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.