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?