Where else? In today's New York Times: What does extremely bad news reporting look like?
Consider the news report in today's New York Times about events in Flint.
Julie Bosman's report about Flint runs almost 1300 words. Under a piteous headline, the scribe begins like this:
BOSMAN (2/5/16): Desperate to Leave Flint, but Seeing No Way to EscapeCharles White says he's trapped in a "poisoned city." A bit later on, he expresses his desperation:
Charles White, a carpenter, sat on the couch in the living room of his small bungalow, his gaze fixed on his 5-month-old, Vaughn, nestled in a bouncy chair at his feet.
Mr. White, who has lived in Flint most of his life, said that he was at his job the day before when his girlfriend, Tia, called in a panic after coming from the pediatrician. Both of their children have lead poisoning.
''She spent all day crying, trying to figure out how we're going to get out of here,'' he said softly. ''I'm prepared to sell everything I own to get out and save my children.''
Yet Mr. White, like many people here, says he is as good as trapped in this poisoned city.
''At this point, I'd be willing to move anywhere,'' he is quoted saying.
Warning! He'd better not move to a bunch of cities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey! Bosman never says so in her novelized news report, but a range of cities in those states have rates of childhood lead exposure which dwarf the current rate in Flint.
Charles White probably shouldn't move to Allentown, Pennsylvania! According to this Vox report by Sarah Frostenson, 23.1% of Allentown's kids have elevated blood lead levels (more than 5 micrograms per deciliter). That's almost seven times the current rate in Flint.
Altoona, Scranton and Johnstown aren't far behind Allentown. In Easton, Pa., 15.8% of the kids have an elevated blood lead reading. That compares to Flint's current rate, 3.6%.
When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha released her now-famous study of children in Flint, it showed that the percentage of kids with elevated lead levels had risen from 2.1% to 4.0%. That reading led the nation's cable TV stars to declare Flint an AMERICAN DISASTER.
Presumably, many people like White have ingested that doomsday messaging. In this morning's report in the Times, they are told little else about their situation.
According to Frostenson, twenty cities in Pennsylvania exceed Flint's current rate of elevated lead levels. That includes Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, two large cities which are quite well-known.
In Philadelphia, 10.2% of the kids are listed with elevated blood lead levels. In Pittsburgh, the number is 8.3%.
Should someone possibly tell Charles White that he might not want to move to those cities? It won't be Bosman! She's still giving readers the impression that blood lead problems exist in Flint and in Flint alone.
Frostenson's report concerns cities in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, in this post, Kevin Drum discusses a report about cities in New Jersey with exposure rates higher than that in Flint.
According to Drum's report, eleven cities and two counties in New Jersey have higher rates of exposure than Flint. Have you ever heard of Atlantic City? In that city, 10.2% of the kids have elevated blood lead levels, almost three times the rate found in Flint.
Not a word about these matters appears in Bosman's report. As with Rachel Maddow's highly selective pseudo-reporting, Bosman features excitement, pathos, human interest and script while downplaying information.
Other types of information are AWOL from Bosman's report. Consider what she does, and fails to do, in this early passage:
BOSMAN: People in poor and crime-ridden pockets of cities like Detroit and Baltimore often share the sense of being trapped because of market forces and limited resources. But the people of Flint have a special urgency about leaving.Obviously, the people of Flint experienced a gross breakdown in a key public service over the past two years. But even as Bosman invites us to feel their pain, she fails to explain or examine the ways the situation has improved.
Because of the health crisis stemming from their tainted water, they spend their days dealing with the consequences.
They use bottled water for drinking, washing their hands and preparing food. In between, they shuttle children to pediatricians for blood tests, lug bottled water home from firehouses and install and change water filters on their home faucets. (Even so, city and state officials have warned that lead levels were still so high in some homes that the filters might not be strong enough to be effective.)
Has Charles White had a recent test of his home's water supply? Is he using a water filter on his faucet?
If so, is it possible that his water is currently safe for drinking? Note the slippery way Bosman avoids this basic discussion:
"Even so, city and state officials have warned that lead levels were still so high in some homes that the filters might not be strong enough to be effective." (Our italics)
According to Bosman, the filters might not be effective in some homes. That's a very intriguing statement. How many homes is "some?"
In that passage, Bosman plays a game Rachel Maddow has been playing in the past week. Instead of using the actual numbers—numbers which seem to suggest that the vast majority of homes in Flint are now receiving drinkable water—Bosman keeps matters highly murky by using the fuzzy word "some."
This keeps her readers from understanding the current state of play in Flint, which, according to Professor Marc Edwards and others, seems to involve widespread improvement in the quality of the water.
What's the current state of play in Flint? Bosman makes no real attempt to say. (For recent numbers, see below.)
Meanwhile, what's the actual state of play in the home of Charles White? Has he had his water tested? Does he have filters on his faucets? If so, is the water in his home currently drinkable?
Especially for a person like White, who seems to be in such despair, these must be the most obvious questions on the face of the earth. But Bosman doesn't let them intrude on her tale, which is designed to let us enjoy the pathos, anger and despair of the situation.
(Bosman also doesn't make any attempt to discuss what the health effects might be for White's kids. The term "lead poisoning" sounds very scary. She makes exactly zero attempt to flesh that scary term out.)
"Some" is not a number! That said, actual numbers do exist for reporters who want to report them. Meanwhile, many residents of Flint may not understand the basic facts about the current state of the city's water supply. It seems that people like Bosman and Maddow don't want the Charles Whites to know.
Presumably, the water may be OK by now inside Charles White's home. Beyond that, if he decides to move away, he could easily end up in a city with a much higher rate of lead exposure.
Maddow has been suppressing these basic facts. This morning, Bosman follows suit. Many residents of Flint may be relatively unsophisticated and extremely upset. Maddow and Bosman seem to be working to keep them barefoot and frightened—and to keep their viewers and readers grossly under-informed.
When we read this awful report, a famous old question popped into our heads. "Who is Julie Bosman?" we found ourselves thoughtfully asking.
We googled a bit, then came to despair. According to this official bio, she joined the Times in 2002 as a clerk in the Washington bureau, "where she worked for three years as an assistant to the columnist Maureen Dowd."
Three years working under Dowd! What hope was there for Bosman's work after such an experience?
Beware of "Creeping Dowdism!" Presciently, Katherine Boo issued that warning in 1992.
"Some" is the fuzziest number: Nine days ago, the Washington Post reported some recent data concerning the state of Flint's water.
"Some" is not a number! Below, you'll see what happens when a reporter offers real statistics:
BERNSTEIN (1/27/16): Keith Creagh, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the state was continuing to sample Flint water for lead and that "things are trending better." Of 2,577 samples analyzed, 93.7 percent had less than 15 parts per billion of lead and 85 percent had less than 5 parts per billion.Are those numbers reliable? Professor Marc Edwards has seemed to say they are.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that homeowners and municipalities move to reduce any lead level higher than 15 parts per billion, but some health researchers say there actually may be no safe level for lead in drinking water.
Do those numbers mean that the water in most Flint homes is now safe to drink? As with Maddow, so with the Times—no attempt is being made to examine this obvious question.
It's excitement and narrative all the way down! Information can go hang. So, of course, can people like White. They serve as toys of the gods.