning" in which "the state government lead-poisoned that whole town?" We think the answer is obvious. That said, Maddow's language creates a lot of excitement, which is good for exciting us rubes.
Again, let's understand. As recently as 1998, a full 50 percent of children in Flint were "poisoned," if that's really the journalistic term we want to use. According to David Mastio of USA Today, virtually all American kids had elevated levels in the 1970s, if we go by the 5 micrograms per deciliter standard which only came into use in 2012.
(Before that, the standard for elevated lead level was 10 micrograms per deciliter.)
If we're trying to be journalistically sober, has "the whole town" really "been poisoned?" Has anyone been "poisoned?" Basic questions of this type are being ignored by Maddow as she explores this American disaster.
A second question has gone unexplored as Maddow builds excitement and pathos. In a highly exclusive and very private email exchange with Drum, we were told this about the rates of elevated lead among the nation's children as a whole:
"Bottom line: In 2007-10, among all children, 2.6% of children had levels above 5 micrograms/deciliter." He even supplied this link.
However undesirable it may be, Flint's current rate of exposure doesn't seem to be massively higher than the rate around the nation. We mention that in the context of this report by Maddow last night:
MADDOW: OK. We have some breaking news to report out of Flint, Michigan.As always, Maddow said she had "breaking news" to report. Needless to say, the excitement was high. But does Snyder's request make sense?
In terms of the response to the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, President Obama, you'll remember last week dispatched this person, Dr. Nicolle Lurie, to be on site in Flint, heading up the federal response to the mass poisoning there.
Dr. Lurie hit the ground in Flint last week, again, as the federal point person for this crisis. Late this evening, we're getting new news of what kind of federal help she might be asked to muster and coordinate.
Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan tonight says she is requesting that the federal government provide medical care for young people in Flint. He's going to ask Dr. Lurie's agency, the public health service, to cover long-term health care for people in Flint under the age of 21. Governor Snyder says tonight that he wants a Flint specific expansion of Medicaid so that federal health insurance program will cover every young person in Flint regardless of income. He's asking for comprehensive medical treatment for the long haul for all Flint kids because they all drank that lead poisoned water because of what his administration did.
If so, what about all the other kids around the country who apparently suffer elevated lead levels? Will they get a special expansion of Medicaid through the age of 21 too? You'll never see such questions asked on the always exciting Maddow program. On her show, no one has said so much as a word about exposure rates around the country, which don't seem to differ from those in Flint all that much.
The current mess in Flint is the result of a major government failure. That said, Maddow produces major journalistic failures every night. We know that because we fact-check her work.
The results are routinely bad. We'd call it a liberal embarrassment.
On balance, Maddow is a terrible, horrible, overwrought clown who seems to get no journalistic supervision at all. Her reports are almost always embellished in ways which seem designed to pander to viewers, who she treats like rubes.
In the case of Flint, she's providing viewers with a massive amount of excitement, but not a whole lot of information. Also, with a relentless script. On the Maddow Show, Snyder is asking for comprehensive medical treatment for all Flint kids "because they all drank that lead poisoned water because of what his administration did."
It isn't that it isn't true. It's just that Maddow constantly says it. As she does, she fails to provide even the most basic background information.
One last important point:
How bad are health effects likely to be for kids with that 5 microgram level of exposure? Maddow has made virtually no attempt to answer that question. However bad the effects are likely to be, virtually every adult who's fifty years old had a higher level of exposure in childhood.
However bad the effects may be, it seems that we adults all have them! In fairness, that may help explain the journalism seen on the Maddow Show.
Maddow's providing a lot of excitement along with a lively partisan script. On the down side, she's providing very little basic information, perspective or context.
Low-income children exist to be used. That's always been the rule of thumb on The One True Liberal Channel.