Scribe takes a look at the record: Does USA Today's David Mastio know what he's talking about?
More specifically, does Mastio know what he's talking about concerning elevated levels of lead in the blood of children? Specifically, in the children of Flint, Michigan?
We don't know how to answer these questions. That said, Mastio is deputy editorial page editor of USA Today. In an earlier life, he was an environmental reporter for The Detroit News.
Trigger warning! Mastio also worked for the Washington Times for three years! That fact may convince you to stop reading this post right now.
Increasingly, we modern liberals like our stories uncomplicated and novelized, with perfect villains and victims. If that's the way you like your tales, we advise you to stop reading this post, if only based on Mastio's prior affiliation.
For everyone else, we recommend Mastio's new, detailed report about Flint. We'd like to see it fleshed out by environmental and medical reporters, if any such people exist.
Warning! The magic phrase "Governor Rick Snyder" won't be served to you in every sentence of Mastio's piece, as happens when you watch Rachel Maddow pretend to report this event. If that omission will kill the fun, we advise you to stop reading now!
No amount of Mastio's report is safe for people who like their tribalized news reports to display the familiar logic of dreams and fairy tales. Before we get to Mastio's report, let's explain how we hit upon it.
In the past few weeks, we've been puzzled by a basic pair of statistics concerning the situation in Flint. These statistics lie at the heart of the clear, concise report which helped make Flint a national topic.
According to that clear, concise report, 4.0 percent of children in Flint now show elevated levels of lead in their blood. Before the switch in Flint's water supply which produced the current story, the figure stood at 2.1 percent, according to that report.
We'd seen those figures in many news reports. They struck us as odd, and yet not odd, given the novelization which defines so much of our "news product."
Why did those figures strike us as odd? Because 4.0 and 2.1 are somewhat similar figures!
According to that pair of statistics, a figure of 4.0 percent was so upsetting that it touched off a national front-page story about the poisoning of Flint's low-income children.
By way of contrast, the pre-existing figure, 2.1 percent, had been accepted, by one and all, in a state of complete total silence. You never would have heard a word about the children of Flint if that pre-existing situation had been maintained, with just 2.1 percent of those children being "poisoned."
In short, 4.0 percent touched off a political firestorm on our own liberal channel. But when the figure stood at 2.1 percent, no one gave a fig or a farthing, or even a good rat's ascot. When 2.1 percent of kids were "poisoned," it wasn't even worth discussing, even though that was more than half the current figure!
On face, that situation struck us as odd, and yet not odd. In the past several weeks, we've Googled and Nexised about, trying to see if we've misunderstood those figures in some way.
We've also tried to find national figures for elevated levels of lead—figures which would let us put Flint's situation into a broader perspective.
What percentage of children nationwide test for elevated levels of lead? In Flint, that report seemed to say that the figure now stands at 4.0 percent. But what's the figure nationwide? We're sure that statistic exists somewhere, but we haven't been able to find it, certainly not in any of our nation's "news reports."
(Rachel doesn't have time for statistics. She's too busy saying "Rick Snyder," while fashioning the EPA as a hero of her tribalized fairy tale.)
Let's be honest. Within the world of American journalism, no one actually cares about the kids in Flint, Michigan. Similarly, no one actually cares about what is happening in low-income schools around the nation. That fact is proven by the way our mainstream news orgs, and our own liberal heroes, refuse to report even the simplest facts about the rising test scores achieved by the nation's black and Hispanic kids.
Nobody cares about those kids, except to the extent that they can be used, at occasional times, to produce exciting stories of the type which attract eyeballs and please a tribal audience. No fact on this planet could be more clear, and no fact is less often discussed.
What's the role of low-income kids within our corporate news business? Multimillionaire cable stars like to jump in when a villainous story can be created, keeping viewers barefoot and happy and thereby justifying $7 million salaries. But the overwhelming evidence tells us this—no one actually cares about the nation's low-income kids, except to the extent that they can be used to generated simple-minded, tribally-pleasing tales.
This brings us back to Mastio's report, which we encountered yesterday in our latest search for the types of data mentioned above. At one point in his report, Mastio even links to statistics of the type we had been trying to locate!
Early on, Mastio makes a few standard points. "As any public health official will tell you, there is no safe level of lead," he writes. "Once you are exposed, lead can haunt you even as it disappears from your blood."
A few other points are obvious. First, the problems that followed the switch in Flint's water supply have created a gigantic public inconvenience, with residents unable to use their own tap water.
The switch in water supply also created a real public health problem in which, according to that pair of statistics, almost twice as many children in Flint have elevated levels of lead.
Public officials seem to have made groaning mistakes in the course of creating those problems. But in the bulk of his report, Mastio notes a significant fact—present-day American adults grew up with much higher levels of lead in their blood than today's children in Flint. Mastio even says this:
"Even after Flint’s disaster, the city’s children have far less lead in their blood than their parents or grandparents did at the same age."
Some people want to rant and rail about whoever their villains may be. On Morning Joe, you're told that the EPA is the villain in Flint. Twelve hours later, Maddow will tell you it's Governor Rick.
If all you want is the chance to live in the realm of the fairy tale, you can turn to one of those novelized pseudo-news programs. If you want a wider array of facts, we'll recommend Mastio's report, which includes information like this:
MASTIO (1/22/16): In 2005, Michigan completed the years-long process of collecting 500,000 lead blood tests from children in the state under 6. Back then, 26% of kids tested—that's more than one in four—had blood lead levels (5 micrograms per deciliter or greater) that would cause concern today. In the hardest hit parts of Flint now, only 10.6% of kids have such concerning levels of lead in their blood.Please note: According to Mastio, 88 percent of American kids had at least ten micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood in the late 1970s! And please note this additional point:
How can that be? While drinking water management in Flint has obviously been a mess in recent years, it's a mess that comes amid one of the greatest public health and environmental triumphs in U.S. history.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data are clear. In the late 1970s, 88% of Americans ages 1 to 5 had at least 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood, or twice as much as today's level of concern.
By the early 1990s, only 4.4% of children were exposed to so much lead. And year by year since then, according to more than 31 million blood tests compiled by the CDC just since 2005, lead has been steadily disappearing from American kids’ blood.
As Mastio says, ten micrograms is twice as much lead as today's official level of concern. In 2012, five micrograms per deciliter became the official point of concern.
According to that recent study in Flint, 4.0 percent of the city's kids have lead levels that high. But according to Mastio, almost everyone had higher levels of lead when current generations of adults were kids.
What is likely to happen to kids who have five micrograms or more? The adults who are stampeding the public about that question grew up with much higher levels of lead! Perhaps that's why their sense of proportion so commonly seems to fail them!
Two final points:
Across the country, how many kids have five micrograms of lead or more? How many have ten micrograms?
Mastio links to this voluminous chart, which he sources to the CDC. If we're reading that chart correctly, only 0.53% of kids nationwide now have ten micrograms or more.
Also this, however:
If we're reading that chart correctly, it looks like roughly 3.5 percent of kids nationwide have levels of five micrograms or more. That would mean that Flint's kids, at 4.0 percent, are right around the national norm, at least based on that one study.
Are we reading that chart correctly? We'd like to see specialists tackle these points. In theory, Rachel Maddow or Joe Scarborough could help us with these basic points. But she's too busy chanting "Governor Snyder" while he chants "EPA."
In closing, we want to note another point by Mastio. Near the end of his piece he says this: "What happened in Flint starting in 2013 needlessly risked the health of thousands of people...Of this, there is no question. But it also true that the health threat in Flint is being exaggerated."
Is that true? Without any question, exaggeration is the lifeblood of our culture's successor to "news." But is this matter being overstated? We can't exactly tell you.
That said, Mastio offers an intriguing view about the harm such exaggeration can cause. Especially from a snarling conservative, we were struck by the highlighted point:
MASTIO: After years of progress [in the reduction of lead levels], context-free panic over events in Flint is counterproductive. It feeds the cynical idea that government always fails. And, when a more sober analysis of the health threat in Flint eventually emerges, it will damage the credibility of the politicians, public health advocates, scientists and journalists who raised alarms shorn of nuance.According to Mastio, this latest panic could "feed the cynical idea that government always fails." If you watch Morning Joe, you'll be told it's the feds. If you watch the Maddow Show, you'll be told it was Governor Snyder.
Might this "panic" feed some such cynicism? We have no idea. But that is certainly what has happened as horrible people like Rachel and Joe refuse to discuss the rising test scores of the nation's good, decent, admirable black and Hispanic kids, a code of silence which has served all sorts of corporate interests.
How much do you have to hate those kids, and their public school teachers, to keep their improving performance a secret? We don't know how to answer that question. But we can tell you this:
Over on cable, our corporate stars await the next chance to put those children's lives to use. You can't pay "journalists" millions of dollars without producing such outcomes.