Rachel Maddow, Kevin Drum and the children and parents of Flint: For starters, the New York Times should be saluted for what it has done.
On the other hand, a person must ask why it took so long. Also, why today's report appears in the form of an op-ed column, not as a front-page news report or as an analysis piece.
Today's report concerns blood lead levels in Flint. It provides the types of information which Kevin Drum offered all along, with the whole journalistic world refusing to watch.
Today's column is written by a pair of professors. "Flint Kids Were Not Poisoned," their hard-copy headline declares.
Wait a minute! Flint's kids weren't poisoned? Their belated report starts like this:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH (7/23/18): Flint Kids Were Not 'Poisoned'Children in Flint weren't "poisoned," the two professors write. They complain about the way many journalists have used that poisonous term.
Words are toxic, too. Labeling Flint’s children as “poisoned,” as many journalists and activists have done since the city’s water was found to be contaminated with lead in 2014, unjustly stigmatizes their generation.
Let’s be clear. It’s unacceptable that any child was exposed to drinking water with elevated lead concentrations. We know that lead is a powerful neurotoxicant, that there is no safe level, that the very young are particularly vulnerable and that long-term exposure to low to moderate levels of lead is associated with decreased I.Q.s and other cognitive and behavioral problems, including criminal behavior.
But there is no reason to expect that what happened for a year and a half in Flint will inevitably lead to such effects. The casual use of the word “poisoned,” which suggests that the affected children are irreparably brain-damaged, is grossly inaccurate. In a city that already battles high poverty and crime rates, this is particularly problematic.
Language like that can be toxic, they say. Then they start providing the type of information Drum offered again and again:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH (continuing directly): In the mid-1970s, the average American child under the age of 5 had a blood lead level of 14 micrograms per deciliter. The good news is that by 2014 it had fallen dramatically, to 0.84 micrograms per deciliter, largely because of the banning of lead in paint and the phaseout of lead in gasoline, among other measures.Oof! As they take a shot at the celebrities who tend to infest and infect our own tribe, the professors start to put the unfortunate events in Flint into a wider perspective. Most importantly, they start replacing the hysteria and the propaganda with information and facts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considers a blood lead level in children of 5 micrograms per deciliter and higher to be a “reference level.” This measure is intended to identify children at higher risk and set off communitywide prevention activities.
It does not suggest that a child needs medical treatment. In fact, the C.D.C. recommends medical treatment only for blood lead levels at or above 45 micrograms per deciliter. Not a single child in Flint tested this high. This was a surprise for several visiting celebrities, who requested a visit to the “lead ward” of Hurley Children’s Hospital.
Nonetheless, the reference level has been misinterpreted by laypeople—and even public health officials—as a poisoning threshold.
Drum presented this type of information again and again and again. But as we've long told you, it's virtually impossible to inject information into the modern American discourse.
Our discourse runs on narrative, excitement and propaganda, almost never on facts. So it was with the information Drum presented again and again, to virtually no effect.
As they continue, Gomez and Dietrich present the types of basic information which were disappeared during the height of this episode. For example, consider this:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH: After Flint’s water was switched from Detroit’s municipal system to the Flint River, the annual percentage of Flint children whose blood lead levels surpassed the reference level did increase—but only from 2.2 percent to 3.7 percent. One of us, Dr. Gómez, along with fellow researchers, reported these findings in a study in the June issue of The Journal of Pediatrics, which raised questions about how risks and statistics have been communicated regarding this issue.According to the professors, the percentage of kids above the current "reference level" was massively higher just twenty years ago. This is the kind of information Drum presented again and again, putting a type of hysteria into a wider perspective.
For comparison, consider the fact that just 20 years ago, nearly 45 percent of young children in Michigan had blood lead levels above the current reference level. If we are to be consistent in the labeling of Flint children as “poisoned,” what are we to make of the average American who was a child in the 1970s or earlier? Answer: He has been poisoned and is brain-damaged. And poisoned with lead levels far above, and for a greater period, than those observed in Flint.
We may feel inclined to say that what happened in Flint wasn't good. Everybody knows that! The professors stated that point right in paragraph 2.
Here's what else wasn't good: the conduct of people like Rachel Maddow, who yelled "poison" again and again and again, scaring everyone shitless. In this January 2017 report in The New Yorker, Sarah Stillman mentioned, in passing, the way children in Flint were giving up on themselves and their futures, so convinced were they that they had been deeply damaged.
We sent the Stillman excerpt to Drum. He posted yet another report, offering this overview:
DRUM (1/26/17): This is yet another tragedy. Children in Flint had mildly elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream for about a year or two. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but the effects of this are fairly modest. To put it in terms most people will recognize, it means that some children in Flint will lose about one IQ point. Maybe two. That’s a tragedy, but it’s an even bigger tragedy if kids and their parents respond to this by thinking their lives are permanently ruined. The truth is that in nearly all children, the effects will be only barely noticeable.Eighteen months later, such basic, important information finally reaches the Times. It does so in an expert opinion column, not in a news report or an analysis piece.
Maddow was conducting one of her standard jihads when she scared all those parents and children shitless. She was chasing Michigan governor Rick Snyder, and she didn't have a telephone sex tape she could play again and again, all the while pretending to be embarrassed by what she was doing.
Instead, she yelled poison poison poison poison, scaring everyone shitless. As she did this night after night, she kept withholding the basic information which had animated Drum's reports.
Did Rachel care about those kids? Flint has of course disappeared from her playlist, along with lead in general. The focus of our tribal propaganda has by now moved on.
Rachel has stopped discussing lead. We don't know why she no longer cares because, in today's column, the professors say this:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH: [T]he focus on Flint seems to be distracting the public from a far more widespread problem. Although blood lead levels have long been declining nationwide, there remain many trouble spots. Right now in Michigan, 8.8 percent of children in Detroit, 8.1 percent of children in Grand Rapids and an astounding 14 percent of children in Highland Park surpass the C.D.C. reference level. Flint is at 2.4 percent. A comprehensive analysis of blood lead levels across the United States reveals at least eight states with blood lead levels higher than Flint’s were during the water switch.According to the professors, eight states have higher blood lead levels, on a statewide basis, than Flint did during the water switch! Then too, you have the children of Detroit, Grand Rapids and Highland Park. Why did we scream and yell about Flint while walking away from them?
What happened in Flint wasn't good. It also didn't involve the "poisoning of the entire city of Flint" (12/20/16), the appalling designation Rachel liked to excite us with as she tried to help us learn how to adore her more fully. Beyond that, we offer one final point:
In one of the passages quoted above, the professors call attention to the much higher levels of lead exposure from the 1970s and before. You may recall what they said:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH: [C]onsider the fact that just 20 years ago, nearly 45 percent of young children in Michigan had blood lead levels above the current reference level. If we are to be consistent in the labeling of Flint children as “poisoned,” what are we to make of the average American who was a child in the 1970s or earlier? Answer: He has been poisoned and is brain-damaged. And poisoned with lead levels far above, and for a greater period, than those observed in Flint.Warning! When we watch the press corps at work, we often think of those high lead levels from the 1970s and before. Increasingly, we find ourselves wondering if those very high levels of lead exposure help explain the way our "elite" press corps has functioned over the past thirty years.
Kids from earlier decades experienced much higher blood lead levels than the current children of Flint ever did. Are we sure that doesn't explain the behavior of unhinged cable screamers, like the Chris Matthews of the wars against Hillary Clinton and Gore? Are we sure it doesn't explain the existential mess we now find ourselves in?
The Times presented some real information today. Does lead exposure from earlier days explain why this rarely happens?
Tomorrow: Back to the New Orleans schools (postponed from today)