Mark Brown Shocks the Faithful

Mark Brown violated the code of his trade the other day. He questioned himself. He published a column that entertained the possibility that he might have been wrong. He was thinking about the war in Iraq, the war thought of by many of his readers as sold to the American people by mendacious zealots and waged by arrogant incompetents. What if–he mused–that war is nonetheless worth fighting?

It’s a thought that must occur to even the war’s most ardent critics from time to time, but it’s easily repressed. After all, hasn’t the war been pronounced an unmitigated blunder by pundits of the stature of Mark Brown? That’s what pundits are for. They don’t argue with each other, and they don’t argue with themselves. Each is an unblinking star who assures us of where we stand.

And here was Brown, having second thoughts. “After watching Sunday’s election in Iraq and seeing the first clear sign that freedom really may mean something to the Iraqi people,” he wrote in the Sun-Times on February 1, “you have to be asking yourself: What if it turns out Bush was right, and we were wrong? It’s hard to swallow, isn’t it?”

A young liberal journalist told me he could admire Brown’s intellectual honesty in the abstract but believed the price was too high to pay. Brown had given aid and comfort to the enemy. Brown himself wrote a day later, “The reaction certainly has made for a most unusual day, the strangest part coming when I hear from family and friends that Rush Limbaugh was quoting from the column and remarking favorably about it . . .

“As you might guess, Limbaugh is not one of my heroes, and it pains me to give him succor. I lean more toward Molly Ivins, who no doubt would have taken my Tuesday column and carved it to shreds while keeping a sense of humor about it, had she taken any notice at all.”

The wonderful thing about old pros like Limbaugh and Ivins is that their fans can completely count on them. Brown’s faithful fans must be wondering if they can count on him any longer.

Brown read me the e-mail sent by one troubled reader. “Having once or even twice pledged to you my eternal gratitude and devotion for your consistent and articulate opposition to our war on Iraq,” it began, “I am a bit constrained in my response to your recent columns. Still, I have to express my disagreement and dismay.” Her letter went on to remind Brown that “the war was wrong from the start.”

Brown told me, “Most of the ones I’ve found from loyal readers have taken that tone.”

As a media critic, I attempt from time to time to slash holes in the arguments pundits make in their columns and editorials. It’s what my readers expect of me. But a while back one of those pundits, Brown’s Sun-Times colleague Neil Steinberg, got a little tired of this treatment and reminded me tartly that columns and editorials aren’t, strictly speaking, arguments at all. They’re pronouncements. “I don’t believe in persuading people. It isn’t possible,” he wrote me. “Their minds aren’t open enough, and they have too much pride to admit they’re wrong. The best you can do is comfort those who agree, and irk those who don’t.”

I don’t recall a single letter or phone call that said, “When I read what you wrote I changed my mind.” But few columnists wish to admit that their assignment is to preach to the choir. They prefer to think they’re paid to make sparks fly, swinging public sentiment with each vivid sentence. In this delusional state, a columnist can construe his faithful readers as his worst enemies.

Readers who pledge their “eternal gratitude and devotion” are acquired slowly, and it’s bliss to have them. But they’re not readers a columnist has succeeded in persuading; they’re readers he didn’t need to persuade. They’re the beaming faces turned toward his pulpit.

Few columnists want to run the risk of losing that affection. But at some point they’re apt to wonder if it’s reduced them to a one-trick pony.

Mike Royko angered a lot of readers during his last decade as a columnist, and I’ve always supposed it was because he refused to truckle to his fans. When Richard M. Daley became mayor in 1989 the easiest thing in the world for Royko would have been to turn back the clock and start writing Boss II columns. That’s what thousands of nostalgic readers were hoping for. But Royko didn’t do it, even though Brown and John Kass have since shown that the columns were there to be written.

“His reaction to the second Daley was completely based upon the second Daley,” says Royko’s son David. “He didn’t have a knee-jerk judgment of somebody based on who their father was.”

Mike Royko refused to be commodified. David recalls his father commenting on how everybody thought they knew what he was going to say about something before he said it and on how nothing got people madder at him than when he said something else. “Many times in the last seven or eight years since he died,” David goes on, “people have said, ‘Oh, God, your father would have had a field day with this!’ I think the first time was Monica Lewinsky. ‘Oh, he would have had a field day with that.’ The most recent one was the big, goofy Blagojevich-Mell thing. ‘He would love this. He would say this.’ But what I find interesting is that often no two opinions of what my father would say will be the same. Sometimes I think I have a feeling of how he’d view something, but I wouldn’t be able to predict what he’d say.”

David remembers that a lot of people assumed his father was Jewish, because of his sense of humor and perspective on life. “But near the end he wrote a column defending a guy charged with a hate crime for leaving a vile, anti-Semitic message on somebody’s answering machine.” Royko had no use for this guy, but he thought the law was piling on. “I remember my father saying that ‘everyone thought I was Jewish before, and now everyone thinks I’m an anti-Semite.’ I remember it bothering him. It genuinely did. People had the impression he had a very thick skin and nothing bothered him. That wasn’t true.”

Does Mark Brown want this kind of pain? The time-honored way for a columnist to handle a sudden dose of inconvenient reality–and reports of ecstatic Iraqis lining up at the polls is a prime example–is to ignore it. Write about something else that day, and the day after. Your faithful readers want you to reassure them that it doesn’t matter.

The Surprise Ending Is Neither Surprising nor the Ending

The brush fire over Million Dollar Baby has flared into a big blaze. Last Sunday I spotted Roger Ebert writing about it again in the Sun-Times while Julia Keller had her say in the Tribune and Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. By now Ebert has sold me on one important point: the powerful movie he saw on the screen is the one Clint Eastwood intended to put there. For a couple of reasons, neither having to do with its take on euthanasia, the movie didn’t work as well for me. The star power of Eastwood and Hilary Swank distorted what Eastwood wanted to say, and I couldn’t settle into the story because I was waiting for the plot twist the critics couldn’t talk about but had made too clear was coming.

If Million Dollar Baby is as good as its champions say, it’ll survive being seen twice. The next time I go I’ll know what’s ahead, but I’ll be chewing on the analyses of naysayers like Not Dead Yet and advocates like Ebert and the perceptive commentators Ebert rounded up in his Showcase column. Not that as a guy in a $9 seat I’d have wanted it any other way, but the critics’ conspiracy of silence did the movie no favor. They stamped it as gimmicky, leading a writer as sharp as Keller off on a tangent about why people love to be surprised. She salted her essay with phrases like “surprise ending,” “sudden twist,” “big secret,” “the ‘Boo!’ maneuver,” and “completely bamboozled.”

But Million Dollar Baby isn’t that kind of movie at all. There’s no sleight of hand, no secret deftly hidden from the audience, as in The Sixth Sense. Something happens that shifts the movie’s tone, but it’s true to the logic of boxing, it doesn’t manipulate reality, and when it comes the movie’s far from over. If the last third of the movie works for you it’s because you care what the lead characters–the same flawed people they were when the movie began–do now. The reason to go twice is to think harder about those characters, not to see if the movie, like The Sixth Sense, played fair with the audience.

But critics tap-danced around Million Dollar Baby as if it were just another movie with a secret that needed keeping. Keller quotes Chicago playwright Douglas Post, “I think people love to be fooled. It’s the same thing as watching a good magician at work. If we know the ending it somehow lessens the experience.”

Fooled? Million Dollar Baby doesn’t fool anybody. But certain that it does, Keller assures us that even when a movie doesn’t work because we’re all just waiting for the big surprise, that’s OK. “The final, stomach-flipping dip could be worth whatever you miss along the way while waiting for the payoff.”

And she quotes Post again: “Think of the roller coaster. It’s no accident that they save the biggest drop for the end.”

Million Dollar Baby isn’t a roller coaster. And by the way, thanks to gravity, a roller coaster’s biggest drop is at the beginning.

News Bite

Because every big game is lost as well as won, athletes come in for a lot more eternal shame than the rest of us. The Tribune ran a Super Bowl sidebar last Sunday, “Super goofs and gaffes,” that claimed to identify the Super Bowl’s all-time goats. Fourth on reporter David Haugh’s list was “Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson getting stopped at the 1-yard line by Rams linebacker Mike Jones as time expired” in 2000. The Rams won the game by a touchdown.

Haugh asserted, “When a player has the ball three feet from the end zone, with a full head of steam and the Super Bowl hanging in the balance, he must find a way to score. Jump. Spin. Cartwheel. Anything. At that point, only size of the heart matters, and Jones had more than Dyson.”

What Jones actually had was a bead on Dyson’s midsection. Dyson caught a pass on the run just inside the five-yard line, and Jones clobbered him. The only part of Dyson that got three feet from the end zone was his right arm stretching the ball toward it. The rest of him was back around the two-yard line, lying on the turf.

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