The Charlie LeDuff Show, Episode Two: Straight Outta Livonia

July 11, 2012, 2:45 PM by  Bill McGraw

Part Two of a three-part series on Fox 2 reporter Charlie LeDuff, who is changing the rules of TV journalism. For Part One, click here.

In the introduction to his first book, Charlie LeDuff wrote that he is descended from "fantastic nobodies, including "a pair of heavy-drinking lighthouse keepers, a sleepy morphine addict, a grave robber, a rumrunner, a streetwalker, a numbers maker, a dean of a sham college and a police informant."

He told readers about his grandfather who might have been a gangster, who dined with Jimmy Hoffa and “the underboss of the Bufalino crime family.”

He said he wrote about his relatives to show that “everybody’s got a history, that most everybody comes from nowhere and that in every family there is a cousin that no one wants to admit to.” 

More directly, LeDuff comes from Portsmouth, Va., where he was born in 1966 while his father was stationed in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam. LeDuff also lived in Gary, Ind., and Westland, but he mostly grew up in Livonia.

“I’m just a guy from Joy Road and Wayne Road,” he said recently.

His parents divorced when he was young, and he once described himself to an interviewer as a latchkey kid in an environment of “a lot of drugs, a lot of rock-n-roll, a lot of tight jeans.” 

He hated disco and loved Black Sabbath. He and his brothers had a fight club, and, he said, "they’re all snorting crystal T, which is powdered PCP, which is embalming dust, basically, and there was no one home. We were just out of control, but, again, the father figure was sketchy and my mom was working, trying to feed everybody. It was rough. We’d bounce to a house to an apartment when they got divorced; like six of us in a two-bedroom apartment in kind of a crappy suburb in Detroit.” 

His mother ran a struggling flower shop at E. Jefferson and Marlborough in Detroit. When LeDuff was a teenager, he was working at the shop one day when he went across the street to a party store to buy a pop. Walking in, he saw the body of a black man in a pool of blood. He apparently had been shot by the store owner, an Arab American.

“The blood was congealing into a pancake on the dirty linoleum,” he wrote in an article for Mother Jones magazine in 2010. “His eyes and mouth were open and held that milky expression of a drunk who has fallen asleep with his eyes open. The red halo around his skull gave the scene a feeling of serenity.”

The store owner told him, “Forget what you saw, little man,” but LeDuff wrote that he has remembered the dead man in the faces of other victims of violence or misadventure, whether they were soldiers when he covered the Iraq war or members of his own family. His older sister, Nicole, who sometimes worked as a prostitute, died a decade ago when she jumped out of a speeding car on the West Side and flew into an oak tree. A stepbrother and niece died of drug overdoses.

As he got older, LeDuff was both a jock and a reader, and he graduated from the University of Michigan, taught at a charter school in Detroit and wandered the world: New York, Oakland, Calif.; Los Angeles; Denmark; Ireland, Australia and Alaska, where he says he lived in a tree house. He also jumped on freight trains and rode the rails for four months.

On a whim, he applied and was accepted to graduate school at one of the best public colleges in the world, the University of California at Berkley. He studied print journalism, TV news and documentaries.

After school, LeDuff was unable to find an internship at any medium and small newspaper and was ready to give up on the newspaper businss. Then, out of the blue, the New York Times offered him a 10-week minority internship -- he is part Native American -- and he ended up spending 13 years at the paper.

He covered a variety of stories in New York, the nation and the world for the Times, and was based in Los Angeles for his final years at the paper. As a young reporter he developed a reputation as someone in the vein of such famous New York newsmen as Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, who went beyond Big Apple glamor to write about regular New Yorkers in the outer boroughs and criticize the powerful. One reviewer said LeDuff tends to write “about folks who claw and hang on by their fingernails.” He also wrote a column called “Bending Elbows,” which examined life and people in New York bars. In 1999 he won Columbia University’s prestigious Mike Berger Award for outstanding reporting about New York City.

In 2000, the Times planned a series of stories to examine how issues of race play out on a daily basis in the Unites States. Editors told LeDuff to find a workplace where he could witness racial dynamics up close.

He applied for a job at the Smithfield slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C., and was hired using his own name and writing that he was currently employed. No one asked him what kind of work he was currently doing.

That was unfortunate for Smithfield. LeDuff turned his month of soul-numbing work hacking pig shoulders -- one every 17 seconds for each worker for eight and a half hours a day – into a novelistic account of the racial tensions, resentments and segregation among the massive plant’s employees, who are white, Native American, African-American and Mexican.

This was his first paragraph:

“It must have been 1 o’clock. That’s when the white man usually comes out of his glass office and stands on the scaffolding above the factory floor. He stood with his palms on the rails, his elbows out. He looked like a tower guard up there or a border agent. He stood with his head cocked.”

The overall series of 14 stories won the Times a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, and LeDuff’s piece received wide acclaim. At Harvard University, an instructor at a journalism think tank commented: “LeDuff masterfully portrays the plant’s brutal conditions at the level of felt life—the smells, sounds, sensations, emotions and gruesome sights of the place...This is an excellent example for students.”

As the decade progressed, and the newspaper business searched for ways to save itself, the Times formed a partnership with the Discovery Channel, which opened the way for print journalists to move into TV. LeDuff was front and center, becoming host and creative producer of “Only in America,” a 10-part series of participatory journalism shows in which LeDuff hung out with bikers, rode in a gay rodeo and played arena football, among other adventures.

Reviews were mixed. Variety, the entertainment paper, liked the series and called LeDuff a “modern-day Charles Kurault with a higher pain threshold.” But a freelance reviewer in his own paper was negative, underscoring the Charlieness of his reporting. “There's just too much of him, and he can't seem to get over himself,” wrote Carlo Rotello.

“It was uneven, for many reasons,” LeDuff said. “But it made money. Got watched a lot. Got replayed a lot. So that’s a success. I came back to the New York Times knowing a little bit more of the process” of doing TV.

LeDuff’s reputation grew because of his writing, reporting and video work, but his national standing took a hit when he had to deal with a charge of unethical behavior.

In 2003, after he wrote a page-one story about the Los Angeles River, a geography professor named Blake Gumprecht complained to the paper about similarities between the article and his 1999 book about the river. The Times eventually published an editors’ note.

It said, in part, that several passages from the article that related facts and lore about the river contained distilled passages from the book. And while the Times said LeDuff had confirmed those facts independently—through other sources or the reporter's first hand observation—the note concluded “the article should have acknowledged the significant contribution of Mr. Gumprecht's research.”

Also in 2003, after LeDuff had gone to work in the Times’ Los Angeles bureau, San Francisco magazine carried an article about a little-known incident that had taken place eight years earlier, when LeDuff was a graduate student in Berkeley. In 1995, he had apologized in the East Bay Monthly for having plagiarized some lines in an article he did for the magazine. The content in question came from Ted Conover’s book, “Rolling Nowhere: A Young Man's Adventures Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes.”

“It was graduate school,” LeDuff said. “I apologized in public and in print. When you make a mistake in life you apologize and move on. I’ve had a pretty good career. I’m not a cheater.”

LeDuff left the Times and in 2008 returned home, with his wife and baby daughter. While he felt disgruntled and burned-out at the paper, he has only good things today to say about working there.

“I’m a Timesman,” he said. “I’m always going to be Timesman. It’s their values I carry. It’s the most fair, balanced, bend-over-backwards-to-get-it right place I’ve ever known. I learned how to work at the Times. You get the documents and you read them.”

As his Times career was ending in 2007, the recession and housing collapse were percolating. LeDuff said he saw that there was a big story to be told in Detroit, and he pitched the idea of stationing himself in southeast Michigan to such outlets as Politico, the Associated Press, Washington Post and Time magazine. “I’ve got to be in Detroit,” he told editors.

But nobody wanted “a boutique guy” in Detroit, given the financial demands on corporate journalism these days, he said. “But I was sure Detroit was the story.”

And he believed the story was the collapse of the place where the middle class was invented, where people made things, and the place that might be signaling a trend for the rest of America.

The Detroit News offered him a chance to write and do videos, and to come back home for the first time permanently in nearly two decades. It was the year of Kwame Kilpatrick’s text messages, the collapse of General Motors and the death of Detroit fire fighter Walt Harris, whom LeDuff knew. A number of LeDuff’s family members had lost their jobs.

“It was insane,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is unbelievable.’”

At the paper he interviewed newsmakers at the American Coney Island, talked to political consultant Sam Riddle before he went to prison as they took showers in adjacent stalls and he convinced City Council President Monica Conyers to reenact her “Shrek” diatribe against fellow councilman Kenneth Cockrel Jr. That was crazy enough, but LeDuff got her to recite what Cockrel had said in the exchange, while he played the part of Conyers.

Those stories took place on camera, sort of a warm-up for his eventual job at Channel 2.

LeDuff also attracted attention for his bold writing, both in the freaky tales he told of Detroit and the major pieces that said, in essence, this place is falling apart.

He also managed to tell Detroit’s story to the nation. For Mother Jones, he delved into the murder of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, the 7-year-old girl shot and killed during a police raid in 2010. LeDuff’s story was long and vivid and so filled with details and big-picture thoughts about Detroit’s killing fields that “On The Media,” the National Public Radio show, called him for an interview, which was carried coast to coast. “Your story on Aiyana Stanley-Jones serves as a record of the meaningless death of two kids,” host Brooke Gladstone told LeDuff.

His most memorable story appeared in January 2009 and captured the desperate and macabre side of Detroit for an eventual worldwide audience: The body of a homeless man, mostly encased in the ice of a flooded elevator, was found in an abandoned warehouse owned by billionaire Matty Moroun. An added curiosity: Young men were playing hockey near the body -- inside the warehouse.

The facts were stark enough, and LeDuff, who got the tip from his brother, who had heard about it from a friend, wrote the story as a parable about an uncaring metropolis, emphasizing what he said was the indifference of the hockey players and slow-reacting police, who were notified of the body by LeDuff.

It was a sensational scoop, and it attracted a lot of attention. A week later, Curt Guyette of the Metro Times wrote a long story that raised questions about some of the details in the story. Other media outlets did stories.

Ben Schmitt, a Free Press reporter who was friendly with LeDuff, received an assignment to follow up on the controversy the story had caused.

“My article noted inconsistencies in LeDuff’s accounting of police response to the frozen guy,” Schmitt recalled recently. “I called him for comment and he said: ‘Tell your editors to go fuck themselves.’”

The next day, after LeDuff had read Schmitt’s story, Schmitt’s phone rang. It was LeDuff.

“He called me at my desk and ordered me to step outside,” Schmitt said. “I reasoned with him, and told him he would have done the same thing. By the end of our conversation, I agreed to step outside and meet him at a coffee shop next door. I offered to buy the coffee.

According to Schmitt, LeDuff said: “All right. But I’m getting a mocha, motherfucker!”

LeDuff said the negative reaction made him angry, and today, he stands by the story as he wrote it.

In 2009, he said, when the "media machine" was chewing him up over the piece, he was relieved that his “elegant mother,” Evangeline, made him feel better.

 “I’m proud of my boys," she said. "They did the right thing.”

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