Flint film stresses emergency manager’s role in crisis

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

In Flint, you can’t even get baptized without leaving town, a minister notes in a recently released documentary about the city’s water crisis.

Produced by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and journalist Curt Guyette, the film has become a talking point in the discussion on the state of journalism today and another on how the need for high-quality investigative journalism is increasingly being filled by non-news organizations.

Called “Here’s to Flint!” — and based on government officials’ celebratory toast when the city switched to Flint River water in April 2014 — the film highlights how Michigan’s unique emergency manager law contributed to the disaster, and the crucial role Flint residents played in bringing the situation to light.

“We don’t baptize,” says the Rev. Alfred Harris of the Flint group Concerned Pastors for Social Action, on the water crises’ impact on daily life. “If we baptize, we have to go outside the city of Flint.”

Guyette was the first reporter to break the news of high lead levels in Flint’s water in a story published on the ACLU website. His work ignited a national firestorm, resulting in calls for Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation, multiple state firings and resignations, and a U.S. congressional investigation.

That Guyette recently was named Journalist of the Year by the Michigan Press Association illustrates the extent to which a new journalistic model has become mainstream.

Lee (Lillian) C. Wilkins, chairwoman of the Department of Communication at Wayne State University, said organizations such as the ACLU are filling a gap created by shrinking newsrooms.

“There are fewer opportunities in traditional news organizations for journalists to do the type of in-depth investigations that he did,” Wilkins said. “With our current business model ... we spend less time covering things that are of more importance.”

With backing from the ACLU, Guyette was able to immerse himself in the story, getting a “view from the ground” in Flint and even conducting his own water sampling.

“It was almost a year’s worth of reporting,” said Guyette, a veteran journalist who previously worked for 18 years for the Metro Times, an alternative news, arts and culture weekly in Detroit.

“You feel like if it’s the mainstream media coming in to do this story they tend to focus on ... a couple of easily identified people get all the recognition.

“There was an amazing confluence of people that, for whatever reason, gravitated to Flint to help the people who were there. But the people of Flint were the driving force.”

The full-length documentary poignantly portrays the harm experienced by the residents as the result of official disregard for the safety of their water. It also shows how Michigan’s emergency manager law set the stage for the disaster.

Boil water advisories, rashes, hair loss, muscle stiffness — all were discounted, as Flint leaders, under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, insisted the water was safe.

“It’s almost like we’re living in a nightmare,” Claire McClinton of the Flint Democracy Defense League says in the film.

Much of the documentary’s footage was shot by residents, who used their own cellphones or cameras to photograph and record public meetings, demonstrations and the brown water flowing from their taps, according to Detroit filmmaker Kate Levy, who co-produced the film with Guyette.

According to Levy, citizen journalism is increasingly playing a role in documentary filmmaking.

“My video is only about a third of what we had because we had such a plethora of citizen video to work from,” Levy said.

The film notes that, like nearly every Michigan city taken over by an emergency manager, a majority of residents in the poverty-stricken Flint community are African-American.

It suggests that officials — from city administrators reporting to state-appointed emergency managers, to the state Department of Environmental Quality and Snyder’s administration — engaged in a cover-up, to hide actions made under the emergency managers.

Snyder spokesman Ari Adler saw another motive in the documentary. “People opposed to the emergency manager law are pushing their agenda to eliminate that law because they are more interested in scoring political points than taking care of Flint residents,” he said.

Adler said Flint represents “a massive failure at the federal level in which managers squashed their own experts who were trying to raise concerns because those managers were more concerned about bureaucratic processes than the public health for which they have oversight authority.”

In interviews with The News, both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said their offers of help with Flint were turned down by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and state Department of Health and Human Services.

In his assessment, Guyette surmises: “It’s clear this is the poison fruit of the emergency manager law. As much as the governor tries to blame mid-level bureaucrats and the EPA.

The governor, who was grilled before a congressional subcommittee last week about the Flint controversy, has vowed to make the Flint water crisis a priority for his administration.

Snyder “is committed to solving the crisis in Flint, to provide clean, safe water to the people of Flint now and addressing long-term concerns in terms of updating infrastructure, improving education and assisting people with their healthcare needs,” Adler said.

Said Guyette, “It’s a rare situation to be in because at the bottom of this is a real deep tragedy and it’s still going on.”


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