Mark Brown on Mark Brown

“I’ll admit I underestimated him,” Mark Brown wrote about Scott Fawell the other day, recalling his first meeting 15 years ago with George Ryan’s go-to guy, “perhaps because he looked younger than his age, and perhaps because he’s a short guy and tall guys often underestimate short guys.”

A columnist who’ll toss a thought like that out there for what it’s worth has gotten pretty comfortable at the keyboard, even if he says he’s in misery. “There’s probably some truth to that,” Brown says when I tell him he’s reached cruising speed, “but it feels like a struggle. From time to time somebody will say, ‘Ah, you really found your voice. You really hit your stride.’ And mostly it just feels the same. Man, four days a week trying to come up with ideas. It wears a guy down.”

Brown, who’s 48, has been at the Sun-Times 21 years this month. In 2000 the Sun-Times’s new editors, Michael Cooke and John Cruickshank, decided that they needed a face to anchor page two, someone city smart to go up against John Kass. Various names and head shots had shown up on the page over the years, but the last writer who really made the space his own was Mike Royko. He wrote for the Sun-Times from 1978 to 1984, when Rupert Murdoch took over the paper and Royko quit.

Brown considered himself an investigative reporter, but three years ago the Sun-Times had called off its hounds and shipped him to the sports department. “Some people thought I was being wasted back there, but I thought it was a good change-up for me at that point.” A column sounded like an even better change, and Brown told Cooke and Cruickshank he was interested. “It came together pretty quickly,” he says. “I never wrote a sample.”

What are the dangers of column writing? I ask him.

“The dangers are all over,” he replies. “The number one danger is getting it wrong, right? To me, that’s the main thing, getting it factually wrong–or getting on the wrong side of an issue by not looking into it carefully enough. There’s the danger of being boring, the danger of getting too cute. I just see danger, danger, danger. But the thing about it I found out early on was that I can write something stupid and the world doesn’t fall apart. I can come back the next day and make up for it. At first every column was painful–being opinionated and worrying about whether my opinions made any sense. After a while you stop worrying.”

He has some ideas about why columnists go bad. “It occurs to me that if you don’t get out and talk to people, that can screw you up. If you don’t have people around to keep you honest and stimulate your thinking, that can mess you up. If you let the power of it go to your head, you get in trouble that way. If you lose your sense of humor–boy, that’s the thing! You start to get tired, you lose your sense of humor, and you get boring in a real hurry.

“One of my best friends in the business, Chuck Neubauer, left the paper to go to the Los Angeles Times. Here’s a guy, if I screwed up he could tell me without fear of hurting my feelings. And I also could just bounce ideas off him. You lose a guy like that as your friend, then you’ve got less support. I don’t have a wide enough circle. Some of the better columnists had circles of people they could walk around and bounce ideas off of. Royko could bounce from Lois Wille to Jimmy Warren to my wife to Kogan.”

I tell Brown that the danger I would put near the top of the list is readers who love your stuff. A columnist who starts reacting to what fans say they like becomes their creation, not his own.

“I’m not sure that’s hitting a chord with me,” says Brown.

I give him my Royko theory. When Richard M. Daley was elected mayor in ’89, Royko’s faithful wanted a new era of columns like the ones he’d done on the old man. Royko wouldn’t write them. He spent the last years of his life and career alienating loyal readers who wanted him to be who he’d been in the old days. But he stayed his own man.

Brown’s wife, Hanke Gratteau, is the Tribune’s metro editor. She started out as Royko’s legman at the Daily News, and they were friends ever after. I ask Brown how well he knew Royko.

“Not very,” he says. “I occasionally would go to social functions with him, but I had no personal relationship. I think I’ve said in print before that we were once at a dinner party at his home. And he was going around person to person talking about some aspect of them, and he said I reminded him of Abraham Lincoln, as I was tall and socially inept. Both were right on. It was insightful in that regard.”

Is that still true?

“Sure. It wasn’t that long ago.”

Brown believes that if he were more sociable he’d write a better column. “I don’t get columns out of bars because I don’t hang in bars,” he explains. “There are a lot of good columns to be had out of hanging with people, and my source network isn’t what it ought to be, just because–well, for a lot of reasons. I’d have done a lot of things differently when I was younger if I’d known I was going to be a columnist one day. I’d have made at least a few more friends.”

But isn’t the column socially empowering?

“No, because I have no life outside the column anymore. There’s nothing to be socially empowered by it. I’ve seen where if I get out to more social functions, people do seem to be more interested in talking to me. But I’d still have to hold up my end of the conversation, and they’d still figure out I was socially inept.”

He wants to be clear about this. “I’m not totally socially inept,” he says. “Just noticeably.”

There was a time, not long past, when it could be assumed that columnists as prominent as Brown and Kass would fear and despise each other. “When I started this,” Brown says, “I kind of had it in my mind that I had to compete with him. I realized I had to toughen up a little bit because the guy at the other paper was pretty tough and people wanted to see a little of that.”

Brown’s tough, but he tries so hard to be fair it can make him fidgety. Here he is on Fawell’s sentencing, where the state asked for 11 years, the defense 5, and federal sentencing guidelines 70 to 87 months: “Fawell got off easy–which isn’t to say that he necessarily got off too easy….I would have thought that if anybody merited the 87-month maximum under the guidelines, it might have been a guy who ran the secretary of state’s office for George Ryan as if there were no rules other than Don’t Get Caught. But when you start arguing about 78 months vs. 87 months you’re just quibbling. If Fawell doesn’t figure out during those 78 months that he really is a criminal, he won’t figure it out in 87 months. I can’t honestly say that prosecutors proved he deserved the 11 years, either.”

Here’s Kass on the same subject: “When you figure in the special math of federal sentencing, it’s not close to 61/2 years. And it’s not tough. Turns out that it’s more likely it will be 4 easy years for Fawell at a Club Fed. Once Fawell’s lawyers explained the arithmetic to him, he stopped blubbering, forgot about his courtroom remorse, and started sneering like a tough guy.”

Says Brown’s editor, Michael Cooke, “I would say this–and I like John Kass–Kass has more of a serrated edge to his work. Mark Brown cuts more cleanly. Although I must say Kass is terrific.”

But Cooke believes what I believe, which is that over the long haul Brown is easier company. “He handles the top topics–municipal corruption, all that typical Chicago columnist fare–but he’s also able to write amusingly about his dog eating his stereo, and to write about a little girl who dies of leukemia,” says Cooke. “He has a tremendous range. Not everybody can go from the hard, gritty Chicago political stuff to some of the more warm and fuzzy stories. And he can.”

Brown on Kass: “He’s always very nice to me. We’re both about the same age and have twin boys about the same age. We both live in western suburbs. In other ways we’re totally different. He’s a great city guy. I’m really not. He was born and raised in the city. I’m from Washington, Illinois–downstate.”

Kass on Brown: “He’s truly a nice guy. I think what makes Mark a good columnist is that he reports the news, he’s out there with pad and pen, asking questions, and that comes through clearly in his writing. Readers can also see his heart, as in a recent column about the deadly porch collapse in Lincoln Park.”

Journalism is, as Brown understands, “a very difficult business to grow old in,” and now that he’s happened on a position where worldly wisdom outpoints manic energy, he’d like to hold it until he retires. “If it doesn’t kill me,” he adds. “My wife thinks it’s killing me. It takes a toll. I’ve been working six days a week. It’s the Monday column–I end up invariably writing it on Sunday. It takes away a family day every weekend. It certainly ruins it. And I’ve always been a family guy. Ideally, I’d get the column written by Friday when I go home. And I can’t seem to get it done.”

The phone at home rang at 1:30 last Sunday morning. It was the Tribune calling Gratteau. “Usually, when it’s the middle of the night you tell the person what’s going on,” says Brown. “You’re worried.” So Gratteau told her husband a back porch had collapsed and at least 11 people were dead. The rules of the marriage meant Brown couldn’t call his own paper. But right then he knew what his Monday column would be about and that he’d spend Sunday writing it.

Brown’s a lucky man because he has a wife who totally understands his work. He can’t exactly tell her much about it, but he says this is less of a problem than it sounds. “We’re a married couple,” he reasons. “Do any married couples talk? The only time we have to talk is on the way to work in the morning. And it’s ‘Am I going to bring the kids down to the fireworks?’ ‘Are we going to buy kayaks before we go on vacation?’ Things like that. It was a lot worse when she was head of their investigative team and I was an investigative reporter over here, and just by dint of me saying ‘Oh, honey, I’m going to work late tonight’ she knew I was going to try to put something in the paper. And competitive instincts being what they were, she’d try to figure it out. There’s no doubt about it–it’s a real and actual conflict. But she’s very supportive. I mean, more than any person, she understands the pressures and insecurities of the job.”

If he could just get organized, Brown muses, the column would go better. Organization, he thinks, would keep him from the hapless position columnists get themselves into where they have nothing to write today but the column that won’t be ready until tomorrow. Often it wants to be humorous. “It’s late in the day and I’m exhausted,” Brown says, “and I can’t think of as many funny things as I would if I let it percolate.” Sometimes it wants to be deep. For days Brown has wanted to do another column on Iraq. “Right now I feel like I need to write something about how messed up things are over there, but I just keep biding my time, waiting for the right day.”

What’s the holdup?

“Knowing what I want to say,” he says. “That’s what it always is. Knowing what you want to say.”

Before the Fact

When the Sunday, June 29, edition of the Tribune first hit the stands Saturday morning it contained a terrible mistake. But on Sunday afternoon Katharine Hepburn died, making the Sunday Tribunes still for sale accurate after all.

Cultural critic Julia Keller had included Hepburn in her meditation on “historical characters,” now “deceased,” who’d been the subject of one-person plays. She didn’t catch her mistake when Hepburn’s death was announced, but the next day a reader pointed it out. She felt awful. “It’s very oblique,” she told me, describing her premature reference to Hepburn’s demise, “but that’s not to relieve it of its surpassing dumbness. It’s incredibly stupid.”

She did what Tribune reporters are told to do. She turned herself in. She filled out the standard Tribune correction form and gave it to public editor Don Wycliff. In addition to asking what happened and when, the form asks why. “I just said ‘careless haste and lack of attention,'” she says. And it asks the offender how to avoid the same mistake in the future. “By being more of a professional, more painstaking,” she says. “Despite the insights of an Eric Zorn or the political wisdom of a Steve Chapman, at bottom what we are is disseminators of facts. When we say someone is dead, they’re dead, and when we say someone’s alive, they’re alive.”

It was up to Wycliff to publicly correct something that was no longer wrong. His note to readers last Friday was understandably convoluted: it faulted Keller’s story for “erroneously implying that she was already dead at the time the story was published.” Actually Keller hadn’t implied that Hepburn was dead; she’d said so. Wycliff also noted that the article had misspelled Hepburn’s first name.

A misspelled name all by itself is enough to mortify a more calloused writer than Keller. She wasn’t comforted by the colleagues who asked for lottery tips, nor the one who said, “If you’re going to kill somebody off, couldn’t you pick someone we don’t like?”

News Bite

8 A RedEye salesman who’d set his stack of papers on the curb hailed me outside a north-side el station and asked for a handout. “I’m trying to raise $5 so I can get something to eat,” he said.

I fished out 50 cents, but when I turned it over I decided that I might as well get something out of this. “Don’t you sell RedEye?” I reminded him.

“Great paper,” he said, reaching down and handing me one.

I climbed the el steps wondering if I’d just boosted the day’s circulation figure by one paper or two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.