This Flint Reporter Has Been Breaking Water Saga News for 20 Months

January 26, 2016, 6:33 PM by  Alan Stamm

Much of the coverage about Flint focuses on apparent villains behind the undrinkable water flowing from faucets, spigots and showers there.

But the sad saga also has early heroes, some of whose names you likely know -- Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Hurley Medical Center pediatrician; Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineer profiled today in The Washington Post; crusading Flint mom Leeanne Walters; ACLU of Michigan investigative reporter Curt Guyette.

Get to know one more, who's known in Flint and gaining wider recognition -- reporter Ron Fonger of The Flint Journal, who'll be a guest of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow during a town hall-style broadcast from Flint on Wednesday night. (Dr. Hanna-Attisha, Professor Edwards and Guyette also will appear.)

Fonger, 51, began writing about residents' water complaints shortly after an April 25, 2014 switch from Detroit's system to the Flint River as an interim step while awaiting a Lake Huron pipeline. Now he's among those earning national attention for pioneering work on what has become a daily media topic. 

The dogged journalist's commitment and personality emerge from his replies in an Ask Me Anything session at Reddit last week and a follow-up interview with staff writer Michelle Woo of that forum's editorial site, called Upvoted.  

Fonger, a Flushing High graduate ('83) who still lives in that suburban township, is an alumnus of Northern Michigan University ('86) who joined his home region daily (now part of the MLive group) in November 1995. His career began as a reporter at (in ascending order) the Crawfordsville Journal Review in Indiana, the Hamilton Journal News in Ohio and back in Michigan at the Port Huron Times Herald.

Here's part of how Woo fills in the background of his role in the Page One epic with no end in sight:

Before Flint’s water made national headlines, . . . Ron Fonger was asking questions.

A veteran reporter for The Flint Journal and MLive, Fonger has written more than 250 stories on the city’s water issues since its water supply was switched to the Flint River in April 2014, a cost-cutting move that turned out to be disastrous. Early on, he hounded local government officials who repeatedly assured citizens that the river water was drinkable. . . .

The media has been criticized for its lack of early coverage of Flint’s water debacle, though journalists such as Fonger and Curt Guyette of the ACLU of Michigan laid crucial groundwork for the issue to finally reach the national spotlight.

Ron Fonger:" I've seen people show up at town hall meetings and start crying."
(Facebook photo by The Flint Journal)

The first of seven links at Upvoted to key stories by Fonger is one from May 23, 2014 that begins: "Initial testing of treated Flint River water shows it's meeting all quality standards set by the state."

These excerpts from Fonger's conversations with Woo and at Reddit give a sense of the man behind the byline. As he corrected an online forum questioner last Wednesday: "I'm not blaming. I'm reporting on what we've learned."   

Belated national focus: "The information didn’t all come out at once. It was like there was a new development and it turned the screw a little bit more. It felt like we were building a historical record of things.
" I had no idea we were going to end up where we are now. The more we find out about it, the worse the situation looks."

Emotional impact: "I’ve seen people show up at town hall meetings and start crying about the personal fallout in their own lives."

Mission-in-progress: "It is a elementary responsibility of government to be able to be believed and to be able to provide a service as elementary as water. The more we know, the more damning it is on the people who were in a position to do something about this. There are still new revelations coming out and we’re having to extract it piece by piece by piece."

Personal concern? "My water is coming from a well (I live in a house that's been in my family since 1940) in Flushing Township, just west of Flint. . . . In our office in downtown Flint, it tastes fine. We have lead-clearing filters in place."

What's ahead: "The eyes of the world are on Flint again. I don't think it's going to be easy for anyone to walk away from this water crisis, but I can't predict how close we are to having a permanent fix."

Flint's brighter sides: "There's a strong collection of hospitals and universities, including the University of Michigan's Flint campus, where my daughter got her undergrad degree. The people here are generally kind-hearted, but also tough as nails -- witness how they refused to buckle despite this water crisis.
"Downtown development is ticking up with investments in some properties that have been dormant for decades. We have an awesome farmer's market and you can get a great hamburger at the Torch or Halo Burger."


 City's future: "Flint hasn't been a high-demand area for homes for many years -- we have had thousands of property owners abandoned their homes before the water crisis. I can't imagine this helping. . . .
"People are concerned about how this might affect economic development and population, and this community has already been through a lot. Our population dropped below 100,000 people for the first time since the 1920s in 2014. The city has been losing thousands of people yearly for decades, according to the Census. This isn't going to help improve those numbers in the short term. . . .
"[Also,] the city has struggled with its crime rate . . . and with high unemployment for many years."

 Newspaper industry: "When I first came to work at The Flint Journal, we had five people working full-time in our library and now we have about that many trying to cover the news. But I think we’re able to do a good job with it. These types of stories don’t look like much when they begin. But as the screw turns a little bit each day we just have to keep paying attention.
"Almost everyone on staff has been working on almost nothing but water."

Read more:  Upvoted (Reddit)

Leave a Comment: