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Laying off the guardians

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Last week everyone, including me, talked about the devastating report issued by the Flint Water Advisory Task Force. It laid the blame squarely on the state for the crisis that ruined the city’s water and put thousands of children at risk of lead poisoning.

This is one of the most pointed government documents I’ve ever seen. I had a chance to really read it over the weekend – and it is, frankly, riveting.

The sadly misnamed Michigan Department of Environmental Quality got most of the blame, but the task force also scathingly criticized the federal EPA, Flint’s emergency managers, and the emergency manager law itself.

Not to mention the governor, who at best was asleep at the switch while his appointees were ruining the store and insulting the customers – namely, the citizens of Michigan.

But what has been largely overlooked is that the report singled out some heroes as well. I’d like to quote the one inspiring paragraph in the whole hundred-plus page document:

“The Flint water crisis is also a story of something that did work: The critical role played by engaged Flint citizens, by individuals … who had the expertise and willingness to question and challenge government leadership, and by members of a free press who used the tools that enable investigative journalism. Without their courage and persistence, this crisis likely never would have been brought to light and mitigation efforts never begun.”

Just think what that means. The official task force appointed by the governor, whose two co-chairs are both former legislators, agreed government totally failed here.

The only thing that stopped the damage was a free press, which both investigated and acted as a megaphone for those who did speak out. We’ve learned some of their names in the last few months: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the courageous pediatrician who risked her reputation to protect the well-being of the children she treated.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech scientist whose work was vilified at first but who ultimately proved the state was lying. Curt Guyette, the alternative journalist now with the American Civil Liberties Union. He, and Michigan Radio’s Steve Carmody and Lindsey Smith were reporting this story long before other media were paying much attention.

Journalism was critically important in exposing what was happening. But journalism itself is in trouble these days. It’s significant that none of the reporters doing the best work in the Flint water crisis was from a newspaper or a for-profit broadcast entity.

Newspapers traditionally have done most of this type of work. But because of the flight of advertising to free internet sites, they are dwindling rapidly. There were more than 1,700 newspapers in this country 35 years ago. There are 400 fewer now.

There were about 60,000 print journalists back then; three years ago, that was down to 36,000, and is now fewer. What papers remain are smaller, with shrinking budgets and smaller staffs. If it hadn’t been for Michigan Radio and a vigorous alternative investigative reporter, who knows how long children would have continued to be poisoned. What’s happening to journalism is a hidden crisis just as important as Flint.

We now know what happened there. What worries me is all the things we don’t know about, in this era of a shrinking press.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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