From the New York Times To Motown  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

From the New York Times To Motown   

Reporter Charlie LeDuff heads home.

By Kevin Rector
     


How would Charlie LeDuff, a former New York Times correspondent and now a writer for the Detroit News, describe himself?

"I'm committed to documenting human beings of the early twenty-first century us," he says. "I'm confused like everybody else, and I'd like to leave a record."

Sort of an unusual response, but LeDuff, 41, is an unusual dude. Read his work and sure, such a commitment does seem to shine through. LeDuff has made a career of writing about people: He has a book out about American men called "US Guys," he helped the Times win a Pulitzer by writing about low-wage employees he worked alongside in a North Carolina slaughterhouse and he had a Times column for years called "Bending Elbows" in which he recounted, and sometimes ruminated on, the lives of people standing, slouching, talking and not talking in bars around New York City.

He's built a reputation as a writer who chronicles the lives of working class people. He is flair extraordinaire. His writing could be called ostentatious, has been called hackneyed and is definitely witty. The reactions he has received for his work and his bravado have given him, in the words of Columbia Journalism Review's Gal Beckerman, "more celebrity cachet than most good, grey Timesmen."

But Timesman he is no more, after leaving the paper last year and joining the Detroit News at the start of March a move that left some confused as to why someone would do that, especially considering that LeDuff had spent his entire newspaper career at the Times, where he started as an intern.

Half of the answer seems to be that LeDuff had a daughter Claudette, now more than a year old whom he wanted to spend more time with. In a piece for Men's Vogue at the end of last year about leaving the Times to become a stay-at-home father, LeDuff wrote, "My job at the Times was wearing thin; during particularly bad moments I thought I was going to break down: deadline pressure, bland hotel rooms; too many cigarettes and too much coffee; newsroom intrigue, ambition, and ego. It's a noxious mix.

"My daughter had come unexpectedly early while I was across the continent working on a story. When I was told my wife was in labor, I cried. I was owned by my job and I was lonely."

So now, why the Detroit News? "If New York is money and L.A. is immigration, what is Detroit?" LeDuff asks. "It's the suburbs, it's the countryside, it's the region. It's the heart of America."

It's also home. One of Detroit's main draws, LeDuff says, is that it is where his family, and perhaps more important his daughter's family, lives: Three grandparents, 14 aunts and uncles, 18 first cousins and dozens more second cousins all live in and around the metro area, says LeDuff, who now lives in a home about two miles outside of the city with Claudette and his wife, Amy.

"I think as the world gets smaller and more integrated, it's more important than ever to be from someplace," he says. "It's perfect for my daughter..to be from my clan, from my family."

He continues: "I'm interested in the town. The newsroom seems kinda cool. I don't know what to make of it, but I think there's some room in the corner for me there. It's a new place and I'm just hoping that it will be easier in terms of the editing process, the meetings, the layers you have to go through. They want me to come do what I do."

What he does is varied. He writes, prodigiously, but he has also worked with video clips for the Web and had his own television show on the Discovery Times Channel talents Detroit News Editor and Publisher Jonathan Wolman says will be a big plus for him at his new home.

"His interest in that is huge, and the Detroit News' interest in that is enormous," Wolman says. "We do video on our Web site..and we are looking for storytelling opportunities, and I'm expecting that Charlie will dive in with both feet."

LeDuff's an author. He does what he calls participatory journalism. Some have called him gonzo, but he wouldn't use the word for himself. ("I'm not gonzo. I might be a little nuts.") And he can certainly turn a phrase.

He also seems to turn a number of people off, by the way, many of whom make their living in the same biz.

Some people don't like him because he often puts himself in the picture what he calls being participatory. In a 2006 CJR piece about LeDuff's "American Album" column series titled "Did Someone Say Hackneyed?" Beckerman wrote that "when LeDuff writes these people's lives, he does not look at them eye-to-eye. He condescends, and subsequently turns them into cartoons, making himself the star of every show."

Others have had qualms about his ethics. While at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, he publicly apologized for plagiarizing another journalist's work in a piece he wrote for the Emeryville, California-based East Bay Monthly. A military source once accused LeDuff of severely misquoting him and misrepresenting his wife, but his editors supported him. Then, there was a correction printed in the Times after LeDuff wrote a story about the Los Angeles River in which he used facts from a book without referencing it as a source.

His thoughts on those qualms?

"The hysteria doesn't really meet the crime... Do I cheat? No way. Do I make stuff up? No way. Am I where I say I am? Yes. I've made mistakes and I've apologized for them and I've moved on, but you would think I was Jack the Ripper."

Of course, he's not Jack the Ripper. He seems too much of a family man to be that. But what is he? He certainly breaks the mold or at least the image of Times reporters. Mostly, he's not wizened or white. He's more capricious. He's part Native American. He speaks in short, jolty explanations; he writes in detailed, colorful prose. He's a different sort, and his writing is different because of it, and lots of people like different. (Unless they hate it and then they really hate it.)

Talking with him on the phone, you can tell he'd be a wild guy to have a drink with. He's full of ideas and they come out of him rapidly. You can almost hear in his voice whatever it is that gives him such a keen eye for describing people.

Digging through his work, you'll find lines written by him like this one from a Times column about racing from Washington to New York and hitting tolls: "I was thinking E-ZPass as I idled in Delaware, but I don't like the man keeping track of me. I had a second cigarette and nobody complained."

Search for him on Google and you'll find headlines like these: "Charlie LeDuff Leaves the 'Times', Quite Possibly Just One Step Ahead Of The Cops"; "Is it Gonzo Or Is It Just So Much Gas?"; "Another Jayson Blair?"

Watch him in interviews like the one he gave Charlie Rose in which Rose was practically swooning and you can definitely see the bravado, the reason why this guy is a talked about, and divisive, character. You can see the charm and the pomp all at once.

He has his critics, yes, but he's also been praised by heavy-hitters at what is arguably the most respected newspaper in the world. He had been a single-paper man. Now he's somewhere new. What the change will bring is anyone's guess. If anything, LeDuff is unpredictable.

Either way, Wolman is excited to see LeDuff joining his staff.

"I've known Charlie's work as an avid reader for many years, and [he has] a wonderful eye for detail, a great touch as a writer, a real sense of context in all of his journalism."

LeDuff's plans or projects looking forward?

"I got a couple of ideas. Stay tuned," he says. "I got a couple real-deal things to do."

Kevin Rector (krector@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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