Maddow eschews information: A fascinating moment occurred during Wednesday evening's town hall—the "MSNBC Town Hall" which was held in Flint, Michigan.
This moment occurred at 9:18 Eastern. If you blinked, you probably missed it.
We refer to a statement by Professor Marc Edwards who, according to his introduction by Rachel Maddow, "collected hundreds of water samples showing elevated lead levels here in Flint, really blew this whole scandal wide open."
Edwards is one of a handful of actual experts Maddow presented that night. In this exchange shown below, he made a surprising statement. It was the last time his expertise would be consulted that night.
What did Professor Edwards say? Uh-oh! According to Edwards, the water entering homes in Flint may well meet federal standards right now, on this very day!
As we start, Edwards is describing the way the problem began, with water from the Flint River going untreated with "corrosion inhibitor." Note, though, what he goes on to say about where things stand today:
EDWARDS (1/27/16): The corrosive water actually ate up every metallic pipe in the system. The only pipe material that was immune is plastic. So the damage that was done from the lack of corrosion inhibiter affected all the metal pipes. That damage cannot be undone.Interesting—or maybe possibly not! According to Edwards, the type of coating which was destroyed "is being formed as we speak and, in fact, probably it's largely re-formed already."
But the new coating with the phosphate is being formed as we speak and, in fact, probably it's largely re-formed already. The issue really is we really have to test that water before—we want to err on the side of caution before we tell anyone to even think about drinking it at this point.
MADDOW: Is there any scientific basis for expecting how long that's going to take?
EDWARDS: In our laboratory, under normal circumstances, it takes anywhere from four weeks to six weeks to get to a level where you can meet the federal standard. And, everyone, you know, acknowledges the federal standard is kind of weak? But it could very well— It'd be 50/50, if the legitimate lead and copper sampling was done today, whether Flint would pass.
But the water is much, much better than it was last August when we sampled, when we issued our warning, you know—there's no way Flint water was meeting federal standards.
For that reason, Edwards said, there's an even chance that Flint's water meets federal standards right now, on this very day!
Please note. This assessment seems to coincide with the data which appeared in yesterday's Washington Post, the data we've already cited. According to the Post's report, 2,577 samples of water in Flint have been analyzed in recent weeks. Of those samples, "93.7 percent had less than 15 parts per billion of lead and 85 percent had less than 5 parts per billion."
Based on reading we've done elsewhere, EPA guidelines demand certain types of action only when that first number falls below 90 percent. As far as we know, that may be what Edwards meant when he said that Flint's water may well "meet the federal standard" today.
Why don't we know what Edwards meant? Because Maddow, true to her soul and her typical practice, didn't ask what he meant! In fact, that was the last time Edwards would speak at all that night. For the rest of the evening, Maddow kept letting activists and political figures describe the need to replace the pipes right now.
The politicians thrilled the crowd. The expert wasn't consulted.
That statement by Edwards went by quite fast. If you blinked, you probably missed it, especially since a certain excitement-oriented host didn't try to amplify what he said or clarify what he meant.
That said, Edwards' statement added to something he had said a bit earlier. Here too, we were struck by the way Maddow downplayed the knowledge of the expert in deference to the thrill of the crowd.
Maddow had started her town hall meeting with a speech about the need to replace those pipes right now. Maddow isn't an expert on any of this, of course. But so what? In her fervent opening speech, she took it upon herself "to report what I think is fairly shocking news that the problem here is not actually being fixed"—that is, to report the "fairly shocking" fact that no pipes have been replaced.
Maddow began the evening with her own fervent speech. She then played videotape of herself with a master plumber who told her, as they strolled through Flint, that he "could have a thousand plumbers on the ground in Flint in a couple weeks" to start taking out the lead pipes.
(Is Ammon Bundy available? It might be worth a call.)
Maddow isn't an expert on this. But then, neither is the master plumber, except on matters of plumbing. But so what! Maddow burned her program's first six minutes with two amateurs telling the world what needs to be done right now.
At the town hall, people cheered the fervor of the visiting non-expert. But uh-oh! After six minutes of pushing this line with the help of the master plumber, Maddow introduced two actual experts.
One of them, Professor Edwards, soon made the highlighted points:
MADDOW: Professor Edwards, you've been absolutely key to the country—to Flint itself, and now the country, understanding what happened here. You have gone from the state, you know, ridiculing you and trying to box you out to now putting you on their task forces. I know you're going go be overseeing lead testing here in Flint.For the full transcript, click here. At some point, they'll probably post it.
Do you feel like, as an expert in this field, do you feel like you know how much work needs to be done on Flint's pipes in order to make this city safe?
EDWARDS: Yes. There's actually three different phases of work that has to be done. First, we have to restore this coating to the pipe, which is being done through optimized corrosion control.
We have to determine that the water—if and when it's safe to drink again through a federally approved lead and copper sampling which hasn`t been done, unfortunately, in Flint, for a long time.
And longer term in Flint, not just in Flint, but around the U.S., we have to figure out a way to get these pipes replaced. And what we're struggling with right now is, there's really no precedent for this kind of man-made disaster.
EDWARDS: And we don't have a good roadmap to follow in terms of how to replace these pipes and do it right. And we could jump into this and actually do it wrong. Other cities have done it wrong and made the problem worse in the past. So, we have to, we have to work with the EPA—
MADDOW: Are there best practices out there about how to get corroded and, therefore, dangerous pipe out, replaced with good pipe?
EDWARDS: There are, absolutely. The hurdles we face, the records are so poor, not only in Flint but all around the U.S., we don't know where these lead pipes are. The records we have are oftentimes wrong. So simply identifying which homes have the lead pipes is kind of a monumental task.
Maddow had spent the first six minutes insisting that the pipes must be replaced right now. But when she finally spoke to the expert, he said that her exciting plan could make the problem worse!
At this point, let's give Maddow some credit. After letting her second expert explain how hard it will be just to locate Flint's lead pipes, she actually turned to Professor Edwards seeking some clarification!
Maddow asked Edwards a relevant question! But look who jumped in to answer instead:
MADDOW: In terms of the urgency, I hear an echo of what Governor Snyder was saying today, the way you described this, Professor Edwards, in terms of this coating, this idea that running treated water now through these pipes is going to rehabilitate them a little bit.Maddow directed a very important technical question at an actual expert. In reply, she got a political answer from the mayor, producing applause from the crowd.
Do you have faith that's the right next step? Is that happening? Do we know how long that takes?
MAYOR KAREN WEAVER: I don't know that we know how long that takes. That's what we've been waiting to see, how long will that take? The other problem is, you know, because we have been—our trust has been broken in the city of Flint. Because that's happened—
WEAVER: Because that's happened, if we don't get new pipes, people aren't going to trust that. And that's a lot of the underlying issue. We've had broken trust. So do we trust that that biofilm is built up and water is safe, that the pipes are safe, not the water, but the pipes are safe? And that will always be in the back of the residents' minds.
After the mayor answered for Edwards, Maddow went to commercial break. Ten minutes later, at 9:18, Edwards finally got the chance to note some basic points—in effect, to answer the question on which the mayor jumped in.
He explained that Flint's water may well be meeting the federal standard right now—and that, if we follow Maddow's amateur prescription, we might "make the problem worse," as others have done in the past.
Professor Edwards' statement went by in a flash. If you blinked, you probably missed it.
He wasn't asked to speak again. The rest of the evening was punctuated by exciting calls for the governor to resign.
What's the current state of the water entering homes in Flint? Like you, we can't answer that question. But then, we watch The Maddow Show, whose journalistic culture is leaching lead, as we've frequently said in the past.
Wednesday's town hall was a perfect example of excitement and narrative taking precedence over information. Quickly, let's review, putting events in order:
The program started with Maddow, a total non-expert, describing the need for instant action.
On videotape, we then saw her touring Flint with a second non-expert. He told her he could scramble a thousand plumbers in support of her action plan.
When Maddow finally spoke to an expert, he told her that her action plan could "make the problem worse." When Maddow asked him to amplify what he had said, the mayor jumped in to answer for him.
Ten minutes later, the expert made a rather significant claim. He said the odds were 50/50 that the water entering homes in Flint meets federal standards right now!
That statement went by in a flash. Maddow didn't try to draw it out. The expert never spoke again.
At this point, we'll venture a guess. We'll guess that very few of Maddow's viewers really heard or understand what Edwards said.
Was Edwards right in his suggestion? Is it true, as he suggested, that water entering homes in Flint already meets federal standards?
We don't know, and Maddow didn't draw him out on that very basic question.
Professor Edwards had never been on Maddow's program before. Will he be on her program tonight?
Let's ask that question a different way:
What role does information play within our declining tribe? What role does information play within our tribe's floundering culture?
This afternoon: Is Slate allowed to say that? Also, more highlights from Flint