As members of Gov. Rick Snyder’s inner circle quietly acknowledged the health dangers of Flint’s drinking water, his public relations team privately mocked journalists for reporting on the growing crisis.
New e-mails show how callous, defensive and misleading some in the administration had become as it became increasingly clear that Flint residents were subjected to dangerous levels of lead and other chemicals in their drinking water while under state control. In e-mails to each other, the communications teams of the governor’s office and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) even scoffed at ministers and experts who expressed concerns about the water.
“The ACLU’s fear campaign on this issue is an embarrassment,” Brad Wurfell, then-spokesman of the DEQ, wrote in response to stories by watchdog journalist Curt Guyette, who a year later was named “Journalist of the Year” by the Michigan Press Association for his revealing work on the Flint water crisis.
Snyder spokesman Dave Murray, who was removed from his position last week, blasted his former MLive.com colleagues, accusing them of “milking” the crisis for web hits by writing three stories in one day about the implications of Flint’s contaminated water.
“Based on my MLive experience, I can tell you this means A) the stories are getting a lot of hits, and they are milking it in an attempt to B) get the stories to go viral,” Murray wrote on Jan. 26, 2015. “Journalism has taken a backseat to hits.”
Just three days earlier, a top Snyder aide warned the communications team of a brewing “public relations crisis” that is “waiting to explode nationally.”
“If Flint had been hit with a natural disaster that affected its water system, the state would be stepping in to provide bottled water and other assistance. What can we do given the current circumstances?”wrote Ari Adler, then-special projects manager for the governor.
Those concerns weren’t passed on to the public or the media. Instead, the PR teams understated the problems, dismissed studies that showed serious health dangers and ridiculed journalists for writing about the crisis.
Eleven months later, after mounting evidence that Snyder’s inner circle failed to act timely to one of the nation’s worst water crises, the criticism of the media continued. On the same month she was hired as Snyder’s communications director, Meegan Holland called documentarian Michael Moore, a Flint native, “a pot stirrer and attention whore” after he called for Snyder’s resignation and arrest on Twitter.
— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) December 19, 2015
A day later, Holland, also a former MLive.com journalist, criticized MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow for Flint coverage that “stirred the pot.”
“To answer all her inaccuracies would take more time than what you’d want to give,” Holland wrote to members of her communications team.
Earlier this year, Snyder accepted responsibility for the Flint water crisis and hired two outside public relations firms to handle the political fallout. But the beleaguered governor has refused to resign, shifting blame to the DEQ, Flint and the EPA.
Last week, the state approved language for a recall petition to remove Snyder from office.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.