The Charlie LeDuff Show, Episode Three: Sending a "Pooh-Pooh Valentine" to City Hall
Charlie LeDuff is psyching himself for a story.
He is not sure what the story is yet. He is squatting on the steps of an old fountain on Cadillac Square downtown, smoking a Winston, talking out loud. His partner, photojournalist Bob Schedlbower, stands nearby.
The two men are brainstorming ideas based on the announcement hours earlier that day last month that a Novi businessman, Kriss Andrews, will become Detroit’s program management director, a key position in the new consent agreement bureaucracy that is supposed to stabilize city finances.
“We want to welcome him to Detroit,” says LeDuff, who is smiling and wearing blue jeans, black motorcycle boots and a green tie decorated with images of Christmas ornaments.
But that is not exactly what they want to do. They really want to do a piece that will needle Andrews and show viewers the stunning challenges he faces, and underscore that a guy from distant Novi has been picked for the job.
“I'm feeling it now," says LeDuff.
"It will be a pooh-pooh valentine,” he concedes. Then, in an exaggerated motion, he tugs on an imaginary door, mimicking someone trying to enter a Detroit police district office after 4 p.m., when they close these days -- “to serve you better,” as the signs proclaim in the lobbies.
Sarcasm, irreverence and off-the-wall humor are not the usual ingredients of local TV news. But traditional assumptions about what appeals to viewers have gone out the window at Fox 2 since LeDuff came on board in the late fall of 2010 and began attracting a following by mixing pratfalls, participatory journalism and old-fashioned scoops.
LeDuff, an award-winning reporter at the New York Times for most of his career who grew up in Livonia, has angered a number of government and business officials with his coverage, but Channel 2’s leadership and officials at Fox headquarters in New York are watching him approvingly.
“I have not seen, in my time at Fox 2, anyone talked about as fast as Charlie has been talked about,” said Dana Hahn, the station’s vice president for news. “He’s getting attention.”
In the Detroit market, Channel 2, with its edgy, loud, in-your-face, grass-roots, “Let It Rip,” “Hall-of-Shame,” Charlie Langton vibe, is a good fit for LeDuff. But he has his admirers and critics, as anyone in metro Detroit can discover by bringing up his name.
“Our approach is not to shy away from things as they are and calling things out,” said Hahn. “It makes some people uncomfortable and others angry.”
ON THE DAY OF THE KRISS ANDREWS’ story, LeDuff asks passersby on the street what they think of the new project manager. Virtually everyone shares his feeling that there was something absurd in appointing a businessman from Novi to help straighten out Detroit, especially because some of them had heard that Andrews ran a company that went into bankruptcy.
Not only does LeDuff incorporate some of their comments into his piece, but he incorporates some of the people themselves into the piece.
Perhaps inventing a verb, Schedlbower calls LeDuff’s consultation with people he encounters “focus-grouping” a story, and he says LeDuff focus-groups the story throughout the day.
Schedlbower explained: “It’s a dynamic process. The story will evolve based on the feedback we get while we’re doing the story. I’ve never worked with a reporter who did that.”
At the outset of his reporting, LeDuff invites a man walking down the street to go on camera. He is 48-year-old Bruce Belle, an Ecorse resident, who is looking sharp in a light blue shirt and pants, a white fedora and long hair, carefully coiffed. At LeDuff’s direction, he stands on the side of city hall, his arms folded across his chest and his head cocked, looking tough and skeptical, while LeDuff introduces the story.
“Well, Detroit's got a new project manager,” LeDuff says into the camera, his voice rising. “What's that? That's the $220,000 man who will oversee the remaking of Detroit. His name is Kriss Andrews. And his qualifications? He's the chief financial officer of a bankrupt solar panel company.
“But let's not get negative. This is still a honeymoon. Mr. Andrews, welcome to Detroit. I don't know the last time you've been here since you're way out there in Novi, but there's a lot of work to do.”
LeDuff and Schedlbower have only a couple of hours to do their story, so after city hall, they race to Eastern Market for the next bit. En route, LeDuff rehearses lines, tongue-in-cheek, in his on-camera voice and talks is a stream-of conscious manner.
“They close police stations at 4. BUT NOTHING BAD EVER HAPPENS AT NIGHT, he says. “My daughter’s goldfish died today. We had it one day…They like to blame stuff on poor, illiterate Detroit. They do. They’ve been screwed for so long.
ON FEB. 2, LEDUFF CONTINUED his full court press against Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano with a story about the county’s relationship with Strategic Staff Solutions, a company founded and run by Cindy Pasky, a well known corporate leader in downtown revitalization.
His report said S3, as it’s known, had received a no-bid contract extension from Wayne County to make improvements to a call center it was already running. He also noted S3 executives have donated “thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to Bob” Ficano over the last five years. He noted Pasky served on the board of a non-profit that has a close relationship with Ficano and the county.
And he pretended to be asleep while waiting to talk on the phone to Pasky, and said he had left a message.
In an unusual move for a corporate leader in Detroit, Pasky filed a lawsuit against the station, LeDuff and a producer, claiming the story contained several inaccuracies that defamed Pasky and S3. The suit said LeDuff never attempted to contact Pasky and that he had declined information from S3’s public relations representative, Bob Berg, that the company believes would have refuted any allegation of improper activity.
LeDuff and his producer “refused to even listen to the truth and then lied about their communication with S3 in order to further their false and scandalous theme,” the suit charged.
Fox 2 and S3 announced a settlement last month.
As part of the resolution, Fox 2 agreed to remove from its website the Feb. 2 report, and station anchors read on the air a statement that said, in part: "Following that report, we were contacted by representatives of S3, who assured us that the contract was awarded in full compliance with the county's procurement rules and regulations. It was not our intent to assert or imply that there was any improper conduct on the part of S3. We regret if anyone misinterpreted our report."
As part of the settlement, both sides agreed not to talk about it.
While not discussing the S3 case, Hahn, the Fox 2 chief, said LeDuff’s stories on Ficano have been “factually correct,” adding: “I know we dot our I’s and cross our T’s. We give everyone a fair shake.
Asked if she sometimes disagreed with LeDuff on stories, Hahn paused, and said yes.
“We work together,” Hahn said. “We’re a team. We sometimes have heated, creative debates.”
At times, she said, she and LeDuff walk outside the station and hash out their differences in the parking lot.
“He’s passionate, and so am I,” Hahn said. “When I hired him I told him I would stand behind him and support him.”
After months of battling on TV over everything from county pensions to Ficano’s property tax, LeDuff went to Ficano’s home one night and they had a beer. They talked, man to man. Both declined to elaborate.
LEDUFF AND SCHEDLBOWER film in the parking lot next to the Detroit Fire Department repair shop in Eastern Market. LeDuff talks to a young woman wearing a high school graduation cap and asks her to stand in the background. He jumps out of the back of a broken-down EMS rig and says to the camera, “Detroit’s got a new project manager. FROM NOVI! Lots to fix!”
Packing up gear, LeDuff says, “Our bosses don’t even know what we’re doing.” He and Schedlbower originally planned to do another story today, but it would gave required working overnight. That wasn’t a problem; they’ve worked overnight before. But LeDuff wants to walk his daughter to school tomorrow for the last time. It will be her final day of kindergarten; she’ll have to be driven to grade school next year.
They decide they need to remind the new project manager that Detroit transportation is a mess, so they drive rapidly into the yard next to the Department of Transportation on E. Warren. The guard booth is empty. LeDuff jumps out of the car, steps into one of the dozens of parked buses, performs another riff for the camera, and they drive off.
“Sweet,” says LeDuff.
“Gonzo journalism,” says Schedlbower.
LEDUFF LIKES “PARTICPATORY JOURNALISM” because he thinks it’s important to feel and experience what people are doing and not just sit and listen to them talk about what they do.
Earlier this year, he reported on how he gone out and traced the roots of his family. LeDuff always had understood his ancestry was Native American and Cajun, the French-speaking people from Louisiana. His great grandfather came from Baton Rouge.
But after searching records and talking to people, LeDuff said he learned that his great grandfather was a black man while he lived in the south, and a white man after he got off the train in Detroit in the World War I era. His skin was light enough so that he could pass as white in Detroit. His wife, who had darker skin, rarely left the house, LeDuff reported.
“We weren’t Cajuns like I’d been told, but Creoles, Louisiana people who were born black but lived in Detroit as white,” LeDuff told viewers. He discussed the indignities and insecurity of living in Detroit between the wars if you were black, which his grandfather managed to avoid.
He traveled to the south and interviewed relatives. He talked on camera to his mom, and to his dad, whom he hadn’t seen in 10 years. His dad said, “We’ve all been prejudiced, and I probably have been also. And here I was talking about myself.”
Said LeDuff: “I’m proud to be white, like I said, but I’m also proud to know I share a history with other peoples. And I understand what my great grandfather did, but it didn’t solve anything. I mean, look around, we can’t keep living like this because it’s all messed up.”
ONE OF THE FINAL STOPS while doing the Kriss Andrews project manager story is the intersection of Grandy and Ferry, south of the General Motors’ Poletown Plant on Detroit’s near east side. Many houses are gone; many of the remaining homes are abandoned and charred. The landscape is overgrown and lush.
Gilbert Davis, 47, who has lived in the area his entire life, greets LeDuff warmly. He calls the neighborhood “Nightmare on Grandy.”
LeDuff and Schedlbower film the basement of an abandoned home that is filled with water. Davis, commenting on the M.O. of Detroit’s killers, says, “After you murder someone you throw them in here and light them on fire.”
He adds: They found two down there with their underwear around their legs. They didn’t put them on the news.”
LeDuff and Schedlbower stow their gear and start to drive off. One of Davis’ neighbors waves and calls out to LeDuff.
“Don’t give up on us down here, man.”
The story ran on the 6 p.m. news.
Bruce Bell, the man in blue from Ecorse who joined LeDuff on the city hall lawn, had a four-word speaking role.
Showing lots of attitude, he looked at the camera, addressed Andrews and said: "Get the job done."