The former New York Times reporter turned Detroit TV newsman turned Fox Stations investigator on the state of The Americans, Charlie LeDuff is producing pieces for the station group that he describes as “a little 60 Minutes, a little Charles Kuralt and a little Jackass.” He says he’s looking for “some human explanation… some commonality” in his stories and believes that done correctly, “TV journalism can be a service and not a scorecard. We try to be fair, limber and muscular in shape and do some digging.”
Since being named the Fox-owned stations’ national correspondent early this year, Charlie LeDuff has been tromping around the country covering stories that don’t typically get reported by stations — a Kentucky church’s gun giveaway and a Shoshone Indian’s take on a Nevada land dispute to name a couple.
With echoes of The Daily Show or a Michael Moore movie, The Americans with Charlie LeDuff has been appearing as five to six-minute segments within the newscasts of Fox stations since February and bears the unique imprint of LeDuff. It’s part of Fox’s campaign to reinvent local TV news.
LeDuff has developed a unique storytelling style that casts himself as a plain-spoken and intrepid man of the people. He makes no apology for injecting himself into the stories. (To see some of his pieces, click here.)
His current off-beat pieces belie a more conventional journalism background. During his 12 years as a New York Times reporter, LeDuff contributed to the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning series How Race is Lived in America and received a Meyer Berger Award for distinguished writing about New York City.
He is the author of Detroit: An American Autopsy and US Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man, Work and Other Sins. LeDuff joined Fox-owned WJBK Detroit in 2010 as an investigative reporter, a role he continues to fill periodically.
LeDuff spoke with TVNewsCheck Correspondent Diana Marszalek about local TV as community hub, road tripping and what he’s learning from The Americans.
An edited transcript:
What is your deal with Fox? Is it exclusive or can you work elsewhere in TV or in print?
I am a Fox man. I work for Fox. I work out of Detroit. Occasionally someone will ask me to write something. But at Fox they are very good to me.
How do you balance producing The Americans with your role as an investigative reporter for WJBK?
I am doing The Americans, though I am based in Detroit and Detroit is an important story. So if I do 10 stories, maybe two are about Detroit. That way I can keep up with community and I can let others [in the country] know what may be happening and coming their way.
We are in the middle of bankruptcy. They are going to be shutting off water for people whose bills are 45 days past due — that’s 200,000 people, a third of the city, almost a quarter of a million people without water in the summer. It is not going to be good. We look at sweetheart deals and tax breaks. That’s interesting to everybody. Here’s what bankruptcy looks like. It’s not pretty.
Where do your stories come from?
We know what people are paying attention to, like guns. And the Internet is a great tool because you go on and you see links because people of like minds talk to each other. So we see the story on Paducah [Kentucky, where a church was giving away guns to attendees and] where there was a school shooting. As a gun owner, I am right in the middle [on issues related to gun control]. But isn’t that kind of weird to give them away in a church? In a place where people were killed?
We were going to go to Phoenix and do the VA [hospital scandal] story. I got a lead there. And then I realized that we have a station there and that’s their story and I have no business to do it. But what I could do is create some more tissue, some more substance, some voice from outside of Phoenix. Is the outrage out there? We are going to St. Louis because that’s the crossroads of America. Let’s see if there is something human.
So far, do you feel Fox is giving you the sufficient freedom to do what you want to do?
It’s a lot of freedom, but freedom can be a noose. I’ve never worked so many hours in my life.
What do you look for in a story?
I’m looking for something real, some human explanation. I am trying to find commonality. There are things we all agree on. Should we be decent to each other? Indeed. Should we leave something for our children? We ought. If we start from there, then TV journalism can be a service and not a scorecard. We try to be fair, limber and muscular in shape and do some digging.
Who’s on your team? What kind of resources do you have?
I work with Matt Phillips. He’s a photographer and an editor. Bob Schedlbower is a photographer and he edits the Internet pieces. He’s a really sharp guy. He’s up on current events and his dad works at GM so he comes from my point of view. We’re going to take a gigantic road trip this summer. Maybe Route 66.
We also have two producers who work two days a week. One deals with corporate and scripts and lawyers and the other guy is kind of like the researcher.
You get personally involved in some of your stories. Doesn’t that shift the focus from the story to yourself?
Yeah, probably. It seems to work. The No. 1 rule is that you have to get it right. The No. 2 rule is don’t be boring. That’s the bit. So let me try. Let’s see what works. It might be funny. It might be stupid. But we can always cut it out. For the audience it’s a learning curve too.
What are you learning about Americans in doing The Americans?
If there is one thing I noticed, one connective value, is that everybody is angry with the government. We all want to get to the shining city on the hill. The argument is how do we get there.
About two-thirds of Americans don’t believe that the American dream is alive anymore. But there is still a very deep and abiding belief in the American ideal. It’s amazing, considering all the problems, how well it works. This is a huge country, not just geographically, but the third most populous nation in the world. It might be a rambling wreck. But it’s working.
Is this advocacy journalism? Are you promoting a point of view?
I suppose. I suppose I am. Which is that life is good. It’s great to be an American. And we can get this done. The greatest experiment in the history of humanity is this country. I am neither a Democrat nor Republican. I am not a liberal or a conservative. I am a father and so advocate for something better.
But that [advocacy] stuff is predictable, it’s boring, it’s self-righteous — I’m here to change the world! Come on, man. Then you should run for governor. I don’t have the answers. I have my opinion. But I try not to advocate that.
Your Americans pieces are different from most other local TV content — from topics to presentation, even their length.
You take a little 60 Minutes, a little Charles Kuralt and a little Jackass and you put it all in a bag and you shake it out.
How are viewers reacting to them?
Here [in Detroit] we get great ratings. One of the segments had a 16 share, and they are always over 13 or 14.
How are managers and news directors at other Fox stations reacting to them?
I am learning a lot about the businesses and so I simply say I work for Fox, I am part of the family. They do what they do and when they want to let me know what needs to be done I’ll do it. It’s not my role to decide. It’s not my pay grade. This is an interesting experiment that the suits in New York are figuring out.
On the investigative front, what are you most proud of?
I hope to make some changes in this community — whether we need to help with our fire department, or our county politics are corrupt. Detroit has turned a corner and I don’t know where that road leads us, but it doesn’t lead down. I’m not taking any credit, but I was able to show people that here’s the reality, here’s the money and here’s how it’s misspent. You deserve more than watching your father sit in a snow bank for 45 minute having a heart attack while we wait for an ambulance. It’s not acceptable. And we got some changes. That feels good.
How important are TV stations to the civic life of a city?
I suppose it’s really important because we are in this post-modern world and there are not a lot of places that you could call the civic center, the town square. TV does become a meeting place, local television especially in that we’re talking to each other. It just needs an injection of something new, with the way people see it.
If it’s 110 degrees and a neighborhood is burning down, you don’t need to see a guy there in an expensive suit. I don’t think men need to wear makeup on TV anymore because it’s hi-def and I can see the makeup. I never trained my voice because it really is my voice. People know.
Viewership of local TV news is shrinking, especially among younger viewers. Are you trying to attract that audience?
Absolutely not. When I think of my audience, I think of my mom. Mom, does this make sense? She will give me good points of view. And I know when my brother calls me — he watches everything but doesn’t call a lot — I know I hit.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of TV, compared to other media you’ve worked in — newspapers, books?
With TV, seeing it is believing it. So right there that’s the advantage. The disadvantage is if you don’t have it on tape, it didn’t happen.