Charlie LeDuff and postmodernism: a primer

Jun 7, 2015 at 12:21 pm

In my profile on Charlie LeDuff (on newsstands this week), I made the casual claim that LeDuff is in fact no mere reporter — he is perhaps the world’s premier postmodern reporter. Realizing that not everyone’s idea of fun involves reading up on French cultural theory, I’ll attempt to relate some of the main bullet points of postmodernism (taken from Dino Felluga’s thorough and accessible "General Introduction to Postmodernism") to LeDuff’s work … so you don't have to.

Extreme self-reflexivity, irony, and parody. Postmodern art assumes a jaded, media-saturated audience. As such, there is a tendency for postmodern art to “break the fourth wall” or to push back or challenge the conventions of its own particular genre (a popular example is the way the characters in the Scream movies debate the rules of the genre of horror film).

LeDuff mentioned shooting an early assignment at Fox 2 involving covering unshoveled sidewalks in the winter — typical boring evening news stuff. "These people know every bell and whistle of the media," LeDuff told us. "I try to show them that I'm in on the joke.” The clip sees LeDuff actively discussing the fact that it’s a “slow news day.” Later, he pretends to slip on the ice, and a caption flashes onscreen: "Overdramatization."

A breakdown between high and low cultural forms. Another hallmark of postmodernism is to attack the separation between “high” and “low” art — such as Andy Warhol famously taking an everyday image, like a Campbell’s Soup can, or a photo of Marilyn Monroe, and re-contextualizing it as high art.

A favorite subject of LeDuff’s is the struggle of everyday people. The series LeDuff was working on when he quit The New York Times was called American Album (his NYT editor, he says, wasn’t impressed by him always covering “losers”). Before that, he worked on Only in America, a joint project with The New York Times and Discovery Channel. His current program is called The Americans with Charlie LeDuff.

His news segments can seem like a combination of typical reporting mixed with comedy skits like Tosh.0 or Jackass. As a writer, LeDuff’s copy can often read more like hardboiled pulp fiction than sterile news copy, as if to make something educational more entertaining.

Retro. Postmodern culture tends re-contextualize styles and fashions from the past. LeDuff does this by eschewing the typical look of TV reporters, opting instead for a look that includes a goatee, vest, and a signature pair of cowboy boots, hand-painted with an American flag design. (His name even sounds like a cowboy’s.)

A questioning of grand narratives. Postmodernism came to rise following the fascism of World War II and further developed as the idea of the “American dream” began to unravel in the following decades. In addition to covering the struggles of everyday Americans, other common themes in LeDuff’s work are to attack government corruption and generally poke through the idea that all is well in regular America.

LeDuff has been compared to “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson for the way they both insert themselves and their experiences into their stories. But Bill Shea, who covers media for Crain’s Detroit Business (and is also a self-professed Thompson fan) sees another common trait between the two: both reporters carry a similar “pissed-off outlook, that ‘the bastards are getting away with this,’” he says.

Visuality. We live in an era saturated with visual media, and so increasingly news competes for people’s attention against cat videos, GIF listicles, and Kim Kardashian’s ass. LeDuff seems to understand this well. A classic LeDuff example is a Fox 2 segment that demonstrated Detroit’s slow police response times — instead of just reading off a list of arrival times, the episode saw LeDuff take a bubble bath on camera while waiting with a woman whose house was just burglarized.

The simulacrum. Another major concept of postmodernism is the idea of Simulacra and Simulation, or the breakdown between reality and representation. LeDuff seemingly understands this, in the way that he doesn’t merely report stories, but is actively involved with driving them.

Secondary orality. Postmodern society has seen a drastic reversal in literacy rates, with more and more people now relying on oral media sources like TV, film, radio, and viral videos.

Read the full LeDuff profile here.