Pundit fired from publication after Flint comments
Lansing — Longtime Michigan political pundit Bill Ballenger was abruptly fired Wednesday from the publication he founded 29 years ago for dismissing the scientific severity of Flint’s lead-contamination water crisis.
Inside Michigan Politics Publisher Susan J. Demas issued a press release early Wednesday morning saying Ballenger is no longer associated with the publication for his “indefensible” comments in media interviews about Flint’s water, which has been deemed undrinkable without a faucet filter.
But Demas, who purchased the publication from Ballenger in 2013, terminated a contract for Ballenger’s continued editorial services without informing him by phone.
“It’s rather unfortunate how all of this unfolded, and it’s not how I would have liked it to,” Demas told The Detroit News Wednesday.
Demas said she began receiving phone calls at 6 a.m. Wednesday from radio stations seeking comment about Ballenger’s remarks Tuesday night on WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record” after Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint-centered State of the State address.
“I had to make a decision (early Wednesday morning) on the spot without talking to him,” she said.
Ballenger said he learned he had been canned after hearing Demas on a radio program. Moments later, syndicated radio talk show host Steve Gruber called Ballenger for comment on the dismissal.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Susan yet, so next thing I know the phone rang and it was you,” Ballenger told Gruber.
Ballenger, a Flint native who still resides there part-time, defended his comments that the Flint water crisis is “vastly overblown,” comments he made Tuesday to WJR-AM (760) and The Detroit News.
“I’ve been drinking their water and bathing in it for years, including the last year and a half without a filter,” Ballenger told The News. “The idea that there’s a catastrophe in Flint and the state ought to fork over the extra $500 million found in the budget to solve the water crisis is one of the greatest absurdities of our time.”
On WKAR-TV Tuesday night, Ballenger got into a testy exchange with former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer over the severity of Flint’s water problems.
“I run water over my rice every weekend in Flint, and we’ve got no problems and none of the people on my street do and the situation in Flint is nowhere near as bad as you are depicting. You have no idea what’s going on in Flint,” Ballenger said.
Whitmer, D-East Lansing, shot back: “With all due respect Bill, I as a parent would take the advice of scientists and doctors over your anecdotal advice.”
Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator, said he had a recent blood test that turned up no concerns over lead.
After the Tuesday morning WJR interview, Demas said she called Ballenger and he assured her that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of Inside Michigan Politics on the radio program, just giving his own opinion. On WKAR-TV on Tuesday night, Ballenger was a media panelist representing Inside Michigan Politics.
Demas said she was alarmed by Ballenger “questioning the science” at the center of a state and federal emergency in Flint, where children and adults have been tested for unhealthy levels of lead in their bloodstreams.
“As I told Bill earlier Tuesday, he is entitled to his opinion, but not his own facts,” Demas said.
Ballenger responded to that remark on Gruber’s radio show.
“I don’t know what facts she has that are different from what I have been relying on,” he said.
Ballenger said the state health department’s discovery of high levels of lead in “43 out of 2,000” Flint residents is “minuscule.”
State health officials have confirmed elevated blood-lead levels in 50 Flint residents, including 28 children under the age of 6, the administration said last week. With just 2,642 of the city’s 99,000 residents tested, it is not yet known how widespread the problem is.
State health officials also have said that lead passes through people’s systems quickly, so tests don’t always catch residents’ past exposures to lead. They also have acknowledged that it sometimes can be difficult to determine whether lead exposure can be traced to the drinking water or paint.
“There was some real question, in my examples, and everybody acknowledges this of whether the lead traces in blood, whether it was children’s or adults, came from Flint River water or whether it came from some other source,” Ballenger said.
Ballenger said Flint residents could be coming into contact with lead in the air and ground as a result of the demolition and arson of city homes “filled with lead.”
“There’s just a whole range of questions, and nobody has really answered them,” Ballenger said.
Demas said she is under a three-year contract to purchase the bimonthly newsletter from Ballenger that ends this year and would be honored.
Ballenger retained an associate editor title under contract to provide commentary and analysis for the Lansing publication.
“I set the editorial tone, not Bill,” Demas said.