By Jeff Nuich
CSN Chicago Senior Director of Communications
December 16, 2009
Want to know more about your favorite Chicago media celebrities? CSNChicago.com has your fix as we put the citys most popular personalities on the spot with a new weekly feature entitled 5 Questions with...
Every Wednesday exclusively on CSNChicago.com, its our turn to grill the local media and other local VIPs with five random sports and non-sports related questions that will definitely be of interest to old and new fans alike.
This weeka man who has tackled everything from political and corporate corruption to personal stories of hopehes a local news columnist extraordinaire whos pulse on the heartbeat of our fine city is second to noneyou can read his acclaimed column four times a week in the Chicago Sun-Timeshere are 5 Questions withMARK BROWN!
BIO: Mark Brown is a local news columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times who writes about everything from political corruption to family life. Roger Ebert once called him the best local columnist since Mike Royko, and Chicago Magazine recognized Brown in its Best of Chicago. That was a few years ago now, which is why Brown says he subscribes to the Satchel Paige philosophy: Dont look back, something might be gaining on you.
Regular readers of Browns column know hes got a soft spot for the citys homeless people, Johnnies Beef in Elmwood Park and pepper-and-egg sandwiches from anybody that makes a good one. They also know that, while they may disagree with his liberal views, he comes by them honestly. He is in particular an advocate of common sense, especially in government, where it is so often in short supply. On occasion, Brown even writes columns in which he talks to his dog, Gilbert, a Spaniel of uncertain parentage. That wouldnt be so unusual except that Gilbert talks back. Some readers swear Gilbert makes more sense than Brown. Brown refuses comment.
Brown grew up in central Illinois, graduated from Northern Illinois University in 1977 and then attended the Public Affairs Reporting program at University of Illinois-Springfield, then known as Sangamon State, where he was a Sun-Times intern. Brown worked four years at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, IA, before joining the Sun-Times full-time in 1982.
At the Sun-Times, Brown worked mainly as a general assignment reporter specializing politics and government, which led him into investigative reporting. In September 2000, Brown began writing his column, which currently appears Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday. One of his strengths is that he has experience covering not only Chicago City Hall, but also Cook County government and the Illinois Statehouse.
Brown, a third-string high school basketball player, grew up obsessed with St. Louis Cardinals baseball, Chicago Bears football and Bradley basketball. Only Bradley has moved down on his radar, replaced by the Bulls.
Most Sunday mornings in the spring and fall, Brown can be found playing soccer in an adult recreation league in Oak Park. He took up the sport four years ago when one of his sons quit playing. At age 54, Brown admits he is too old to be learning a new sport and trying to keep up with guys 20 and 30 years younger, but he says its a lot of fun trying.
Brown is married to Hanke Gratteau, a former Chicago Tribune managing editor now working in the not-for-profit world. Their twin boys, Harry and Spencer, are seniors at Oak Park-River Forest High School.
1) CSNChicago.com: Mark, as you well know, Chicago holds the great distinction of not only being one of the worlds great cities, but its very likely the greatest sports city globally as well. In your opinion, what differentiates Chicago sports fans and the passion that we possess for our teams that separates us from the rest of the pack?
Brown: What differentiates Chicago sports fans from the others, unfortunately, is that the fans here have the greatest record for remaining loyal despite the futility of our teams. Obviously, the Cubs inability to bring home a championship surpasses all others. But with the exception of the Bulls, we havent had a truly dominant organization over an extended period of time--and even with the Bulls, everything has been a struggle before and after Michael Jordan. The Bears have won two just championships in my lifetime and the White Sox one, and, memorable as they were, thats a long time between drinks. For fans to stay loyal under those circumstances, they have to develop a real passion for the sport.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, regular readers of my column know Im first and foremost a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan reared in central Illinois--where loyalties are split between Chicago and St. Louis. Even mine are split. I would list my rooting allegiances in order: Cardinals baseball, Bears, Bulls, White Sox, Blackhawks, NIU football, Illinois basketball and then throw a net over DePaul and Bradley basketball and Illinois and Northwestern football.
2) CSNChicago.com: Lets shift to city politics for this one. If you had to give Mayor Daley a year-end performance review for 2009, what grade would you give him and, a quick follow-up question, do you think he has enough gas left in the tank to run for a seventh term in 2011?
Brown: I dont like giving grades. Im not the teacher. But if youre going to force my hand, Id have to give Mayor Daley a D- for 2009. It was a disastrous year all the way around for the mayor. You start with the parking meter debacle. The city was in such a hurry to get its hands on the revenue from leasing out the parking meters that it jacked up the rates without thinking through the consequences and before theyd installed the new pay boxes. It became sort of a last straw for people who have been kicked around by the economy and other tax increases. Then there was the Olympic debacle. Even if youre like me and dont fault him for going after the Olympics, the failure to win the bid was undeniably a major embarrassment for the mayor. Then you top it off with a city budget that blows nearly all the money from the parking meter lease in one year to avoid facing the full effect of the citys long-term financial problems, and youve got the worst year of Daleys political career. Why not an F? Because hes hanging in there.
Does Daley have enough gas in the tank to keep going? I believe he does. I know there was a lot of speculation after we lost the Olympics that hed hang it up at the end of this term. That sort of talk just makes him more determined. While I no longer operate under the assumption that he is mayor for life, I still believe the job is his until somebody comes along who can take it away from him, and Im not sure Ive met that person yet--at least none who would be willing to risk everything by challenging him. The problem isnt so much the gas left in Daleys tank but the gas left in the citys tank. The needle is in the red zone. City finances are hurting every which way, and unless the economy turns around dramatically, there is no easy solution. What the mayor loves most is making things happen--moving the city ahead, as he puts it--but that takes resources. During most of his tenure, the mayor was riding the crest of a hot economy. Its no fun to be in his place when youre just trying to keep the city out of hock. We also cant overlook the wild card in the Mayors decision: the health of his wife, Maggie. As she continues her battle with cancer, you dont know how he might be affected.
3) CSNChicago.com: In addition to it being a loss for Mayor Daley, losing the 2016 Summer Olympics bid definitely was an ego crush to all of us. We never really had a shot to land them, did we?
Brown: Looking back on it, we apparently deluded ourselves into believing we were a strong candidate for the Olympics when the clear favorite must have been Brazil all along. I always thought the argument to give South America its first Olympics was the single strongest reason any candidate city was advancing, but I got swallowed up in the hubris of thinking the IOC would want to bring the Summer Games back to the U.S., if only to get its hands on our money. You would have thought with all the money the Chicago 2016 committee was spending that they would have bought the right consultants and advisers to warn them what was coming. Given the personalities involved in Chicago, its certainly possible they did get that advice and forged ahead anyway. Mayor Daley is hard to budge once hes made up his mind.
While I believed all along that the Olympics would have been good for Chicago, Im kind of glad to have it behind us. The debate was getting nastier and nastier. This way we can all just assume we were right--and watch the Olympics on television.
4) CSNChicago.com: From a pure news journalism standpoint, does it concern you that the media world thrives and focuses on sensationalistic stories such as the latest Tiger Woods sex scandal or do you think the media industry just looks at these types of stories as an opportunity to gain additional readers, viewers, listeners, etc.?
Brown: From a journalistic standpoint, sure, I hate these stories. But I also realize this is part of the information the public wants--or should I say the information a part of the public wants. In todays communications world, the gatekeeper function that the newspapers used to exercise--determining what news is fit to print--has been eroded beyond recognition because theres always somebody out there on-line who will put the story in play first. To remain competitive, everybody feels like they have to jump in the mud with the rest. I have to admit Im interested myself, not in the details of whether he slept with this woman or that one, but in what its going to do to him. The whole Tiger business breaks my heart because he is far and away the most fascinating athlete competing in a post-Michael Jordan world--not just in terms of his physical ability, but because of his incredible psychological edge and will to win.
Now hes been taken off the stage indefinitely, and we all lose when that happens. Theres nothing in sports more entertaining to me than watching Tiger in the hunt for a major championship on Sunday. But I think we have to remember that Tiger isnt in this situation because hes the best golfer in the world. He gets this attention because he used his golfing success to market his persona to the world to help companies sell their products. And now the world sees yet again that the persona is partly false, that the heros feet are made of clay, and those advertisers know they cant put him out there right now.
5) CSNChicago.com: Your award-winning columns have been a must read for years and no doubt spark water coolers debates from Joliet to Waukegan to around the world via the internet. Generally, how long does it take you to write a typical page 6 column and do you have a process on deciding what topics the masses will most enjoy reading?
Brown: Almost everything I do is done in day, start to finish. Thats not ideal, but its the reality of producing four columns a week by myself. There is no trusty assistant working behind the scenes, just me. The hardest part of my job is picking what Im going to write about. By comparison, the actual writing is easy. I have total freedom to write what I want, which puts the responsibility squarely on me to keep it interesting. Ill spend much of the day agonizing over possible topics, and then hopefully choose one in time to complete the reporting.
Im usually in the office by 9:30 a.m. and dont start writing until 5 p.m. Typically it takes me about three hours to actually write the column, and Ill finish by 8. When Im in a groove, I have ideas lined up in advance. Like a streaky baseball hitter, I often lose that groove. I would prefer to write off the news of the day or do anything that gets my butt out of the office and into the real world. But that doesnt always work. In trying to pick a subject, my first test in deciding whether it would interest somebody else is whether it interests me. I have to decide if Ive got something to say on that subject, or can offer some special insight, information or perspective that I dont think youd get anywhere else. Sometimes, Im just looking for a subject to entertain or amuse, anything to keep the reader coming back for more.
BONUS QUESTIONCSNChicago.com: Anything you want to promote or share with CSNChicago.com readers? Please share it with us
Brown: Over the years Ive written a lot of columns about the Southwest Chicago PADS homeless shelter, which operates in the area around Marquette Park. I know theyre really struggling in this economy, and Id like to put in a good word for them. All the not-for-profits are hurting right now, but I always believe I ought to speak up for the folks at the very bottom of the totem pole, where a few dollars really can make the difference in a persons survival.
SW Chicago PADS is what they call a warming shelter. There are no beds, but every night during the winter they provide free meals, a shower and a change of clothes to those in need. They also have staff on hand during the day dedicated to helping solve the sorts of problems that can lead to homelessness. If youre looking for a worthwhile place to direct a holiday donation, you cant go wrong with these folks. Heres their contact info: Southwest Chicago PADS, 3121 W 71st Street, Chicago, IL 60629. Telephone: 773-737-7070. Website: www.swchicagopads.org.
Chicago Sun-TimesMark Brown page
E-mail Mark Brown