An interview with the MLive reporter who blew the lid off the Flint Water Crisis
Ron Fonger (middle) at work (Jake May/MLive).
Where are you originally from?
Why did you choose NMU?
I wasn't a great student in high school and my choice came down to a probationary admit to Michigan State University or NMU. After a campus visit, I felt like NMU was the place for me.
Tell us about your current job:
Since 1995, I've been a reporter for The Flint Journal and now work from Flint as an impact reporter for MLive, which The Journal is a part of. I've primarily covered Flint City Hall and Genesee County government during the past 20 years but also done a fair amount of enterprise reporting.
What was your NMU experience like?
I always had an interest in government and politics and was an ASNMU representative in my freshman year. I worked at The North Wind a few years while at NMU, finishing as editor in chief in 1986. I'll always appreciate having had the chance for hands-on learning and not getting lost in the crowd at Northern—particularly in learning the trade of journalism. Class sizes and the program were small enough that I was able to try my hand at whatever interested me.
Did you have Dr. Gerald Waite for a professor? (just wondering—I had him and I loved him)
Gerald Waite was the lone journalism professor at NMU at the time I was a student and my adviser at The North Wind. Deliberate, smart, and a willing teacher. I can't tell you how much respect I have for him.
Fonger (left) covering a Michael Moore rally at Flint City Hall (Sean Proctor/MLive)
I remember a controversy over my appointment as editor in chief. I had written some critical things about at least one of the members of The North Wind Board of Directors, which at the time, made the final decision on who would be in that position. The board went against Waite's recommendation that I get the job, and the candidate they initially chose—Dan Sarka (’87), who was a great writer, cartoonist and person—turned it down. Sarka said he couldn't accept given that the board had ignored the recommendation of Waite, whom Sarka said “washed more journalism knowledge down the drain when he trimmed his beard than the board contained in its collective bulk.” That's how much we all admired him.
What’s your favorite NMU memory?
Meeting my wife, Jane Luft, who felt pity on me and married me in 1987.
You’ve written over 250 articles about the water crisis in Flint. People are now interviewing you as an expert on the conditions in Flint. What is this like?
I try to tell the story of the Flint water crisis based on the reporting I've done rather than my opinion about what should be done moving forward. It's a difficult story to tell because it's more than just a series of mistakes that led us to where we are today. Flint is unlike most cities in Michigan and the rest of the country in that it was being run by the state at the time because a financial emergency had been declared by the governor. Critical decisions about the city's water supply were being made without regard for the city's elected mayor and city council. I try to point out the heroes of the story, almost all of whom are outsiders or who risked their professional reputations to take on an establishment of bureaucrats and agencies that continued to insist that our water was safe when there was a myriad of problems with it.
Left: Fonger listening to former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling (Jake May/MLive) Below: Civil Engineering Professor Marc Edwards from Virginia Tech shows the difference in water quality between Flint and Detroit (Jake May/MLive).
Residents directly affected by the poisonous water conditions in Flint - out of all the people you interviewed—Can you tell me about who stood out to you and why?
There are a relatively small band of people who were relentless in insisting that something was wrong with their water and who continue to push for solutions now. They were generally discounted and marginalized but never gave up. The nature of elevated lead is such that you don't see victims in a hospital bed or dropping dead in the street, so there isn't really an individual who sticks out for me, but doctors tell us exposure is especially harmful to the development of young children, including children still being carried by their mothers. Knowing that kids were exposed to very high lead levels—in some cases at home and in their own schools—is very troubling. As a group, those kids and their parents are the ones who stand out to me.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing Flint in the days to come?
There are many, and water is just one of them. Flint's finances are very shaky, its crime rate is high, and its population has dropped from about 200,000 during the peak of General Motors' employment to less than 100,000 today. Our infrastructure was built to support far more people than are here today, and those who remain are collectively poor and do not produce the tax revenue to support a city that was built to this size. The city will have to deal with all of those problems and have the capacity to help carry out the job of delivering safe water in the future.
What do you hope we would all take away from the Flint water crisis?
That institutions like government fail and resist change or admitting mistakes. Problems with Flint's water—from elevated levels of total trihalmethanes (TTHM) to lead to potentially a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that ended last year—didn't have to happen or could have been minimized had government done its job.
What's been your greatest accomplishment in Journalism?
I am not a great writer but I think I've had enough practice that I'm a decent reporter. A great accomplishment for me is sorting through a situation—whether it's Flint water, a cold homicide case, problems in public housing or a phony charity—and telling it so that it's accurate, understandable and answers the important questions. Sometimes you have a situation in which you can do that with a few stories, and sometimes it takes hundreds. Most of the stories that we worked on in Flint on the water crisis created the foundation that many very good journalists have since been able to continue building on. I'm proud of that.
What do you love about your job?
I like the quote that’s attributed to former Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham about journalism—that it is the first rough draft of history—and I like being a part of that. The important stories, and the ones I like to cover, are built a little bit at a time, like peeling the skin off an onion more than making a single splash that pretends to tell it all.
Wildcat Night Across the Country is TOMORROW
With 16 hockey watch parties in 9 states, giveaways on Twitter, and a Pre-Game Party in Marquette, it will surely be a great day to celebrate being a Wildcat.
Nordic Skiing Teams Sweep Team Titles at Regional Championships
The Northern Michigan Nordic skiing teams swept the team titles at the NCAA Central Regional Championships. The men and women each finished with 122 points to earn the title. The men bested second-place Alaska-Fairbanks by 10 points while the women edged the second-place Nanooks by two points. Click here to read more.
Women's Club Hockey takes first CCWHA Tournament Crown
NMU swept pool play in the CCWHA Tournament with wins over Notre Dame 7-0, Aquinas 7-3 and Michigan State 6-1, earning them the top seed in the Championship game, and defeated Notre Dame again in the final 5-1 to take the title. The Wildcats avenged a shootout loss to Michigan State in the championship game last year, and won their first CCWHA Division II tournament championship in the conference's second season. NMU also took the regular season crown, finishing 14-0 in conference play. The Wildcats will travel to Kalamazoo next month to compete for their first ACHA national championship, and will enter the tournament as the third overall seed in the West Division. Read More.
Alumnus named shareholder at law firm
Giarmarco, Mullins & Horton, P.C. is pleased to announce that John L. Miller ’02, ‘03 (pictured above) is now a shareholder with the firm. Miller represents public school districts and municipalities in a wide array of litigation including: employment, FOIA and Open Meetings Act, general education, special education, civil rights, constitutional law, personal injury claims, and workers’ compensation.
Alumnus-owned companies win LSCP Award
Checker Transport LLC. company photo, courtesy of Checker Transport web gallery.
Marquette’s Lake Superior Community Partnership (LSCP) announced that Checker Transport and Checker Bus, owned by Jesse Schram ’02, were among the recipients of the 2016 Distinguished Service Awards, sponsored by the Marquette County Ambassadors. Checker Transport and Checker Bus were selected in the business category and Stu Bradley as the individual award recipient. The awards will be presented in front of community members attending the LSCP’s Annual Dinner held in Northern Michigan University’s Great Lakes Room on March 10. “Stu has devoted so much of his time to the LSCP and our community, most recently by promoting careers in the skilled trades which is very important to our area,” says Amy Clicker, LSCP CEO. “We are also very excited to honor Checker Transport and Checker Bus, a business who is highly involved in economic development and gives back to our community through their philanthropic efforts and continued investment in our community.” Read More.
Rebecca Thompson ’09 will be returning to campus on Thursday, March 10 at 7 p.m. in Jamrich
1322. Thompson was invited by the Many Shades of Sisterhood organization, and she will give a
keynote address on what it means to a "phenomenal woman." Thompson is the Founder and
Principal Strategist of Rebecca Thompson Consulting LLC, a boutique consulting firm specializing
in changing the face of power across the country. She also serves as the Executive Director of
Good Jobs Now, a grassroots membership based organization that fights for economic and social
justice for low-income Detroiters.
Photo courtesy of www.rebeccamthompson.com
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