The best journalism book of 2019 came out in 2018

Charlie LeDuff’s Sh*tshow! is as much a critique of the news media as it is a portrait of the United States during a period of significant change.

They don’t teach this stuff in J-school

The dog ate my homework.

I should have published something about Charlie LeDuff’s book, Sh*tshow!: The Country’s Collapsing and the Ratings Are Great, a year ago when it first came out. At the time, I was a bit skint, so I asked for a review copy from the publisher with the implicit understanding that I would sing for my supper and write something about it. Anything! Is that so hard? I’ve never been much for the traditional book review, so I figured it would be better for me to ring Charlie up and talk to him about it. So that’s what I did. But then… I dropped the ball. I waited a little too long to write it up, and some of the current events we discussed were themselves overtaken by events that made parts of our conversation feel dated. You know what I mean: waiting so long to run a quote about “the shutdown” that there had actually been two of them; talking about some Trump v. McCain drama but no longer being able to remember which way the dead senator had managed to get under Donald’s skin back when Charlie and I spoke.

As each month went by, the guilt of having failed to publish gnawed at me, and was made worse by the thought that, “well, now it’s really out-of-date.”

But now, the gods of artificial news pegs have granted me a reprieve! The paperback is here! Yes, I managed to sit on my ass so long that Sh*tshow! has now been released in the highly portable and more affordable paperback format, giving me that all-important peg upon which to hang this piece. I’m glad to have it, because I think it’s an important book that should be read by both producers and consumers of the news. Especially the tee vee variety.

From Charlie LeDuff’s syndicated series, The Americans

If some of the events of 2018 I referenced above seem like a distant memory, Charlie’s book will read to you like ancient history. Sh*tshow! is a time-capsule of these United States in the three years before Trump began dominating our national discourse. The book tracks Charlie’s misadventures as he crisscrosses the country taking a painfully honest look at what ails America for a series of TV segments for Fox affiliates around the country called The Americans. Given its time frame and subject matter, Sh*tshow! could easily fall into that crowded genre of books that seek to explain the underlying reasons for the rise of Donald Trump. Charlie’s street-level approach to journalism and true interest in listening to people does offer some insight in that regard, but the book’s real strength is in the portrait it paints of the news media.

Charlie has always distinguished himself with candid and colorful writing about forgotten towns and forgotten people, but Sh*tshow! finds him working the same news cycle as every other news outfit, covering the stories that you might have already forgotten dominated your news feed in 2014, 2015, and 2016. But as you read The Charlie LeDuff Version® of the big news events that were happening in Ferguson, Flint, Baltimore, and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (to name a few), you can’t help but juxtapose them against your own memory of the coverage you saw, and it’s impossible not to notice a stark difference in tenacity, rigor, and vigor. Charlie is clearly aware of these differences and he is not shy about cataloging them to comedic effect:

From the media’s point of view, when the decision came, there was going to be some good TV. Some flames and gas. Some screaming and looting. Gun sales were brisk. Maybe there would be a cop shooting from either side of the barrel. Makeup tones would be subdued, of course. Wardrobe would tend toward the safari greens and autumnal hiking wear. There could be an Emmy in this, after all. Proper costume could be the difference between winner and first runner-up. Think of it! A local regional Emmy! The sublime trinket of nothingness. The ultimate toilet-roll holder. The fast track to the teleprompter. Fill-in weekend anchor desk, here I come!

Early in the book, Charlie talks about meeting with then-Chairman and CEO of Fox News, Roger Ailes, to pitch the The Americans. Ailes only concern about the editorial approach that the segments would take related to money.

What the wizard was telling me was that he didn’t want stories that would cost him money or advertisers or instigate phone calls from the country club or from The Boss himself. These were the same concerns of liberal media executives. In the end, news isn’t really about keeping the public informed or holding the powerful to account. It’s about cash money.

It’s a dispiriting notion for any journalist to accept: that at the end of the day, the companies that most of them work for exist to make money, and as such will make decisions based on whether or not they stand to make more of it.

“It’s about the bottom line and holding on,” Charlie tells me via telephone. “You know, you do have to make money to exist. Holding power to account, or rather, accounting for those without power… maybe the industry doesn’t understand how to make money doing that: to chronicle the country, to chronicle the times. To get out of the beltway.”

With much of cable news shifting from reporting out challenging stories to putting on what amounts to little more than a never-ending talk show aboutthe news, the industry has communicated to its practitioners that what it’s looking for is whatever worked yesterday, and there are few incentives to break from the pack.

“Increasingly everybody’s a journalism school guy — they’re buttoned down,” says Charlie. “You know what I mean: press conferences, yelling outrageous things at a sitting president. Go do the work. Go get punched. See, I don’t think the urban middle class knows much about the working class.They don’t really have a lot in common, I think I’ve made that clear in the book. And because they don’t have a lot in common, they spend no time with them. They don’t see it as worthwhile. One outlet will break some news, and then you have a thousand outlets opining. Where’s the rest of it!? Where’s the human touch? I think that’s what we’re aching for… we want to see ourselves. And when it’s about money, look– it’s easier to put a boat load of make-up coiffed people on a set than it is to do news.”

Their set was blue. Their makeup pink. Their clothing immaculate. There was no telling where in the world they were broadcasting from, but it surely wasn’t Ferguson. Still, that did not prevent them from commenting on the evening’s mayhem as if they had been here, as if they had grown up here and understood the nuances and complexities of American life. What the world heard from them was that this was simply another case of a white cop killing a young, unarmed black man and the looters and arsonists were simply voicing their historical discontentment and here was another case of the abject failure of the American experience.

Charlie LeDuff reporting for The Americans from Ferguson, November 2014

But didn’t the election of Trump shake things up? Surely the White House cutting off the traditional pleasantries with the press woke the press corps from its slumber, no? With no on-camera ride-alongs in the President’s limo to be had, no water to be carried in the form of exclusive unveilings of important policy proposals, and no honest answers to questions to be obtained by playing nice at press briefings, didn’t the press finally take the tenacious approach to covering the presidency that they always should have?

“Washington is just the meeting house for the gangs,” says Charlie. “It’s the clubhouse. Each gang comes in from wherever they’re from, they divide up the spoils and take it home. Okay, so the head of the beast is Washington, but the heart and the belly are out here. And there’s almost nobody left, and no money left. So yes, they’re doing a good job in Washington, right? But what about the rest of this shit? What about it? What about what Harry Reid’s got going on in Nevada, or Mike Duggan’s got going on in Michigan, or Nagan had going on in Louisiana. This is the shit that is pissing us off, and even our own ‘journalists’ are only half aware of it. There are some really good ones, but they’re struggling with resources. It’s like, how many people are gonna be in PR? There’s no one to give PR to anymore! PR was to spin the press, and all the press is running to the PR companies. Who gonna do this?”

I tell Charlie that at times his book made me uncomfortable. The reason being that when he reported that there was no one on the Mexican side of the border trying to prevent drug & human trafficking, or that NAFTA really wasa disaster for many American workers and towns, or that white folks who voted for Trump might actually be a bit more complex and less cliched than they’re made out to be— I was inclined to believe him. But in the past when I’ve heard these very same things from people I like a lot less than Charlie (pundits, politicians, and the quasi-journalists of Fox News), my inclination has been to ignore it — to treat it as either hyperbole, or to assume it’s tactical (which of course makes me want to make sure I’m not affected by it). I ask Charlie how can we ever improve the state of affairs when people — and I count myself among them — sometimes simply refuse to believe that which doesn’t agree with the America they picture in their heads?

“I don’t know. Nor do I care. It’s not my job.” Charlie thinks for a moment about his relationship with the audience. “My job is not to change your mind. It’s not. I’m just a guy presenting some stuff to you. I respect you. Believe what you want to believe. Just don’t hurt anybody. And democracy will take care of itself. It will. It’s a very patient beast. This isn’t a book of, you know, the world as I think it should be, or a partisan book of politics. I’m just really trying to get in there. Tweak it. Fuck with people. Try to get real answers out of them, get em off their dime, look at what they’re telling me — try to understand it, and when it’s right it’s right and when it’s wrong it’s wrong.”

The company was pleased. Great footage! They wanted us to make a black-mob-attacks-white-reporters internet clip. But Matt and I and bleary-eyed Bob all agreed we would not racebait. The story was DJ, not the beatdown. We wanted to provide a positive image, if such a thing could be said to exist amid the looting and rioting. There was something deeper there, something with a conscience, something with a higher truth. Things might be fucked up in America, but we could fix them. America is the greatest experiment in the history of humankind, a nation composed of tribes striving to overcome ancient impulses, a society improving itself through reason rather than destroying itself through violence.

I ask Charlie about that last line… does he still believe it?

“I do. I do. Will it remain that way? That is up to us.” Charlie continues, “You must — even when it costs you — you must exercise your rights. They wrote those down for a reason. That doesn’t change. The First Amendment’s an amazing thing, because it’s human nature to… look, for mass corruption to occur it takes a lot of collaborators. If you’re gonna stand up to it you’re powerless except for that document. Except for the rule of law, and ideas. And the great history we have behind us — and the ugly — the ugly history is part of the great history. You learn from it. I do believe it. Fucked up as it is. And I think most people believe it, and that’s why the lines are so incredibly long at the embassies and consulates around the world. I do believe it’s great, I believe it can be greater. It’s never reached its full potential. Yeah, but it’s great, with a real ugly history that shouldn’t be forgotten or put to bed as history. It’s part of our fiber, you know? I’m a mixed person. I know what happened to my people here. But again, it’s what human beings do. This country just repairs the damage quickly.”

Sh*tshow!: The Country’s Collapsing and the Ratings Are Great is now available in paperbackhardcoverKindle, and Charlie-read audiobook).