< Reporting from Detroit


Friday, November 19, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some stories seem almost too big to cover, so you start with an anecdote – such as, on May 16th, seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed sitting on her couch by a stray police bullet during a midnight raid in search of her father, a murder suspect. The police used overwhelming force and a stun grenade, even though the door was unlocked. But in this case, the police were accompanied by a reality TV camera crew, and so a tragic inference could be drawn. Journalist Charlie LeDuff used Aiyana’s death as a way into a long, devastating depiction of his city of Detroit for Mother Jones Magazine. He’s seen the press come and go. Most recently they've been coming, writing reams and leaving. But he suggests all those words still miss the point of the big story. Charlie, welcome to the show.

CHARLIE LeDUFF: Thanks for having me. I love your show.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks. Do you think that the fact that a TV crew was in tow encouraged the police to violate their own procedures, as apparently they did, in creating a more dramatic entrance than they needed to?

CHARLIE LeDUFF: Yeah. Talking to a high-ranking police source here, in his many, many years in the business he’s never used a grenade to apprehend a suspect. And so, it is quite possible. We'll find out, I guess, when this thing eventually gets to court, whether they were playing up to the cameras. And the funny thing about that is this is many months later and there’s been no report released, no official word from the state police, the Detroit police, anybody. It’s kind of sad in a way. I mean, Detroit’s misery, it’s really selling. We have a couple of TV shows, we have a couple of reality shows, a slew of documentaries, so we're in the media spotlight, but none of it really much amounts to anything in terms of helping the community.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Detroit’s been a mess for at least half a century. Is it the collapse of the auto industry that finally earned it national media attention?

CHARLIE LeDUFF: I think in a short answer, yeah. You know, when I was working out West in Los Angeles for The New York Times, I quit. I wanted to come home. I wanted to raise my daughter here because I'm from here. And I pitched this to – you name it – to NPR, Time, Politico, Washington Post, on and on and on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When was this?

CHARLIE LeDUFF: Late 2007. And I told you, hey, man, I mean, something’s really brewing. You can smell the housing market’s starting to collapse. We should go to the center of what really made America rich, which was its manufacturing heart, which was Detroit. And I couldn't get anybody to bite. The media, radio or newspapers or what have you was consolidating, losing money, trying to figure out how to save itself, and nobody was interested in a boutique bureau in Detroit. Well, come about September 15th, when Lehman went bankrupt, boom, everybody started flooding and I started getting the calls from TV crews in Barcelona, from Moscow, from London, from Miami, you name it, and all of a sudden everybody was interested in Detroit in the sense of, yeah, we know Detroit’s a hellhole. Is it an outlier or is it the epicenter? Should we actually be paying attention instead of mocking it?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s a reasonable question. What do you think?

CHARLIE LeDUFF: My supposition is it’s the epicenter. It was, without a doubt, the epicenter. If 50 years ago over 30 percent of our economy was manufacturing, and you look at it today and it’s about 10, and you realize what we've done is we've lived on exotic scraps of paper, the bill came due, and we're all looking around realizing now, Jesus, you actually have to make things for there to be value in your dollar. Well, we don't, and now we're back to the scene of the crime.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've said that, you know, a lot of lazy narratives, cookie cutter narratives, come out of the parachute journalism. What do you mean? Give me the standard narrative.

CHARLIE LeDUFF: Urban gardening. There’s one for you, urban gardening. Urban gardening is going to be the future of Detroit. Is it really? Are we going to take the poisoned fields of Detroit, with the mercury, with the lead, and actually grow corn and put 100,000 adults to work? I don't think so. I like gardens, too. Gardens are nice. But that’s not what we should be focusing on. What we should be focusing on is where’s the money to the police department? What happened to the money going to the fire department? Why don't the ambulances show up on time?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And those stories aren't told?

CHARLIE LeDUFF: No, they're not told.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think Time Magazine did when it came in for a year, rented a house and tried to put down roots, at least temporarily, so that they would avoid the pitfalls of parachute journalism?

CHARLIE LeDUFF: Well, you know, I applaud them for trying maybe to get to something here.


CHARLIE LeDUFF: [SIGHS] No, not really. I think they were cowed a little bit because when you live here, you have pride. We are human beings, right? This is our community. But you shouldn't let local pride get in the way of illuminating where it is they actually live. And I think that they fell into that trap a little bit, which was you’re not going to come in from the outside and say these things about us. Well, I think you can't worry about it. If you try to tell the truth and you’re out there and you’re hitting the blocks and you’re digging through the paperwork, let the truth be its own justification. So I'm glad they did that. The Wall Street Journal is here. The Associated Press is here, Reuters, Bloomberg. There are people paying attention, so this isn't something unique to them. Having said that, I don't know what kind of appetite there is in the United States for do the ambulances work in Detroit. Having been a national correspondent, the trick is Detroit’s its own special and unique place, but it is coming to you. It’s coming to Phoenix, it’s coming to Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami. There’s a lot of misery, a lot of doubt, a lot of broken homes, a lot of shattered careers, and people are afraid, they're confused, and the Zeitgeist is rage.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've been in Detroit for two years. You've said that at first you were really overwhelmed and you fixated on the freak show stories. Explain what that means and how your reporting changed.

CHARLIE LeDUFF: Well, I'll be honest with you. I [SIGHS] – look, it was amusing. And let me explain that. When you’re [LAUGHS] a reporter, you are a leech. You find a host and you grab onto it and you drain it for all it’s worth. Do you feel for the people? Of course you do. But you pack up your parachute, you pack up your charge card and your hangover, you get on the airplane and you find the next pocket of misery. Well, it was interesting here. Like, oh, my God, can you believe this? Look at the city council. Look at the mayor. Look at these bozos running the car company. Wow. And then it’s not funny any more because, one, you can't leave. You’re from here. It’s not funny because your brother just lost his house. It’s not funny because there’s a guy in an elevator shaft frozen, and everybody left him there. Now you start to get angry and you realize this buffoonery, this corruption, it’s killing people. So what happened to me was for the first time in my life, I became that thing in college that I never was, which was we can use this journalism as a force for good, an agent for change. I'm going to get to the bottom of this and I want some accountability. So now I started going through paperwork – I never did that – contracts. You know what I mean? I wanted an answer. Have I gotten one? Yeah. Can I fix it? No. But there is hope. You know what I learned here through these people I wrote about, these very, very good people? That our hope is in each other, small little ways, small little efforts. Can everybody send five dollars to bury this kid? Can we all get together and force the police to catch this murderer? Can we ask a judge to man up and hold these people over for trial? Can we do that? And we are doing that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That sounds like activism, which is great.

CHARLIE LeDUFF: I know, it’s weird. I know, it’s weird, right?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But your story on Aiyana Stanley-Jones serves as a record of the meaningless death of two kids. It’s a story that demands outrage from its readers about the myriad ways Detroit’s infrastructure’s broken, graft and corruption leading to injustice and despair. But you -

CHARLIE LeDUFF: And death.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And death. And you raise the question yourself. Can your reporting change that even a tiny little bit?

CHARLIE LeDUFF: Yeah, let me go here. I am not an activist in the sense of what I'm doing. That’s not what I mean. Look, here’s a mirror. That’s my job. Here’s a mirror. Look at it. Look at it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Charlie, thank you so much.

CHARLIE LeDUFF: It’s really been my pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Charlie LeDuff works for The Detroit News. His article, What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones, was in the November/December issue of Mother Jones Magazine.