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Journalism failure in Flint

We have a new winner in the contest for journalistic understatement of the century. And that is Marjory Raymer, the editor of the Flint Journal, who last week wrote these immortal words: “We didn’t do good enough.“  

Flint elected a new city council last week. Among the winners were a man who served 19 years in prison for murder, and another convicted of felonious assault. Plus two women who filed for bankruptcy. One said she didn’t pay her bills because she needed to give her mother a nice funeral, and added, “If I had to do it again, I would.”  

Now, before you raise an eyebrow at the voters, consider this: The Flint Journal, which is supposed to be that town’s newspaper of record, never reported any of this before people went to the polls.

Not that the candidates kept this stuff a deep secret. Patrick Clawson, a former investigative reporter for CNN, is the closest thing Flint has these days to a civic watchdog. He informed me that the fact that councilman-elect Wantwaz Davis was a murderer had been broadcast on local talk radio.

In any event, it is easier than ever to find out information about candidates by getting on the internet and researching them. Indeed, a simple google search quickly turned up a story about a lawsuit Davis filed while he was in prison. 

Raymer, the newspaper‘s editor, wrote on a blog that she was sorry about all this, that she doesn’t want it to happen again, and that her staff is, “developing a process to ensure it never does,”  she said. One is tempted to ask whether that means taking a basic reporting class at a local community college.

This comes, by the way, at a time when Flint is struggling persuade the state to remove the city’s emergency manager and to allow the city to return to local control. Asked about this, longtime political analyst Bill Ballenger, himself a Flint native, said “my reaction is that this is not good for Flint.”  No kidding. 

My first instinct is to think that Raymer and the paper’s politics reporter, Dominic Adams, should resign in embarrassment or be fired. That still may be the case. But in fact, incompetent as their work was, this isn’t entirely their fault.

Society -- or at least the huge corporations who own newspapers -- doesn’t value the role of journalism the way we once did. To save money, Advance Publications, the parent company of the Flint Journal, laid off more than a third of the staff four years ago. They cut home delivery to only three days, later four days a week.

Reporting is labor-intensive work that requires intelligence, diligence and curiosity. Sometimes the results are relatively expensive, painful and/or boring. Sort of like medical tests. But both things are vitally necessary, for the health of individuals and society.

It is possible that Flint voters would have elected Wantwaz Davis if they’d known he shot a man three times. Or that they’d elected Eric Mays if the paper told them he had pled guilty to felonious assault. But their newspaper never told them.

Democracy doesn’t work perfectly. But without informed citizens, it can’t possibly work at all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry 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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