Q&A: Former Detroit News Reporter Charlie LeDuff

"The point is if there's something calamitous, let's point it out."

Charlie LeDuff left The Detroit News last month after a two-year stint in which he reported stories, wrote a regular column, and hosted a weekly web show. On his decision to leave the paper, LeDuff told one blogger, “A man’s got to find a reason after forty-five years to feel it—I want to feel it.” This month, the legacy of his time at the News can be found in Mother Jones, which features LeDuff’s “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” Telling the story of murdered seven-year-old Aiyana—killed during a SWAT raid gone wrong—LeDuff’s stark and meticulously reported piece spreads out from the single tragedy to explore the darkest corners of the city in which he grew up and to which he has returned—rampant crime, imploding industry, corruption, poverty. LeDuff spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about reporting for the piece, his time at the News, and his critics. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

When did you decide to write the piece on Aiyana Stanley-Jones? It must have been a substantial long-term project, given the amount of detail and context you include.

I first decided to write it when Mother Jones called me in June. But I’ve been working here in Detroit as a reporter since March 2008. If you think about it in that way, I’ve been working on it for that long. If you’re working as a daily columnist—or whatever it is I did—you start collecting details. In a newspaper, they don’t all fit together in the space that you have. So over the years, you start noticing patterns and details. For instance, you have a detail like this: Two chiefs of police ago, the chief is fired and he’s cleaning out his desk. As he’s cleaning out his desk, a burglar is cleaning out his house. What do you do with that? You put it in your pocket and you wait.

In terms of this kid, Aiyana herself, how long did it take to wander around and report her story? It took two weeks to do the basic skeletal stuff. Then you write it and then the editor wants more and you go back. It’s a hard question, but the short answer is a couple of months.

Yet it feels as though it’s more than a story about Aiyana, or the two other murdered boys who feature in the piece, Je’Rean Blake Nobles and Chaise Sherrors. Their deaths are central but it really seems to be about Detroit and the city’s East Side, which you describe in the piece as “the poorest, most violent quarter of America’s poorest, most violent big city.”

That was part of the deal I made with the editor. I said if you want me to write about the death of this girl, let me use it to say something bigger.

Specifically tracing the story of Aiyana—where did you start?

With Aiyana’s story I started with the neighborhood. I went to, as it were, the scene of the crime, to look at it in the daytime and to talk to the residents. You pick up some pieces there—you look at the neighborhood, you look at what she’s living in, and then you start thinking, okay, let me call her lawyer, let me see if I can get the parents, let me call Je’Rean’s parents. When I talked to his mom, she told me about Chaise, his best friend, who was killed. You’re like, okay, wow, I see a pattern here.

Then you back up and you go see the medical examiner. He dropped the thesis of the whole thing: When you’re a kid raised in this kind of poverty, what does that mean? What kind of chance do you have? He said, “I wish somebody would write that.” I looked at Danny [Wilcox Frazier, whose striking black and white photographs illustrate LeDuff’s piece] and he looked at me and we said, yep, that’s right. Let’s talk about kids growing up in the city in really abject poverty and ask how much anybody really cares about them.

You go into an incredible amount of detail reconstructing some of the kids’ murders—Je’Rean’s especially. You wrote:

Je’Rean’s crime? He looked at Chauncey Owens the wrong way, detectives say.

It was 2.40 in the afternoon on May 14 when Je’Rean went to the Motor City liquor store and ice-cream stand to get himself an orange juice and wash down his McDonald’s. About 40 kids were milling around in front of the soft-serve window. That’s when Owens, 34, pulled up on a moped.

How do you get that amount of detail from people? And what’s its value?

You go deeper until you think you’ve just wrung it out. And when you start hearing details stack up like that, you start to ask questions that bring about more details. You ask, “Well, what was a seventeen year old doing at the liquor store?” And then you get to his mother and she says, “Well, he went to get an orange juice because he’d been to McDonald’s to get his two chicken sandwiches that he loved and the juice was cheaper at the liquor store.” And then you realize, “Hey, there’s a tasty freeze stand at the liquor store. What?!” We’re attracting children to the liquor store to get an ice cream. Well there’s a toxic mix. Then you ask: “How did he get to hospital from there?” So you talk to the friend, you talk to the mom, and it starts stacking up.

One of the more surprising aspects of the article for me—and perhaps not for you—was the section in which you talk about Judge Cynthia Gray Hathaway, who’s been accused of leniency regarding Jason Gibson in a past case. The result of that, as you reconstruct in the story, was his being on the street and now on trial for killing a police officer. You write that Hathaway would not let you see the paper file from the past case, which she changed the day after the officer was killed. Did you have no recourse?

Yeah, you could take her to court. But you know the state of newspapers (I was working on the story for the Detroit News when I tried to get the case file). With our diminishing resources you have to ask if this is really something the boss wants to fight. So, we use Freedom of Information. You put in a request; they’ve got five days to answer. Then from five days they’ve got another two weeks. Then if they don’t really feel like answering, you can fight with them, and it might take six months. As it turns out, Hathaway’s going to work Gibson’s case. On the face of it, looking at this, you ask, “Was that luck of the draw? Was it drawn from a hat?” I would recuse myself if I were her.

You grew up in Detroit, have family there, and are living there again. Did anything you found in reporting this story surprise you?

No. There was nothing that shocked me. But there was the story of the boy Chaise, who was also killed. You go to the house and find out his brother was killed as well. It’s not shocking; it’s the sadness, the overwhelming sadness. I think the women [in the story] said it best: the beat just goes on. Is anybody listening? And these are good women. How the hell do you get out of this?

There are a lot of good things in Detroit, the Detroit area, Michigan, and the United States. But that’s not my job. What’s working: that’s normal. That doesn’t reach the level of news. But when normal is newsworthy, what’s that say? “Hey, a kid did graduate high school.” That’s not supposed to be news. That’s supposed to be a family get-together. “A guy has a job”—since when is that news? Let’s not lose sight of that. That was my effort here.

In Mother Jones, your story is followed by a more hopeful one-page report on “five ideas that could transform the Motor City.” Editorially it makes sense—a counterbalance to the gloom. But reading it after your story felt a little jarring. Were you aware that it would be paired with your feature?

I didn’t know that that was going to be there and I wasn’t involved with it. But I will say, as you said, editorially, I can understand why they did it. And for the community I can understand why they did it. But it’s kind of like: well, if Wall Street is projecting a big fraud and it’s a community of grifters, I’m not going to write a story about an honest guy on Wall Street. The point is if there’s something calamitous, let’s point it out. I didn’t write it. I had nothing to do with it. But I understand why it’s there.

You’ve worked a bunch of interesting jobs in interesting places in your time—serving fish ‘n’ chips in Sydney, baking in Denmark, teaching in Michigan. Does that kind of diverse background help in your reporting and writing?

It’s made me more full. And I’m no liberal by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m also no conservative. Having said that, I’ve lived in Europe, so when people complain about European socialism, I’m like, “Well, shut the fuck up.” They’re as different individually as we are and it’s a nice way of life they have over there. So you can’t fool me. I’ve looked at things with my own eyes.

You know what else it has taught me? How to go into a strange place by myself. More than anything that’s what all of that gave me: confidence.

For this story you had to do a lot of that, reporting in neighborhoods that could be dangerous for someone who stands out. How do you approach that?

It’s the same thing that everybody’s culture and everybody’s parents taught them. First, you introduce yourself to the old people. Second, if there’s a young person, you talk to them. You take your time; don’t be in a rush, and actually state your business. When you’re going to the people you have business with don’t be a creep, don’t wander around, and don’t look afraid. Walk right up and say what you have to say. Inform them of who you are. In most cases, the media are so prevalent nowadays that people are almost waiting for you to be there. So they’re ready.

For instance, the neighborhood where Aiyana was killed is very heavy, very rough; the feelings there aren’t so good. You see all these guys loading up boilers and furnaces and sinks; you know what they’re doing—they’re scrapping ‘em out, they’re tearing them out. So you go right up and you say, “What are you doing?” They look at you, and I say to them, “Hey, I know what you’re doing. If you had a choice, if you could go to that Chrysler plant—I see you’re sweating—would you like a regular job if they had one?” The guy will say: “What the fuck do you think? There’s nothing left so we’re taking what’s left.”

I’m like, “I get you man, because I’m from it, my brother’s from it.” Then you say something like, “Where’s grandpa from?” And he will say something like, “Alabama.” “Well, mine came from Louisiana. You think this is what they had in mind for us?” There’s a commonality, we are men together on this planet, and then it’s quite a natural conversation that’s not too difficult to have. Irrational fear—you’ve got to get over it. If actual danger presents itself, you better be smart and you better be fast.

You left The Detroit News last month—why the move?

I work on emotion, I want to be attached to what I’m doing, and I don’t want to just file copy. But also the media landscape is remaking itself. I feel like I’ve taken chances in my career, I’ve learned things. It takes a lot to leave The New York Times and it takes a lot to leave The Detroit News. There aren’t a lot of newspaper jobs left, but there are some things to learn. I’ve got to take a couple of weeks off and work out what it is I’ve got to learn.

In some of your work—particularly on your former TV show Only in America—you do a kind of “participatory journalism,” kind of an ugly word for saying you get yourself front and center in the stories. What do you think participating in a story can add to it?

It’s not such an ugly word—I like it. One reason I like it, quite honestly, is it’s fun. Is that a sin? To actually enjoy the gathering of information? Two, it really informs. I think it does. A lot of times I don’t do it. There’s immersion journalism and that means getting in there, hanging around that neighborhood, just living. But participatory might open the door a lot more quickly.

I wanted to make a comment or offer a viewpoint about gay life in America, for instance, after the 2004 presidential elections when we were talking about gay marriage. Alright, in 2005, I have a camera and a television show—I say, “Well, let’s go to Oklahoma where they voted on it.” I wondered how we were going to make a comment on this vote, something you would want to watch, with just five days of filming. You had to get the community to open up to you.

I said, “I’ll put on a dress, I’ll ride a bull—I’ve never ridden a bull before.” If you’re talking to a cowboy from the plains who’s gay and he sees this guy who gets on a bull, that shows him something; he will consider me. It’s better than being buttoned up and walking around with a pad—you’re going to get the same pat answers. If you participate, it shows respect for the person you’re trying to document. If you can share the thrill of a bull, you can share more.

Sometimes putting yourself in the story can lead to criticism. Following the story of the frozen man you found in an elevator shaft in an abandoned building, some accused you of leaving details unreported, to heighten the tragedy of the story. Do you think that including your reporting process in the story makes you more vulnerable to such criticisms?

It could be that. I wasn’t really in that story but I guess you could feel my point of view. That piece became a turning point for me. I’ll be completely honest with you. I’d just come back to Detroit and you go, “Oh my God, look at this, look at that, it’s crazy.” There’s almost a sort of detached amusement. And then you point out that that’s a human being; you make a statement. Then everybody starts to think: “Okay, this guy’s starting to show the ugly—well fuck him, go after him.” That thing turned me. Why are you attacking me? I actually called the police. I actually got the guy out of there. I didn’t skate around and go have a sandwich and leave him.

There’s something deeper going on here. We can’t get better as a society until we know exactly where we are. How bad is this? How bad is the money? How bad is Wall Street? How bad are the banks’ balance sheets? How used have we gotten to the collapse in Detroit? Really? I’m the problem here? Well, say what you will, I’m a big boy. I have no problem with people turning on me. I try my hardest, I try to be up and above board, and when I make a mistake I admit it. Am I an inveterate cheat? No. In fact, I’ll get on the damn bull. That’s how far I’ll go.

The man’s buried and I’m proud that he got a dignified end to his life instead of turning into soup in the bottom of an abandoned building. Me and my brother did that. A guy told my brother about him, my brother told me, I told the world. My mom said, “I don’t know, I’m proud of my boys.” And that’s enough for me. If my mom were ashamed of me then I’d have a problem.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,