Oscar Brown had a story to tell. But he didn’t have the opportunity to tell it until Rachel Maddow showed up at his front door.
Oscar and his family have lived in Flint, Michigan, for decades, raising their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in their modest, one-story home. They were also among the nearly 100,000 residents affected when the hardscrabble city switched its water source in April 2014. That decision led to untreated river water corroding pipes throughout Flint, leaching lead and other toxins into the water supply.
More than 18 months later, Oscar and his wife, Elizabeth, gave Rachel and the camera crew of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show a tour of their home. As he talked about pipes, faucets, filters, bottled water, and long-term health consequences, Oscar stopped to show Rachel something: his water bill.
“That really stuck with me,” Rachel says. “This whole family’s life has been turned absolutely upside down, and for all the pain that they’ve gone through, every month they still get a big, fat water bill from the city. To see their resilience in the face of all of it…that was just a humbling, back-to-basics moment for me that I’ll never forget.”
“I feel I have a very strong responsibility because of what happened in Flint to make sure we’re being as constructive as possible at all times, because you never know if the story that you’re telling is something that’s going to change the world.”
Rachel Maddow | Host of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC
PUTTING THE SPOTLIGHT ON FLINT
From the outset of the crisis, it was immediately clear to many in Flint that something wasn’t right with the water. But the state government’s glacial and incomplete response to the growing crisis dragged on for months. Even as residents-turned-activists clamored for action, media outside of the region largely ignored the situation.
“It’s not like other national news outlets couldn’t hear or see what was going on in Flint,” Rachel says. “I think we were just able to recognize the magnitude of what was happening there.”
That’s because Rachel and her team were already investigating the consequences of a controversial state emergency management law on impoverished cities in Michigan when the situation in Flint came into focus.
“This was something new, something that happened all at once,” Rachel says. “This was a direct policy action that we now know was deadly. They literally pushed a button, turned a valve, and poisoned an entire city. So what do you do once your pipes have been turned into a weapon against you?”
The Rachel Maddow Show has been widely credited for putting — and keeping — the crisis in Flint in the national spotlight. Rachel says the reason why she and her team saw something that others didn’t is because of the news culture at NBCUniversal that allows the time and resources to look — and dig deeper — into important stories.
“One of the hallmarks of my show and of MSNBC is that we have the editorial freedom to cover more than just national politics and international affairs,” Rachel says.
By late 2015, The Rachel Maddow Show was regularly featuring the latest news from the Flint crisis. People around the country were beginning to take notice, and the political reverberations were being felt from the Michigan governor’s mansion to the White House.
“Every once in a while, you get ahold of something that you can bring to a bigger audience and make a national concern when it wasn’t before,” Rachel says. “This platform that we have in the news is very powerful. It can be a force for bad when we do our jobs poorly, and it can also really be a force for good if we do it right.”
To do the story right, Rachel knew she needed to tell what was happening to Flint in Flint, boots on the ground, rather than from behind an anchor desk. In January 2016, she and her team headed to Michigan. They were grateful for the across-the-board support from MSNBC, specifically from NBC News Group Chairman Andy Lack and MSNBC President Phil Griffin.
TURNING COVERAGE INTO ACTION
“We couldn’t have gotten the story without the people in Flint telling it themselves,” Rachel says. “That’s why we talked with the plumbers. That’s why we went to people’s homes. That’s why we brought cameras into people’s basements to see their water heaters and service lines.”
Rachel raised the profile of the Flint crisis even further when she hosted a live town hall in the city to help explain what had happened, to give residents an opportunity to have their voices heard, and to seek active solutions to the problem. The coverage helped mobilize political action, and relief efforts soon became a cause célèbre, with Cher, Matt Damon, and the rock band Pearl Jam, among many others, spearheading donations and assistance for the people of Flint.
“I am proud of what we did, but there’s still so much more to do,” Rachel says. “It still bothers me that all the attention that we were able to direct toward Flint hasn’t resulted in the problem getting totally fixed. And I’m motivated by that. I feel accountable to the people of that city who we met and whose stories we told.”
The way in which NBCUniversal programming like The Rachel Maddow Show tells those stories is increasingly essential, she says. In-depth investigation, detailed explanation, and contextual reporting are a counterweight, especially when the public increasingly questions the trustworthiness of news.
“I feel I have a very strong responsibility because of what happened in Flint to make sure we’re being as constructive as possible at all times, because you never know if the story that you’re telling is something that’s going to change the world,” Rachel says. “I’ve never been more excited to come to work every day. I’ve never felt like we were more needed. I know it’s an uncertain time, but I’ve never loved my job more.”
BY THE NUMBERS
BOTTLES OF WATER
distributed by Comcast to Flint residents
for community service in Flint
pitchers with replacement filters distributed
testing kits distributed
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