LeDuff is of white and Ojibway descent, and was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. His parents' marriage ended in divorce, and he has a deceased sister and step-brother. His father served in the U.S. Navy. LeDuff has four surviving siblings. He has lived in many cities around the country and the world. Before joining The New York Times, LeDuff worked as a schoolteacher and carpenter in Michigan and a cannery hand in Alaska. He has also worked as a baker in Denmark.
LeDuff's writing influences include Hop On Pop, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, Treasure Island, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Carver, Joseph Mitchell, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Raymond Chandler. Among writers in the newspaper business who influenced him, LeDuff lists Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin, and Pete Hamill.
LeDuff was hired by the New York Times on a ten week minority scholarship. He was a staff reporter at The Times from 1995 to 2007, ending his tenure as a member of the Los Angeles bureau. LeDuff, who had been on paternity leave, quit The Times to pursue the promotion of his second book, US Guys, according to a memorandum from Suzanne Daley, the national editor. The next day LeDuff said his rationale for leaving was more complicated, noting that he made an appointment with Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher and chairman of The Times, to say he would be leaving because, "I can't write the things I want to say. I want to talk about race, I want to talk about class. I want to talk about the things we should be talking about."
Of his professional career in newspapers, LeDuff states:
"I’m not a journalist, I’m a reporter. The difference between a reporter and a journalist is that a journalist can type without looking. The problem with journalism is its self-importance. Like in the New York Times, there’s style, guides; you can’t call a doctor a physician, you got to call him a doctor- too high falutin’. You can’t call an undertaker a mortician- too high falutin’; you got to call him an undertaker. You can’t call a lawyer an attorney, you have to call him a lawyer. But somehow, since we control it, and we’re very self-important people, you can call a reporter a journalist."
LeDuff is best known for his contributions to the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series How Race Is Lived in America, and has also received a Meyer Berger Award for distinguished writing about New York City.
From August to November of 2006, LeDuff wrote an eight-part series, American Album, whose topics included "a Latina from the rough side of Dallas" who "works the lobster shift at a Burger King," a Minuteman and an Alaska national guardsman believed to be the first Inuit, or Eskimo, killed because of the Iraq war. LeDuff has covered the war in Iraq, crossed the border with Mexican migrants, and chronicled a Brooklyn fire house in the aftermath of 9/11.
Like New York Times writer Jayson Blair, LeDuff has been accused of plagiarism and manufactured quotations. In an online interview, LeDuff responded to the charges by claiming that he never manufactured quotes, and apologized to the writer whose words he was accused of plagiarizing in person and print, and the apology was met with rejection and ridicule.
LeDuff is the author of two books, US Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man and Work and Other Sins.
The preface of US Guys includes this quote on Leduff's view of the American male:
- The American man has been taught that while it is better to avoid a fight; that honor cannot always be defended with reason. He should never admit fear. He should always strive to put the blade in his adversary’s chest, not his back. An American man should know how to load and fire a gun. He should know how to ride a horse, bet on a horse, bet on the stock market, and bet on the cards. A good man should know a woman’s body and know how to please her. His woman, in turn, should never speak anything but well of him in public. An American man should have been raised in the church, rejected the church and eventually found virtue in the church.
- The American man should be educated. He should work. He should honor his debts and live within his means. He should be able to recite poetry and have bits of true philosophy at his fingertips. He should be able to play an instrument and know how to help a rose grow. An American man should know how to dress and speak his language well. He should be handy and mechanically inclined and yet his nails must be clean. A man should have children, and at some point his children should reject him. And in the course of his life, a man’s children should return and find virtue in him.
- This is what an American man should be. Of course, no such man has ever existed, and no man probably ever will.
LeDuff worked on an experimental project for The Times with the Discovery Channel and produced a show called Only in America, which featured participatory journalism where LeDuff played on a semi-professional football team, raced with thoroughbreds, performed in a gay rodeo, joined the circus, preached in Appalachia, joined the elite world of New York models and played one play on special teams for the af2 football club, the Amarillo Dusters.
On July 14, 2006, LeDuff starred in and narrated a documentary on the British channel, BBC Four, called United Gates of America in which he experienced life with the mostly-white, Christian, and middle-class citizens of a gated community Canyon Lake in Riverside County, California.
On February 6, 2007, LeDuff appeared as a guest on the Comedy Central program The Colbert Report. Host Stephen Colbert joked that that LeDuff's name meant "the Duff" in French. LeDuff is Gaelic (Celtic) for "black", although on the web site of the New York Times, his former employer misspells his name as Leduff, with a lower case d.
On February 13, 2007, LeDuff appeared on the "The Adam Carolla Show", because co-host Teresa Strasser had heard him on NPR and thought he was so charming and interesting - she actually pulled over to listen to the whole show. After a long, thought-provoking segment, Adam asked him to come back semi-regularly. Charlie replied "anytime."