Supplemental: Reporting the mess in Flint!


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'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...
We'll definitely be watching tonight's program. The program is officially titled this way:
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?

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.

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.
The recent events in Flint involve a giant governmental failure. We're already hearing about similar failures elsewhere; see today's New York Times.

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.

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.
As always, Maddow said she had "breaking news" to report. Needless to say, the excitement was high. But does Snyder's request make sense?

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.


  1. Since Flint has around 40K children 18 and under, a 3% rise would be about 1200 people. So, YES, I would call it a "mass poisoning". What would you call it instead?

    And why put quotes around "poisoned"? Do you disagree that lead is poison?

    1. Lead has harmful effects. We're better off without it. Lead tends to destroy health, so it may properly be called a "poison". OTOH, it's not nearly as pernicious as what I think of, when I use the word.

      My wife and I grew up surrounded by lead -- gasoline, paint, soldered cans of food, etc. Nevertheless, we lived into our 70's and succeeded at intellectual pursuits. We have various medical problems, but none of them related to lead. Looking more broadly, I can't think of people in my cohort who are suffering from effects that are attributable to lead.

    2. David, remember the rising crime rates in the 60s and 70s? That was your cohort and subsequent cohorts.

    3. David turned out just fine. Advanced degree in math and he gets his science from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

    4. Caesar -- But, the crime rate was low in the 1950's, even though young adults alive then had plenty of lead in them. IMHO the rise in crime was more because of laws and court decisions that may have beneficial in some ways, but which made it harder to convict criminals. Note that crime went down when more criminals were imprisoned. Liberals prefer to blame lead because it excuses policies they championed.

    5. Lead exposure in early childhood damages the growing brain and results in higher crime rates, more teen pregnancy, and lower academic achievement, during adolescence and adulthood. There's a roughly twenty-year gap between exposure and behavior. Start here:

      and read all of Kevin Drum's work on this subject.

    6. The timing of the crime surge doesn't match the introduction of leaded gas. Leaded gas was introduced in the 1920s. Yet, crime was particularly low 20 years later, throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Crime didn't surge until the 1960s.

    7. Of course, there were two cars in every family in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, so exposure was very high all throughout that period! You're talking as if you are knowledgeable about a subject yo have never bothered to study.

    8. He's a devotee of Professor Otto Yourass.

    9. David, read Drum's work on lead.

    10. impCaesarAvg - dream on.

    11. Soapy, I dream of David, actually trying to inform himself on the issues.

  2. It's true that the rates of lead poisoning have dropped. Somersby seems to think that this just happened. It didn't.
    There's a reason that the main book on this subject is called "Lead Wars". There was a concerted attack on the people who brought lead poisoning to light, and a strong, organized campaign to eviserate the laws which protected children from lead poisoning. The media was part of this campaign.
    One small example. In 1993, in Massachusetts, the real estate industry wanted to weaken a law which made it illegal to rent a lead contaminated apartment to tenants with small children. On July 6 an article, by Scott Blake of the Boston Tab, was headlined "Renters hurt by lead paint laws." The premise of the article, was that instead of deleading, landlords would simple refuse to rent to families with children.
    The Globe picked up the theme a week later with a story written by Matt Carroll (the same Matt Carroll from "Spotlight"). "Deleading Dilemma" (7/13/93) featured the same basic argument with a big picture of the family of "victim" who suspected that there search for a bigger apartment in Cambridge was being hindered by the current lead paint law.
    Then the big hit piece, by David Stipp in the Wall Street Journal (9/16/93). "Dogma in Doubt" "Evidence is emerging that activists have overstated the threat," Stipp wrote. He went on to question whether effects of lead poisoning were as bad as the damage caused by its enforcement. He cast doubt on the honesty of the principle researcher Dr Herbert Needleman.
    And Stipp used the same Cambridge interviewed by Matt Carroll. That tenant's name? Robert Lie. You can't make this stuff up.
    So when I look at Rachel Maddow's coverage of lead poisoning, I see coverage that is immeasurably improved over the special interest influenced coverage of a generation ago.
    Somersby evidently has a different narrative. Maddow is terrible, the narrative goes, she gets everything wrong. If she complains about lead, lead poisoning must not be so bad.
    Lead poisoning, from lead paint or from contaminated water is every bit as serious as Maddow says. To discount it like Blake, Carroll, and Stipp did a generation ago is bad enough. But at least those stories were fueled by the greed of the real estate industry. What's fueling Somersby's posts?
    Bob Gardner
    Randolph, MA

    1. Somerby doesn't think that this "just happened." He hasn't said that any level of lead is fine. Be fair.

    2. Be fair yourself. Nobody charged Somerby with saying any level of lead is fine.

      But Somerby clearly says that a certain level of children with elevated lead levels from their drinking water isn't so bad in his rush to accuse Maddow of making another mountain out of another molehill.

      I agree with Bob Gardner. Maddow's reporting on this has been exceptional.

      I'll leave it to Somerby to decide for himself how many lead poisoned kids is acceptable before he starts giving a damn.

      After all, he loves kids so much. They helped him dodge the draft.

    3. ",,, or you're a bigot"


  3. One of the things that appalled me the other night was how Maddow is taking credit for breaking this Flint story via her ongoing discussions about these emergency management-ships. MSNBC has also lauded her for the scoop -- like but for her there'd be no Flint story, apparently.

    Hardly. Amy Goodman has been on this from the beginning, and the first time I heard about these right-wing takeover appointments was on Al Franken's old radio show.

    Her ego is beyond my ability (at least) to continue to tune her in. Maddow and her people steal from Democracy Now and Alternet and nobody calls her on it.

    1. Bob's Greatest #1 Fan of All TimesJanuary 28, 2016 at 12:41 AM

      As for tuning Maddow in, her ego is the least of her problems.

    2. Amy Goodman would probably give her $ 7 million to charity. If anyone paid her $ 7 million.

  4. Probably the first thing we would confront in assessing someone's credibility on a subject is weather or not they seemed in the grips of smitten obsession, or else twisted by hatred. It's an outward thing we are likely to appraise with surface common sense.

    No honest person could not conclude that Bob Somerby did not
    go round the bend years ago concerning Rachell Maddow. The notion that he is writing out of concern for low income children is something we can reject with basic common sense.
    When The Daily Howler gets it wrong apologies are not forthcoming. The Daily Howler insisted Scooter Libby's behavior would come to nothing and liberals had really screwed up in making anything of it. While bodies were floating in New Orleans, The Daily Howler quibbled over the phrase "Topped" regarding the Levys,, and turned out to be wrong. When Mitt Romney insulted half the Country as non tax paying leeches, The Daily Howler said the mater was no big deal and liberals should just forget about it. When Mel Gibson turned out to a frothing at the mouth, crazed bigot worse than even his critics could have imagined, Bob stopped saying anything about Mel Gibson.
    Long before Walter and David, we had "Yellow Journalism", a phase not thought of as fully negative. Aggressive, swinging wild journalism was considered valuable, not because it sometimes got it wrong, but because sometimes, it got it right in a way the gatekeepers could and did not. This is not the same as advocacy journalism, where a certain political position is promoted. Bill gives "passes" to the right on such journalism at Fox, is driven to madness by it on the dubious left.
    Rachel Maddow is a frustrating figure. at her worst She is quite as bad as Bob says. She is also sometimes quite good, in a way Bob, as he snarls and froths at the mouth, simply cannot see. Did he read, we wonder, her flawed but worthwhile book on Defense Spending? A critic who reports only the negative is worse than a waste of time.
    Maddow was way ahead of the pack on this story. She had the mayor of Flint on early on. How nuts would you have to be to believe that The Daily Howler's "fact checking" of Maddow has any credibility. That years or a year from now, Bob will adjust his conclusions about the health of those poisoned in Flint? No doubt, he will be finding new things to "give passes" to Fox News about.

    Rachel Maddow should be lauded for reporting this story from the beginning.She had the mayor of Flint on her show very earl on. If you think Bob can be trusted to objectively appraise the science, take a swig.
    We generally approve of agree with Bob's take on civility, and started reading him when he practiced it, even practiced it during the terrible nineties and the "Hunting of The President" days. That he can't apply the simply "MLK" type behavior to those on the left as he does to those on the right is a head scratcher, but it does tell you quite a bit about how we got to the terrible situation we are now in.

    1. I think this qualifies as a rant.

    2. I don't know Greg. I'll consider what you say here but I'm not sure if it matters or if I care. Also, you're prose - well, it's a little rough homie. It don't exactly flow. Sorry to see you so troubled though brother. Rock on man - listen to some Priest or something!!

    3. I think Greg should be lauded for lauding Maddow who is lauded sometimes but not lauded enough, especially at on free blogs that are worse than a waste of time that he reads everyday.

    4. I think Bob should be lauded for pointing out all those people applauding Maddow at her Flint Town Hall are not simply delusional because they drank lead poisoned water.

    5. A sad example here of the sad times that have befallen Bob's readership, in his long sad march from useful and important analysis, Bob has acquired a slew of witless frat boys without basic reading skills. It's a fate he has earned, but still, one somehow hopes some of his old readers examine the wreckage, if only to stare on in disbelief.

  5. Charles Blow all but calls Hillary a witch today (with her crucible) in the NY Times. With her assertive, almost yelling voice, and her desperate "performance" and all those holes she digs for herself.

    1. "Monday night’s presidential town hall provided the best format and platform yet for the Democratic candidates. Each was able to play to his or her strengths without the back-and-forth conflict-baiting that debate moderators seem to demand.

      Even so, Hillary Clinton stood out.

      Not only did she seem completely at ease in this environment, but she was also confident and wide-ranging in her answers, delivering many in an assertive tone that was one tick below yelling, and displaying a depth and breadth of knowledge that few can match.

      She was at the top of her game.


      At the town hall, Clinton’s back was against the wall, and she performed brilliantly. Indeed, that seems to be when she gives her best performances — when her back is against the wall."

    2. If you take these paragraphs in the context of the entire article, which is not favorable to Clinton, the word performance reinforces the repeated suggestion that she is not genuine but is acting, portraying herself as something she is, manipulating voters instead of serving them. Do you think "an assertive tone that was one tick below yelling" is a compliment? It is another way of calling her shrill. Do you think calling her "performance" a "game" helps her?

      You are pretty tone deaf.

      She performs brilliantly because she is brilliant, well-prepared, competent and experienced. He could have said those things, instead of referring repeatedly to her demeanor. Again, it is a focus on process and not substance. If these guys once considered substance, they would have to admit that she is the best qualified candidate and the person who should be nominated. They don't want to say any of that, so it is all about her crucible and how she digs her own holes only so she can climb out of them, and all her other campaigning "mistakes" in which she is damned no matter what she does. You should be able to see past this crap.

    3. Senator Bernie Sanders is breathing down her neck in Iowa with a message that’s increasingly popular among dissatisfied liberals and that she hasn’t been able to counter sufficiently. She made a huge tactical error by attacking Sanders’s motives and integrity, a move that made her appear smaller, desperate and hostile.

      Clinton’s back was against the wall, and she performed brilliantly. Indeed, that seems to be when she gives her best performances — when her back is against the wall. But she is often in that position because of her own doing, her own lapses in judgment, her own miscalculations.

      It is an odd, cyclical exercise to continue to praise her for climbing out of holes she digs for herself. There almost seems to be a self-destructive, self-defeating impulse at play, a need to be perpetually down so that she can perpetually fight her way back up, a sort of crisis dependency.

      It is hard to see how this seesawing can produce a winning campaign or a successful presidency, should she win it. She’s going to have to stay at or near the top of her game for the duration.

    4. You should cite or enclose in quote marks the lines you cribbed from Blow's article.

    5. Why bother? You and I are the only two who read your comment and the responses.

  6. "On the last two Rachel Maddow programs, Maddow has wasted a fair amount of time on pointless topics."

    I wonder how many posts Bob will devote to trying to prove the "Flint Lead Crisis" is as pointless as the "Gendr Wge Gap"?

    1. He's just trying to suggest that it be called the "Flint Lead Situation" instead of "crisis."

    2. Government To Flint:

      We have a "situation" here. Please don't use any of the water from your tap to cook, clean food, drink. When the "situation" changes, we will let you know.

    3. If the city of Flint continued to drink and use the water, entirely oblivious to the lead levels, it would still not be a crisis. People would like to drink healthier water, and their long term health will be slightly better because of doing so. If they drink bad water for a while it isn't going to make any demonstrable difference in the short term and probably no difference long term either. Manufacturing a crisis out of this makes liberals look foolish, like they don't understand the numbers and become hysterical on cue.

    4. "Probably no difference long term either."

      I seriously doubt that you would be ok with drinking contaminated water based on the notion that it "probably" won't do long term harm. Shows a lack of empathy.

  7. And Somerby exposes the histrionics of Salem's indulged and indulgent children once again. The progressive left is insane.