Charlie LeDuff is walking through downtown Detroit, working on a story, running into “real people,” as media executives who never leave the office call readers and viewers.
A construction worker from Taylor named Nick Danias walks up. “Is that Charlie LeDuff?” he asks.
LeDuff extends his hand.
“You’re good, man,” Danias tells him. “I like you on that Ficano shit.”
A young man rides by on a bicycle.
“You are the man, Duff, you are the man.”
An attractive young woman appears. “I wanted to meet you,” she tells LeDuff. “You’re the best. Stay on Ficano.”
“What’s your name?” LeDuff asks.
“You’re beautiful,” he tells her in a tender voice.
Two meter maids in a van stop on E. Jefferson and give LeDuff thumbs-up signs. One yells, “Hey, Charlie.”
LeDuff points at her and shouts: “That’s the hardest working lady in city government right there.” The women laugh.
Tom Wait, a reporter from the competition, WXYZ-TV, is also on a story at city hall. He tells LeDuff: “My parents were in town when Ficano called you a ‘xenophobe.’ My dad thought you were amazing.”
CHARLIE LEDUFF says he is just a reporter, but since he returned to his hometown and joined Fox 2 in 2010 after two years at the Detroit News, he has crossed over into the realm of Detroit TV star. He has become a sort of 21st-Century Bill Bonds, a popular yet polarizing personality whose frenetic, news-breaking television shtick has become the source of admiration, debate and, at times, scorn.
Viewers have no reason to know LeDuff’s origins, but he is a local boy who made good, a scrawny nose guard on the football team at Livonia Churchill High School who became a star at the New York Times. Among American journalists, LeDuff was one of the nation’s best known print reporters over the past 15 years, though he remained mostly unknown to metro Detroiters. His career has been characterized by pushing limits, winning prizes and receiving praise but also snide criticism and a couple of questions about his ethics. A think tank at Harvard recommends students read his newspaper reporting; a reviewer of his book on the American male, "US Guys," saying he made the story too much about himself, called LeDuff “an erection in print.”
His new local stardom is the result of many things. He has thrown out the rules of how to be a TV reporter. He does not comb his hair every day and almost never dresses up. He stares into the camera and makes funny faces. On camera he wears sun glasses and talks with a swagger, referring to the mayor as “Dave” and the county executive as “Bob.” He does not stand in front of darkened buildings for a 10:00 p.m. “live shot” to talk about an event that happened hours earlier. He works for Fox 2, Detroit’s brashest TV news operation. He is funny. He stands up for the little guy, attacks the powerful, says what’s on his mind and talks about how what’s happening in Detroit is part of a larger story, like the restructuring of class in American society.
“Not enough cops, not enough ambulances. The politicians promise to make it better, BUT IT’S A LIE,” LeDuff declared as he introduced a Fox 2 story about a broken-down EMS rig during raging gunfire on New Year’s Eve
“He's one of the most original reporters to hit the airwaves in a long time,” said Tim Kiska, a journalism professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who has written three books about the history of Detroit television news. “He doesn't look like a TV reporter. He doesn't sound like a TV reporter. But that's his strength. He reaches out of the screen and grabs you. He connects with viewers.”
Dave Statter, who operates a Virginia-based web site that focuses on international fire and EMS issues, noted LeDuff’s bosses let him mix reporting and opinion. “In the sameness that is often TV news around the country LeDuff stands out,” he wrote.
LeDuff has a lot of strong opinions, but he also breaks news. He knows how to find and understand government documents and how to develop sources. He has a knack for talking to regular people. He breaks small news – an EMS rig catches fire – and big news: The entire EMS system is broken, and rigs arrive late as Detroiters die waiting. He has taken on Robert Ficano, the Wayne County executive; Detroit cops fudging homicide numbers; U.S. Rep. John Conyers; the water department and Mayor Dave Bing, among many others. As a result of his stories, one Detroit Fire Department commissioner and two deputy commissioners have lost their jobs.
He broke the story on Wayne County Circuit Judge Wade McCree’s sexting. “There’s no shame in my game,” a gleefully narcissistic McCree told LeDuff, who looked into the camera with a Cheshire Cat grin, seemingly incredulous at his good luck that day.
For a reporter, LeDuff is newsworthy himself. A prominent businesswoman sued him this year. The Metro Times questioned his most sensational story, about finding the body of a homeless man mostly submerged in ice in an abandoned building. One of those fired deputy fire commissioners slapped a microphone out of his hand. He even discovered, at age 46, that he is part African American, not a small bit of news in the nation’s biggest city with a black majority. He has a book coming out in February, “Detroit: An American Autopsy.”
LeDuff is a high-wire act whose performance is infused with histrionics – his word -- and it will be interesting to watch as he works to sustain his on-air persona for the long term. What do you do after you’ve fallen into a puddle on purpose, eaten cat food, dressed like a clown, used a toilet as a prop and jumped out of bushes wearing big cat makeup? At the Detroit News, when he did a video about an older Detroit man who sells raccoon meat, LeDuff wore a coonskin cap and drank nice wine. At least twice he has joined in prayer circles on camera with the subjects of stories he was covering.
Off the air, histrionics, or at least small moments of drama, can surface in his own life. He showed up for one St. Patrick’s Day dressed all in red, recalled Bill Gallagher, the retired Fox 2 reporter who sat next to LeDuff at work. “Charlie does like to stand out,” Gallagher said. Before he came to Detroit, LeDuff was a stay-at-home dad in Los Angeles, and one day he appeared at a mommy-and-me yoga class with his baby daughter. The women refused to let him in. He wrote about that for Men’s Vogue.
In September 2008, while at the News, LeDuff was in the Anchor Bar with a number of other journalists at the end of a major news day: Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick had resigned. The papers’ front pages were on display, and the newspaper people were admiring their work.
A stranger walked up, pointed at the papers and announced: “This is some bullshit!”
LeDuff turned and said, "Hey, fuck you, man. We wrote this bullshit."
The stranger responded, "Fuck you!"
It got tense, but bystanders inserted themselves, and calm prevailed.
LeDuff can turn on the charm just as quickly. Ben Schmitt is a former Free Press reporter who one night joined LeDuff and another reporter for a drink at Cutter’s in Eastern Market.
“LeDuff was dancing with strangers next to our table within two hours,” Schmitt recalled. “It should have been awkward, in this tiny bar at 9 p.m. But he made it seem natural. Charlie was someone that I liked immediately. He is smart, gregarious and outrageous, yet down-to-earth.
GOSSIP COLUMNISTS AND COMMENTATORS in the journalism trade press found it difficult to believe that LeDuff left the New York Times and returned to his hometown in 2008 to work at the Detroit News. But he insisted a major story was unfolding in Detroit: the collapse of the American middle class in the city where it was invented.
“I just think we got sold out and we sold ourselves out,” he said recently. “We did. The unions took too much. The workers cheated the clock and the management merrily went along with it so that everyone could get paid. And then when the clock stopped it was my generation without the chair, when the music stopped. That’s what happened.
“So now what? Did we learn a lesson? Yes, we did. UAW: 14 dollars an hour and a 401k. Detroit Police: 14 an hour and 401k. Detroit News, a week’s furlough and a 10-percent pay cut. “
LeDuff grew up in Livonia but made it big in New York, where he landed his first journalism job at, of all places, the legendary Times. As a Timesman he made a name for himself writing about the powerless in a paper read by the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. He won awards, including a Pulitzer as part of a team project, appeared on “Charlie Rose” and “The Colbert Report” and fended off an accusation that he had failed to acknowledge the work of an author in a story he wrote.
Colbert, interviewing LeDuff about "US Guys," asked: "Was it hard to write, or are you a little insane and a little bit filthy, too?"
LeDuff responded: "Yeah."
His national reputation was such that in 2008, when Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard, the Washington D.C.-based neoconservative magazine, came to Detroit and later published a 10,000-word article about the city’s problems, he made LeDuff’s flamboyance, his story-telling ability and his dedication to the city a significant part of the story. “For me, Detroit has become synonymous with one man, Charlie LeDuff,” Labash wrote.
As his profile grew, LeDuff also became a target for critics.
They say he overwrites, condescends, self-dramatizes, and, especially, puts himself in his stories excessively. The gossip site Gawker flamed him regularly, calling him the “mustachioed man of the people” and writing in 2009 that “rugged personality-possessing newspaperman Charlie LeDuff can typically be found roaming Detroit in search of frozen hobo bodies and colorful raccoon hunters.”
In Detroit, LeDuff clearly has a growing fan club, but some people find his act hard to take. That debate surfaced again last week on the DetroitYES online community forum, when an admirer opened a thread about LeDuff’s July 3 package that featured him golfing 18 miles through Detroit. That somewhat surreal piece was an 11-minute odyssey that showed unvarnished glimpses of city life as LeDuff, wearing shorts and knee-high black socks, whacked the ball through an abandoned house, the Packard Plant and down the middle of residential streets, some of which still had residences.
A forum participant with the screen name of Dexlin wrote: “Charlie is more often than not as contemptible a character as the fools he ambushes. A hipster mustache, irreverent attitude, and eccentric personality does not a good journalist make. Charlie ain't a journalist. He just plays one on TV, bless his heart.”
Even some observers who appreciate LeDuff’s ability have reservations. Kiska, the UM-Dearborn professor, said: “Sometimes, LeDuff seems like a bit too much of a showboat, too much of a ham, too much of a loose cannon. For instance, he went on their air a few months ago and quoted a ‘source’ as saying that Dave Bing was going to resign for health reasons. He just sort of threw it in the middle of a report. Say what? What sources? Murray Feldman looked like he was in shock when Charlie threw it back to him.”
In 2007, the well known academic Todd Gitlin, writing in the Times, gave a generally positive review of LeDuff’s book about American men. He wrote LeDuff “has a distinct style” for “sociological poetry,” but added: “But Mr. LeDuff is also a child of this age of apparently casual, sometimes reckless self-disclosure.”
Some of LeDuff’s chief Detroit targets declined to comment for this story, though they have made it clear they dislike LeDuff’s tactics: Ficano, Cindy Pasky, the founder of Strategic Staffing Solutions who sued him, and Fred Wheeler, the deputy fire commissioner who was the subject of several LeDuff stories before Wheeler lost his job for slapping LeDuff’s mike onto W. Larned Street.
The on-screen madness seems to have a method behind it. LeDuff discusses concepts like “the image” and “disrupting the form” of broadcast journalism, and relates TV news to art like a guy who has a graduate degree from Berkeley.
“There’s nothing crazy about me,” he said during an interview as he soaked his feet in one of the baby swimming pools set around outdoor tables behind Dino’s bar on Woodward in Ferndale, not far from the Oakland County home he shares with his wife and young daughter.
LeDuff says the inspiration for his work comes from a variety of sources: “The New York Times meets Charles Kuralt, meets ‘60 Minutes’ -- because I studied for a time under Lowell Bergman -- meets ‘Jackass,’ meets ‘Borat’ meets YouTube meets the family photo album.”
There is one main rule, he adds:
“Don’t be boring.”
Continue reading the story with The Charlie LeDuff Show, Episode Two: Straight Outta Livonia.
and the final installment: The Charlie LeDuff Show, Episode Three: Sending A "Pooh-Pooh Valentine" To City Hall