Flint endures the media circus that has come to town

Jacob Carah
Special to The Detroit News

Flint — Amid its lead-tainted water crisis, the city has finally caught the attention of the national spotlight, but for how long, residents such as Jessica Buchanan wonder.

“There is a lot of stuff going on in town that the national media could benefit in knowing, and reporting on,” said Buchanan, 27, who works as a server and senior staffer at Flint Crepe Co.

“Many folks from the national media have come into my workplace downtown in the last few weeks and have complimented the food we serve, the drinks we serve, but they’re here to focus on something that is really negative about our city.”

Buchanan said, meanwhile, journalists are failing to notice the city’s progress.

“It’s the things that have happened in the last 10 years, the positive things, where we finally have a downtown that is safe with fun things to do,” she said. “That right there is something people need to know. It’s something that needs to be celebrated — the media tends to forget that.

“Some reporters come in here with an attitude like they’re not happy to be here, that they’re here to get the story, when we have been dealing with this for so long.”

In the last few months — at Good Beans Cafe in historic carriage town or Café Rhema and Flint Crepe Co. in downtown — regulars have grown used to seeing field producers from MSNBC, Stephanie Gosk from CBS or CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta drop in for an espresso or turkey sandwich.

Photojournalists lug long lenses for shots of the cityscape or lighting crews prepare for live shots near Riverfront Park.

And the media swarmed Eisenhower Elementary earlier this week to cover lead testing while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow held a town hall forum at Brownell/Holmes STEM Academy to highlight the city’s struggle to recover from pipes leaching lead into the water stream. Maddow acknowledged the national media has finally “woken up” to Flint’s disaster.

“We are here tonight for this special town hall because a disaster of national proportions has hit this city,” Maddow told her audience. “... It’s national. It’s American. It’s big.”

After nearly 19 months of struggling for clean water, Buchanan knows this. She also understands while Flint’s cautionary tale is a lesson to be learned and covered by the national press, it comes at the expense of what the city truly is — their home.

“It’s an issue that is serious. It’s is an important story and a problem that needs to be told and needs to be fixed; however, the national media — big media — only comes to Flint when something bad is happening,” she said.

While the state-designated water emergency stretches on, the city’s residents and local press see things here with a bit of a different view.

WNEM-TV, the CBS affiliate covering Flint and Saginaw, has been covering the water crisis for nearly two years.

“This situation provided an interesting and competitive challenge for us, we’ve done a really good job of keeping the story as locally focused as we can, while the national media, they’re a sort of Johnny-come-lately at times, playing catch-up to what local media reported for a long time now,” said Ian Rubin, WNEM’s news director.

Rubin said the station has had to do recaps of their own reporting to clarify the national narrative being introduced to the country.

“In some cases, the national media are reporting this like it just happened,” he said. “Of course, there are some new wrinkles to it, but it shouldn’t be approached like a new news story. That’s unfair when the people have had to put up with this for nearly two years.”

Café Rhema sits right on the main thoroughfare in Flint’s downtown. Its owner, Josh Spencer, standing at the bar looking out over the bricks of Saginaw Street, has seen Flint’s tarnished reputation keep customers from the city.

“The worry and something I’ve seen in the last year is suburbanites fear to come downtown and see the new restaurants, hang out at the new bars because of the water,” he said.

Flint in the last decade has seen a revitalized effort in downtown redevelopment spurred by local reinvestment in the city. Spencer is worried about lingering fears once the spotlight leaves.

“They’ve already seemed cautious or questioning whether they could come down here safely. You know the national media is making it look like we’re living in this apocalyptic wasteland, when on the contrary, we are on the upswing, and we have been for a decade,” Spencer said.

The negative perception often compounded by the ongoing crisis is painful for Buchanan, who says she is invested in Flint’s future.

“That is what frustrates me. I’ve not seen ‘Roger & Me’ specifically because of people I know that are not from Flint, who have seen it, have a negative outlook on the city because of that film,” Buchanan said of the 1989 Michael Moore documentary.

Bryn Mickle, news leader of the Flint Journal, is more welcoming to the national press and the attention of the rest of the country.

“The national press doesn’t hamper our ability to do our job,” Mickle said. “This has been a disaster, and the more attention to this situation the better. The city has gotten donations from all over, and I have no doubt that international attention has played a role in that very positive outcome.”

Jayne Hodak, news director of WJRT-TV, an ABC affiliate in Flint, remained a bit more critical of the coverage, saying much of the media outside the city was slow to the story and will likely drop coverage before the crisis is over.

“One of my anchors so eloquently wrote a few weeks ago ‘we started running a marathon nearly two years ago. The finish line for the race still hasn’t been drawn,’” Hodak said. “Pretty soon the national satellite trucks will be packed up and move on to the next big story. The Flint media will still be here, waiting to finish the race.”