Journalist Curt Guyette’s work uncovering the water crisis in Flint, Mich., helped break one of the biggest stories of 2015. That story, in turn, grew out of Guyette’s unusual job description: He’s the lone investigative reporter employed by a branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. His beat for the ACLU of Michigan was issues involving a state law that places financially distressed local governments under the control of state-appointed emergency managers.
The crisis began in April 2014, when emergency managers switched Flint to a cheaper source of drinking water to save money. But the new supply corroded the old pipes, inflicting lead poisoning on a town of 100,000 — a mess that’s still far from resolved.
Guyette, a native of north-central Pennsylvania and a 1980 University of Pittsburgh graduate, speaks March 15 at Point Park University. The talk is followed by a panel discussion including Kathy Knauer of WESA’s The Allegheny Front; Myron Arnowit, of Clean Water Action; and Brentin Mock, a former City Paper staffer now with The Atlantic’s Citylab.com.
Guyette recently spoke to CP by phone from Detroit.
What happens when a city in Michigan is placed under emergency management?
You have appointed people with no connection to the city, with no accountability to the people of the city. They’re there for just one reason, which is to balance the books. And it’s interesting to note that these emergency managers are given all these vast powers. They can break collective-bargaining agreements, abolish existing ordinances. Create new ordinances. Cut retiree health-care benefits. Sell off assets. The only thing they cannot do is miss a bond payment. So these emergency managers come in with one mission: balance the books and make sure the banks get paid at all costs. … This is the most egregious example of what happens when you take democracy away from people.
You’ve noted that the crisis could have been avoided had state officials simply added corrosion-control chemicals to the water.
That’s what caused this totally preventable, man-made crisis. [Adding the chemicals would have cost] a hundred bucks a day.
What’s the impact of lead exposure on children?
It’s very, very damaging to infants, toddlers, kids whose brains are still developing. Lead is a very potent neurotoxin. It causes IQ loss, behavioral problems, learning disabilities. And it’s irreversible. … You can do increased services, which are necessary at this point, to help the kids deal with the impairments caused, but once the impairment’s there, they’re tragically damaged.
Also, it causes miscarriages, it’s harmful to adults as well. It can be harmful to every system in a person’s body, including the central nervous system. And there’s also some science to indicate that it’s an intergenerational thing, that some of the ill effects can be passed from one generation to the next. Very scary stuff.
What’s it like being a reporter for the ACLU?
When we started in December of ’13, it was considered an experiment. My boss likes to say that we’re past the experimental stage now. My grant was recently renewed for another two years. The Flint story is an important story, and the fact that we were the ones that were responsible for breaking it and bringing it to the attention not just of Flint, which was the primary goal, but at this point to the attention of the world — it showed that we did our job and were able to have high-impact reporting. … The hope now is that other people will be looking at what we did, and maybe try to replicate our model here.
How does your job fit into the new model of nonprofit journalism outlets?
Nationally you have ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism organization which does excellent — beyond excellent — work. … Mother Jones is another example nationally. We’re different by yet another step in that we’re an advocacy organization. For example, [other organizations] would be eligible for a Pulitzer Prize … [but] the Pulitzer committee told me I wasn’t eligible because I work for an advocacy organization.
I understand that distinction. … People are going to be skeptical about work coming out of an advocacy organization. … We just have to be scrupulous to make sure that our work is accurate, credible and able to stand up to the most intense kind of scrutiny. And if we do that, whatever other people might want to label it, as far as I’m concerned, I’m still a reporter, doing what a reporter does.