Debra Pickett resigned from the Sun-Times Monday afternoon, minutes after being asked to do a story she thought was preposterous.

“I laughed,” says Pickett, recalling her response when features editor Christine Ledbetter called with the assignment to breast-feed her infant son in public places and write about it. “I have to say I didn’t take it terribly seriously.” She’d seen other Sun-Times stories begin with an “outrageous premise” then get negotiated into something not beneath the dignity of adults. Some other day, she and Ledbetter might have begun negotiating. But not this time. Pickett, who was due to return from maternity leave February 26, tells me, “I said, ‘Well, there’s probably a conversation I need to have with Don Hayner before I can talk to you further about this assignment.’” Hayner’s the managing editor. Pickett had been trying to reach him all day. “I felt the ground had shifted a little bit under my feet while I was gone,” she says, and she wanted Hayner to tell her where she stood. Her resignation was already a possibility, perhaps even a likelihood. The breast-feeding assignment shifted the ground a little more. She called her husband, an Amtrak executive who was on a train between Washington and Philadelphia, and they talked. Then she reached Hayner. She didn’t ask where she stood. She quit.

The idea for the breast-feeding story came from editor-in-chief Michael Cooke, who says it was simply an idea — a paper could no more assign such a story than it could assign a reporter to pose nude for an art class. And just as it wasn’t the story, per se, that drove her off, Pickett insists, it also wasn’t a desire “to stay home and be a full-time mom to my baby.” It was simply this: “When it’s time to grow up and move on it’s time to grow up and move on.” In journalism, she observes, “people’s stars rise and fall.” Hers had gone up — she “trembles on the cusp of stardom,” I wrote in 2002, when she’d been at the Sun-Times two years, her profiles of interesting people she met for lunch were making the Sunday paper worth reading, and her column had begun appearing Friday’s on page two. And then it started to head down. While Pickett was on leave the column, which she continued to write once a week, was moved back to the Lifestyles pages. “It’s not where I wanted to be professionally,” she says.

“She was a young, single Chicagoan,” says Ledbetter. “That was the mantra for the column. She morphed into what she morphed into. If she chose to write about her boyfriend and her baby, those are Lifestyles topics.” 

Pickett doesn’t disagree. “As a columnist you get locked into a persona,” she says. “There were a lot of serious things I was interested in that I wanted to write about which weren’t in line with the mission of the paper and my role at the paper. I’ve developed a strong interest in Africa and the AIDS crisis there. The dilemma was that for every column about that there were three columns about the boyfriend. That’s what people expected.”

She says the paper encouraged her boyfriend columns, which led to husband columns and baby columns — three of her last four columns mentioned her son (whom, by the way, she does nurse in public places). “That’s what my unique signature was,” she says. “That’s what people came to expect and associate me with. That was fine, a lot of fun, but it’s not necessarily who you want to be your entire adult life.” By the measure of what it covers and with whom, the Sun-Times is a small paper. There’s not much opportunity for personal reinvention. “The Sun-Times has a great staff writing about politics,” Pickett remarks, perhaps wistfully; an assignment to go forth and breast-feed is a pretty blunt way of being told your services won’t be required for that coverage. She says she wants to finish a novel she’s working on and supposes she’ll freelance. “I’ll certainly make some calls and have some lunches and conversations. This is very much a happy thing for me.”

“Sometimes she drew laughter. Sometimes she drew blood,” says Cooke, recalling the lunching stories. “An editor can’t ask for more than that.”

UPDATE: Eric Zorn does a good job of thinking about Debra Pickett on his Tribune blog. Link here.

UPDATE: Wow! Blogger Tom Roeser has more to say about Pickett than you’d think any one person could, no matter how keen a cultural observer. “Bravo Pickett,” he writes. “For the first time I find her interesting, not as a narcissistic marketing sell but for herself.” Link here.