| Home | Interview: Charlie LeDuff of the New York Times, March 2001
October 1, 2014

Charlie LeDuff, 34, is a reporter at the New York Times. He started his journalism career at age 29, after earning a bachelor's degree at the University of Michigan and a master's degree in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Before he joined the Times in 1995, LeDuff worked as a school teacher and carpenter in Michigan and at a cannery in Alaska. He also worked as a baker in Denmark and as a bartender in Michigan, New York and Australia. Part Native American, LeDuff was one of several reporters who worked on the New York Times series, "How Race is Lived in America." The series was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April 2001. He spent one month working at a pork slaughterhouse in North Carolina, where the division of labor was often decided by race. spoke with him about his experience at the slaughterhouse and his perception of race relations.

Photo: Edward Keating / The New York Times
LeDuff (left) talking with a former plant worker. Why did you pick a slaughterhouse to profile for a story on race relations?

Charlie LeDuff: I was to write about work. That was one of the things I wanted if I was to work [on the New York Times race series]. [The editor] wanted me to look somewhere in the southern United States because that's sort of where a lot of things started in this country. I went to a lot of places. I went to Tennessee, Mississippi, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, six or seven states. All roads kind of lead to Rome.fd It's the biggest slaughterhouse in the world. You hear about it. I get to the town. I was looking at chicken plants. I was seeing about cattle plants in the Plains even though it wasn't the South. I got to this town and there were a lot of Natives there and that was good. A lot of Lumbee Indians. Race would make it about one-third white, one-third black, one-third red. When you go into town, you see a lot of brown faces. At the courthouse there, there's a plaque that lists the fallen vets of World War I. Whites on top, Indian in the middle, and colored on the bottom in the color red. It sort of struck me as "wow, there is stuff going on here." And that's ultimately how I ended up in that part of the country. When you went to the slaughterhouse to fill out an application to work, were you scared or thinking 'what did I get myself into?'

Charlie LeDuff: What was I thinking? Someone asked me that a long time ago and I don't know. I was excited. I wanted the job. I didn't know what was going on in there. It wasn't like I was going in to nail these guys. That's not my style. I don't want to be that kind of reporter. There's plenty of them. The Times was going to let me actually work. I'm going to get into the heads of people's lives. And I get to write about something important. I hope it's interesting, that was what I was thinking. I come from a working background and it was cool in the sense that I like doing stuff like that to know. I don't like the whole celebrity of journalism and all that. Like we're all trying to be all, you know, code names, Cokie Roberts, no offense to her. But it reminds me, I can still do it. When this job goes away or I quit, I can cut up a pig. I'm pretty good at it. I can dig a ditch. I can lay shingles. I can drive a truck. I'm interested in who does the work. I was excited. Was anyone suspicious of you when you started working there?

Charlie LeDuff: I know what you're saying, but there's nothing to be suspicious of. No, not really. It was like, if you've got a social security card, you've got an ID, you fill out [an application], give [them] $20 and take the drug test and that's it. You start on Monday. They wanted to give me a box job. If you weren't black or Spanish, like you know. I'm not saying I know everything about that plant, but they kept trying to get me some box job and I said no, I want to kill. Then the hiring manager says, "Oh no no no, you want to start at the top?" I was anxious to get at it. I figure, 500 years of racial history. You're working for a powerful organization and we get to talk about it? I mean, we for real get to talk about it? Then I need to work my ass off. I was thinking, if I die or go on to do something else totally outta here, I left something. When I was talking to the people who I was profiling, my characters, all I can offer you man, is your say. The president of the United States reads [the New York Times]. He'll hear you one day. And our grandchildren are gonna know how we lived, who we are right now, what we were thinking, what we were feeling. I had to be straightforward and honest with them. It's about race. It's about work. A man or a woman's life is not all about that, true? Sort of like [the profile of] Wade Baker, the black guy. Sometimes he goes home and sees a pretty bird in his yard and says 'Wow, that's a pretty bird.' And he's thinking, I'm a black man looking at a pretty bird. Whenever I talk to students, maybe someone accuses me, us journalists, of being superficial. Yes of course we are. We're not writing novels.

Credit: Edward Keating / The New York Times
A black Kill-floor worker at the Smithfield slaughterhouse
in Tar Heel, N.C. What surprised you most about working at the plant?

Charlie LeDuff: People-wise, what surprised me the most was how cut to the bone they were to the job. People living by the hour, living three hours for the next 15-minute break and then three hours for the next 15-minute break. That's how you live your life. One thing that surprised me was that one day there was a crescent moon and it was probably venus or mars. It looked like the Turkish flag. It was beautiful. Because I had something else to do, a nice-paying job, I stopped to look at it. It was so pretty. Not a person in the parking lot saw it. Just off to slaughter. The degree of numbness surprised me. The fact that there were that many Mexicans in the place surprised me. I didn't know there were that many. How did your experience at the slaughterhouse change your perception of race relations?

Charlie LeDuff: It didn't surprise me at all. I don't know. For one, it reaffirmed my belief in God bless the United States of America because we do tend to work it out as miserable as it is. I've been around the planet and it's a decent place to live. I've been to almost every state in the union, but I've never studied here in the South. Part of my people are from Louisiana and how much I love southern culture. The people are open to talk about it. No hang-ups. What really struck me was how hypocritical we live in the North. Real snideness toward the southerners. It's open. It's realistic. It's discussed. White people and black people down there are not abstracts like they would be in a northern city when the only cop they see is a white guy driving in a cruiser. That changed me. That immigration has hit every corner of the United States. Every little backwood. I come from the city [Detroit], but I didn't know how much crack ravaged this country is. Wade Baker's little town in the middle of nowhere. Two-hundred guys a night down by the river smoking crack. I was like, 'whoa.' What sort of feedback have you received about the piece?

Charlie LeDuff: Pretty positive. "Thanks for doing that. Gee I didn't know." Good feedback. Because it was blood and guts and murder and animal, people tend to think it was some little odd anomaly, some offbeat place in the United States where I wrote from, right? But that's mainstream society. It's just a workplace. It's just a workplace with blood. It's the same as an office building. It's the same as an auto plant. You don't mix many people of another race. You go back to your neighborhood. And that's the way it is. In a way, it's mainstream America.

Credit: Edward Keating / The New York Times
Wade Baker, a plant worker, with his mother, Eveyln. How did your co-workers at the plant feel about the piece?

Charlie LeDuff: I was told that a lot of black people were angry when the piece came out in this sense -- what the fuck took people so long? I've been here for a while, where have you been? I was conscientious about that. I was straightforward about it. There's not a whole lot going on down there. So it was interesting to people. I was there for a number of months, so I was known in the county. I didn't deceive anyone. People respected what I did because, hey man, I want to know enough. I want to stand next to you. I'm gonna be there. We can dispense with the opening round of questions: "Do your hands hurt, sir? What's it like in there?" I find that if you're coming to people, you're not a vulture like some reporters who circle around and wait for the opening to get in there. People know what you're doing. They feel you hawking them. Go straight to their space, state your intentions and do it. I didn't go undercover. I didn't use a false name. I went there and worked. I didn't whack anybody. I'm very satisfied with how I handled it. Did the New York Times' race series do a good job of covering all races?

Charlie LeDuff: In my opinion, no. At times like this, I feel like I'm a corporate face. At the beginning, I felt immigration is a big deal. But it was black and white, and I still don't understand why. That's the main construct by which we all live. But we've got to talk about brown. We've got to talk about red. We've got to talk about yellow. Like Indians, east Indians, southeast Asians, they're like the fifth stuff, what are they? Okay, race, what does that mean? No we didn't, but it's only 15 stories of six and half thousand words so I understand why. But I would like to see more on Native Americans. But what are you gonna do? I think the New York Times signaled, we're ready to talk about it just because it is. We don't have to wait for a march. It's there. I think it's a grand move forward. Some say the New York Times race series could win a Pulitzer. Do you think it's worthy of a Pulitzer?

Charlie LeDuff: I don't give a fuck. If it does, that's great. You know, this business is funny. For who it's important to, I hope we do. That would be nice. Is it important to me? Nah. How does being part Native American affect your work as a journalist?

Charlie LeDuff: Either you are or you aren't. I've got white blood, yes, but am I Indian, yeah. How does it affect my work? Well, who I am affects my work. How I approach people. How I approach elders. Being honest. Trying to stand up if someone isn't happy with you, you know, face to face. I went down there for another reason. I was attracted to it because it was Indian country. I'm looking to write about Native people, but it's hard when you're in metro New York. It gives me an outlook. It's me, the person and the way I'm raised. It just affects me because that's the way that I am. What do you think of the coverage of Native Americans in mainstream media?

Charlie LeDuff: It's lousy. I'm kind of proud of what the New York Times does. We tend to do a good job. But it's not great. Not great. Why is that?

Charlie LeDuff: Unless you're around Indian country. They cover it north of New York. They cover it in the Plains. Oklahoma. One, proximity. Two, people tend to think it's not an important group of people because percentage-wise, there's not a lot of them. They tend to be mystical. Drinking, dancing or dead -- the three Ds. Then in the places where there are Natives, who owns the means of printing? It's white people who can't understand red people. It's a conflict more often than not. It's like the same in the cities. Who owns the printing presses? The whites. Then the blacks complain about the coverage they get. Does there need to be more Native people in the newsroom? Sure. You've got to be able to cover white people, red people. You've got to be objective. You've got to be able to do it all. You can bring a point of view. I'm not advocating for advocacy journalism. But newsrooms aren't that diverse. Even in class. Yeah, we need more native people. Where did you get your start as a journalist?

Charlie LeDuff: [The New York Times was] my first newspaper job. I was an intern for three months at the Alaska Fisherman's Journal. That was my first publication-type job. But the first thing I ever wrote that got published, my Russian friend in the Northeast got killed with alcohol. I just sort of wrote an obituary. The new class of Russian youth, after the fall of the wall, on the street corners selling pins and posters, running from the law. And I wrote that and I think I wrote it pretty well. I felt good and I felt like, hey I'm smart enough. I can do this. That's how I got started. So you went from the three-month internship in Alaska to the New York Times?

Charlie LeDuff: Yeah. And got an internship at the Times. They liked the work. They liked that sort of obituary and they gave me a 10-week shot. Then after the 10 weeks, they gave me a six-month shot. Then they gave me a three-year apprenticeship. Then I got hired full staff just before I went on the race project. You've had a number of occupations before you became a reporter -- middle school teacher, carpenter, bartender, etc. Why did you decide to go into journalism?

Charlie LeDuff: I was with some friends in New York and we were talking about what we were going to do and some guy mentioned he was going to journalism school and I thought that would be cool.

Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved.

Read some of Charlie LeDuff's work:
  • At a Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die
  • What a Long, Strange Trip: Pseudo.Com to Dot.Nowhere

    Other interviews:
  • Pierre Thomas, correspondent, ABC News -- March 2001
  • Gene Roberts, former managing editor, New York Times -- February 2001
  • Sydnie Kohara, anchor, -- January 2001
  • Lowell Bergman, former producer, 60 Minutes -- January 2001
  • Joie Chen, anchor, CNN -- December 2000
  • David Plotz, Washington Bureau Chief, -- November 2000
  • Christopher John Farley, senior writer and pop music critic, Time Magazine -- October 2000
  • Bob Edwards, news anchor, National Public Radio -- October 2000
  • Sharon Epperson, CNBC correspondent -- September 2000
  • David Maraniss, reporter, The Washington Post -- April 2000
  • Wolf Blitzer, anchor, CNN -- March 2000