Charlie LeBuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy, and a New Business Model


first found out about Charlie LeDuff when I saw him expose the decline of Detroit’s Meals on Wheels Program. Little did I know that he previously won a Pulitzer with the New York Times and followed it up with 2013’s Detroit: An American Autopsy.

Detroit is an incredibly well written and heart felt exploration into the decline of one of America’s greatest cities. It details the ongoing legacy of racial tension that sparked 2 major race riots, but lacks a macro view of the policy crisis that led to a major American city losing over a million people in under a generation. LeDuff makes up for it with a detailed take down of local corruption and a nuanced report on the people who still call the Motor City home.

One of the best parts of the book isn’t “ruin-porn” but comes from his description of the mortgage crisis (of which his brother was part of) [1. Although there is plenty, especially an infuriating story into why Detroit firefighters are using broken equipment, which eventually costs a man his life.]. His brother sold, “bullshit mortgages, subprime, negative amortization,” and admits, “A lot of people got fucked.” By now it is clear that mortgage fraud decimated the lives of millions of Americans and upended the structure of society, what LeDuff’s brother argues is that the whole thing was one big ploy. He describes:

“You get the guy in a loan and then you call him 3 months later and tell him the loan he’s in–the loan you got him in–is a bad deal, and you sell him a different loan. It was a shell game. And the company pushed us to do it. We were making six points on every deal. Six! And nobody cared, ’cause everybody was getting what they wanted for free.”

This business model is strikingly similar to the model that most major blogs operate on. That is, error is built into the business plan.

Ryan Holiday, writing for The New York Observer explains

Why do blogs publish hoaxes and hit pieces so often? So they can post “corrections” after benefiting from the rush of traffic from the sensational first draft. The upside is traffic, the downside is … more traffic. Take the recent Shell Oil Hoax, which was orchestrated by Greenpeace, and which Gawker Media fell for. Gizmodo, Gawker’s sister site, broke the fake story: “Malfunctioning Cake Ruins Party and Spews Liquor All Over Oil Tycoons” for a quick 30,000 pageviews. Later in the day, Gawker got around to debunking the story their sister site had created the market for with a post called “Viral Video of Shell Oil Party Disaster Is Fake, Unfortunately” that earned three times as many viewers.

The cynic in me wants to say welcome to 2014, but the capitalist knows that firms that adopt this model will experience short term gains, only to fail spectacularly.

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