When I last saw Charlie LeDuff two years ago, he was rifling through my freezer looking for ice, bitching about how my old Chicago apartment was a “hole.” (It was.) We needed sun, he said, and asked how we could get on the roof. We filled a bucket and dragged the bottle of Jameson that was burning a hole in his pocket up a rickety ladder and, hours later as we sat on the roof, Charlie told me about his book idea: a series of dispatches from his time traveling around the country that would cut through the noise of the daily news cycle. It would be a blunt look at real Americans’ stories, thoughts, and perspectives.
On Tuesday that book, Sh*tshow! The Country’s Collapsing and the Ratings Are Great, was released. From what LeDuff says it’s a damn good book (and from the first third of it that I’ve read, he’s right) and it’s an important one. From 2013 to Trump’s election, LeDuff roamed the country and the portrait he paints of it is vivid, dirty, and at times uncomfortably honest.
No one but LeDuff could write this book. A colorful journalist with a flair for the dramatic, he’s spent decades covering working-class people in a career that included being part of a New York Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, not that you’d necessarily know it from talking to him—he’s that rare celebrity who doesn’t act like a celebrity, a Pulitzer winner who makes fun of the Pulitzer. (After his stint at the Times, he went to Detroit and became a local columnist, a move few big-time journalists would make.)
While much of the national media spent the last few years covering Trump, they missed a lot, LeDuff told me. Mostly, they missed talking to real people. The Native American woman in Nevada who got no love for her fight against the government at the same time armed white men were flocking to the aid of Cliven Bundy, the people of Ferguson who alternately tried to fight and hug LeDuff as he mocked the media for exacerbating tensions—these are LeDuff’s people.
I caught up with LeDuff over the phone as he took a smoke break in Manhattan, where he’s busy doing interviews for the release of Sh*tshow.
VICE: Tell me about the book.
Charlie LeDuff: It’s a composite of America right now from the streets and not studio sets. It’s a book about America, for America, and an attempt to show you from the Bundy ranch, the border of Texas, Flint, Ferguson, Baltimore, on the campaign trail with Trump, Crooked Hillary—what all that means. You wanna know what it means? At some level what it means is that every American feels the government is failing them. And I would agree with it. The government is failing us, they’re stealing from us, they’re making a system that don’t benefit us. It benefits the monied class.
Everything’s fucked up. The economy is full of air. The market’s full of air, real estate is full of air, the jobs that we’re creating are making beds and wiping people’s asses.
Yeah but we’re also at almost full employment. The economy is booming.
But wages haven’t done anything. And full [employment]... then why have wages done nothing? All they’ve done is keep up with inflation. And when you’re out there in Detroit, and Dallas, and St. Louis, and North Dakota, and Orlando, and Birmingham, Alabama, you would know this. But we don’t know this.
Why don’t we know this?
Because we’re busy watching TV. And TV, trust me, this is part of the book, doesn’t know what time it is. The book is also about what the media is doing wrong, as a member of it. Like, inflicting a riot in Ferguson. You were there, right?
Yeah. [I covered Ferguson for VICE and The Daily Beast.]
You saw the pop-up (TV) sets weeks before everything went down. You remember the people of Ferguson going, What the fuck? The only thing that was missing was a banner across the street saying, Broadcast news, here for all your rioting needs. Come on down! It was a shitshow. And again, when the shit went off, all the media was in that little holding pen by the McDonald’s, you remember that? It was like, you got tickets to the show! What the fuck is this? [At several times during the unrest in Ferguson, police threatened reporters with arrest if they left a designated area. LeDuff, myself, and many others ignored those commands.]
It seems like there’s this trend of reporters becoming celebrities that has expanded under Trump. What does that do for the average person, the people that you’re out there talking with every day? How big is the disconnect?
I got nothing wrong with a person making a career, that’s how you do it. Me, I decided to do this. I’m getting down with the real people because that’s what I’ve always done. We’re not doing a good job of preparing people for what’s probably two years out. Because every developer I know, every politician I know, they call it “the downturn.” Then what happens?
There’s a lot that’s been said about the decline of local journalism. Do you see the whole media shitshow with Trump on the national level and the problems in local journalism as potentially dangerous for the average person?
Yeah, it’s all there in the book. You know why there’s so much violence on local TV now? Because violence sells, right? Wrong. The reason there’s so much violence is because it’s easy to make. A murder has a beginning, middle, and an end. It has (crime scene) tape, it has soundbites from the chief of police, it has tears from the woman in court… So, when you’re trying to fill more space with less people who are less trained, you can do three murders in a row—that’s 15 minutes! And so we know, every TV reporter or newspaper writer, when they’re accepting their local bullshit regional award, they know what they’re doing: They’re spreading anxiety to the suburban kitchen about a violent, black suburban core. Which has some truth to it, but not to the extent that they’re perpetrating it, and it creates real societal issues.
There was this mea culpa thing that happened after Trump won where the New York Times wrote an editorial saying, basically, Ah we fucked up, we weren’t paying attention to the heartland, we’re going to do a better job of that. Are there things that the national media is getting right?
Well, first of all let me ask you, the reader: Have they? I leave that to each and every individual. Now, there are plenty of motherfuckers out there who are doing great work and it doesn’t always get attention. And did the New York Times really honor their promise, or did they double down on the shitshow? There are people there that do great things but, again… Tom Wolfe just died! Where is he? Where is that type of writing? People want it. Why don’t we have it? Because remember something, the big three sets the fucking agenda: the Times, the (Washington) Post and the (Wall Street) Journal, and everybody follows. And so, when I’m on the toilet in the morning and I’m on my phone getting my news, taking my dump, Axios, Fox, whatever, they’re all doing the same story. Different way, different presentation, different political angle, but you’re all doing the same story. So I don’t even need that stuff. You know something cool? Diane Sawyer spent six months with regular women. You know she had a whole cavalcade of help, but she went to do it! God bless her.
"The biggest thing that happened that nobody’s paying attention to is that tax cut. Every time Washington gets together for something big, we get whipsawed."
You say there’s no Tom Wolfe right now, and I agree, and that there’s a strain of journalism that could really help out and fill this gap—and you’re doing it and other people are trying to do it—but is it really all the big three’s fault or are they just being driven by what the audience is asking?
I don’t know man, it may sound self-promoting but my fucking videos are viral! The things I wrote, same way. So, I believe people do want it but it’s really difficult to get a guy to believe in it to pay for it. Because the people running stuff are either old or it’s smart-ass hipsters who think everybody’s reading about tech. I don’t think so, but you gotta do that too!
It wasn’t penance with this book and working at the Coney. (LeDuff is currently working full-time at a hot dog shop in Detroit called the American Coney Island.) Look man, I need healthcare. I’m an individualist, I don’t need the government to give me healthcare, I’ll go earn it! And what else was I doing? My journalism. I had to come up with a philosophy for the times we’re living in. And it keeps me in touch with people, which I very much love, because I very much like people.
OK, but you read all the Trump shit. You say, Oh everybody’s doing the same story but you’re just as up on it I’m sure as everybody else is. What’s gonna happen with all this Russia stuff, the investigation? Give me your prediction and six months or a year from now we can see how close you were.
I got no cable TV. I try to block the shitshow out, I don’t follow anyone on Twitter. But even when you’re typing away, here comes a pop-up—Trump is live at a press conference—so, yes I’m aware. How does it play out? I don’t’ know. I’m sure really important things have gone on but it’s hard to put it in perspective when everything every day is at the same volume! Like, Melania’s wearing high heels at Hurricane Harvey! Oh, Scaramucci!
The biggest thing that happened that nobody’s paying attention to is that tax cut. Every time Washington gets together for something big, we get whipsawed: Banking regulations that nobody paid attention to, NAFTA, nobody really paid attention to it. Iraq, nobody really paid attention to it. Some did, don’t get me wrong. But you know what I mean? Everybody was cheerleading it, the New York Times… they had to apologize for that one too. I was there. This motherfucker (the tax cut) is gonna blow a hole so big in the budget, and when they’re done giving you your fucking pennies in these first couple years, your taxes are gonna go up. Rich man ain’t gonna be paying. And we’re not gonna be able to afford schools and roads. It’s huge! That’s what’s gonna happen. It’s gonna blow up.
Justin Glawe is an independent journalist based in Dallas.