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Charlie LeDuff blew this one. But can his message about another Detroit Fire Department outrage still be right when his facts are wrong?

Fox 2 News Headlines

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I’ve been following WJBK-TV reporter Charlie LeDuff’s reports for a number of years watching him try to hold three different fire commissioners and a mayor accountable for the dismal state of the Detroit Fire Department. His is an advocacy style of journalism that’s in your face. Very few TV reporters in the country are allowed to present stories in the manner LeDuff does.

One reason I like LeDuff’s reports is because they stand out from the blandness and cookie cutter reporting that plagues local TV news. His style is effective in getting attention to problems that might otherwise be ignored. Many of these problems have Charlie saying out loud what many viewers at home are saying, “How the hell can  that be?”. And the reports usually show Charlie chasing down those who have some responsibility for it being that way.

The Detroit Fire Department memo we published on Saturday that prohibits firefighters from climbing aerial ladders unless there is an immediate life threat to civilians or firefighters is an example of that type of story. It’s outrageous. All of us are asking how can it be that no one has made sure an entire fleet of 19 ladder trucks has been getting annual and five year ladder inspections? This outrage should be a slam dunk for LeDuff who has been trying to get to the bottom of failures at the maintenance shop, including inspections, for more than a year.

But from what I can see, Charlie blew this one. The facts just don’t support the premise of Charlie’s report. I can’t tell if it’s a reading comprehension issue after he looked at last week’s memo from Chief Craig Dougherty or if it was because Charlie was trying too hard to sensationalize a story that really doesn’t need to be sensationalized. 

Charlie LeDuff telling his viewers something that is blatantly false, that the Detroit Fire Department doesn’t have a ladder to get a person out if they became trapped in this top floor apartment. But does it matter that he’s wrong?

LeDuff spends much of this report talking to people about about how Detroit firefighters now can’t rescue anyone from upper floors. He shows various buildings where people will be out of luck. While one of those illustrations was a second or third floor apartment where most firefighters would throw a ground ladder anyway, Charlie is ignoring the fact the memo clearly states the aerial ladders can still be used for rescues. His report is very misleading and in some cases dead wrong.

Charlie could have worked his magic in so many other ways with a story like this. In ways that the facts support. He could have asked people whether they trust being brought down a ladder that the fire commissioner is telling firefighters not to climb unless absolutely necessary. He could have asked if operating master streams from these ladders puts people around the rigs in jeopardy. He could have asked, as the union president did, what else isn’t being inspected. And if he wanted to be more dramatic, the facts would probably justify asking citizens, “Would you rather take your chance with the fire or the ladder that might collapse underneath you?”

The question I have is for you. Does LeDuff’s handling of the facts of this story really matter? Does it undermine his credibity? Or does all that matters here, is the watchdog of the people once again showed that the city’s leaders screwed up, again, which they most certainly did?

I like to think that getting it right is important. That was important for me as a reporter. I also believe if you are going to put it all out there the way LeDuff does you better have it right. But my gut tells me I’m probably wrong. That, in the end, I will be the only one bringing this up, and most people will just say right on, Charlie.

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