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In the Line of Fire/Rehabbing the "L" Word

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By Michael Miner

In the Line of Fire

Flat on the bank floor, his face pressed into the carpet, Shane DuBow behaved like a writer. As one part of him followed orders--as would anyone with a gun to his head--another part clicked into the gear that one day would tell the tale.

"The whole experience was kind of in two consciousnesses, even more so than normal," says DuBow. "If a writer goes through life one part living it and one part watching it, here the part that was watching couldn't believe this was life. It was more like a movie."

A man had come into the bank and shouted, "Everybody down--don't make me a killer." Boy, is that a line of dialogue, DuBow thought. Then he saw the gun.

"Everybody Down!" in last January's GQ went way beyond those minutes of terror and indignity on August 4, 1997, inside the North Community Bank branch at Damen and Milwaukee. DuBow had set out to master the experience. His first moves were the response of an intelligent man trying to raise himself above victimhood and, equally, of a reporter after a story.

"The most obvious story to me," he says, "was that I would try to follow around the investigators and write about catching criminals." DuBow told the detective in charge he wanted to talk to him. "He said, 'Did you see anything?' I said, 'No, I was face to the ground.' He said something to the effect of, 'Fuck you, you can't help me. Why should I help you?'

"My next idea was that if I don't have access to my particular case, maybe I should talk to bank robbers with similar MOs." He located the biggest, baddest name in the business and interviewed him at a prison in Pennsylvania. He got great quotes. Then, to his astonishment, the guys who'd hit his bank were brought in. He asked to meet them.

One suspect had no interest in DuBow, another wanted money. But Clarence Anderson, aka "Big C," who was "flipping"--turning state's evidence--and pleading guilty, was happy to shoot the breeze. As the months rolled by they talked for hours, embedding themselves in each other's life to the point that when Big C decided to marry in jail DuBow was his choice for best man. One of the things Big C had told DuBow about his fiancee was that twice he'd decided to murder her. "I tried to think through what this could mean," DuBow wrote. Should he bite his tongue when the chaplain asked if anyone here knew of reason to oppose the union?

Smart journalists know when to say good-bye to their stories. DuBow said good-bye here, in a state of perplexity that he never resolved in print. He'd found the perfect absurdity with which to lower the curtain on life with Clarence Anderson.

But there's a second act. Last month DuBow grudgingly sat down to be deposed by the lawyers for the two other guys, Johnelle Elem and Odell Jennings. They're the ones who went to trial for the robbery, were convicted in May 1998, and now are looking at life. Just as grudgingly, DuBow turned over 20 pages of notes on his conversations with Anderson. The lawyers are fishing, but Judge Paul Plunkett told them to go fish.

"The judge wanted to find out whether the flipping witness was manipulated directly or indirectly by virtue of the contacts [with DuBow]," says John Moran, Jennings's court-appointed lawyer. "The standard usually is the appearance of impropriety of some kind. Where do you pinpoint impropriety? It's a very strange situation."

Moran can't begin to say what effect all those conversations with DuBow had on Anderson. DuBow wasn't just a reporter writing an article (which Anderson knew from the beginning); he was also a witness to and victim of the crime (which DuBow didn't reveal until the end of their talks). There had to be some effect. Moran notes that by DuBow's own account, Anderson's "brooding remorse" vanished as time passed and the plea bargain went through; he became both "friendlier" and "scarier."

Moran says the prosecution's position is that "Anderson always had a deal with us from the beginning," so the plea bargain had nothing to do with DuBow. "But some things don't make sense," Moran says. In the article Big C says to DuBow at their first meeting, "So you sure you not an agent?" If the deal was already cut, Moran asks, why would Big C care?

DuBow's lawyers from Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal--GQ hired them--asked Plunkett to quash the subpoena for DuBow's notes and testimony. They argued that DuBow was shielded by both the First Amendment and the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act. Jennings's and Elem's attorneys filed a response explaining that they had two important questions to ask. First was whether Anderson told DuBow anything before the trial that their clients deserved to know. Second was whether "DuBow shaped...Anderson's testimony in any way, either at Anderson's instance to make Anderson look better or at DuBow's instance to create a better story."

In a world more sympathetic to journalists, the team from Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal could have told the court, "His article speaks for itself and the notes are his business," and that would have been that. But Plunkett, a senior federal judge, observed that in 1972 the Supreme Court had ruled that even the information reporters acquire in confidence deserves only limited protection in a criminal case. Clearly, this info was nonconfidential. "Anderson not only agreed to be interviewed on the record," the judge noted, "but he actually desired some small amount of fame." It deserved no protection at all.

Jennings and Elem listened in from jail by speakerphone as DuBow was deposed. From the transcript:

Moran: "And that comment you quote Big C about, that's--'Odell better watch his mouth before he find hisself curled up and stinking,' should that be read as a threat?"

DuBow: "It should just be read as, you know, what he said."

Moran moved on to an apparent contradiction between the article and Big C's trial testimony, in which he'd painted himself as merely a foot soldier.

Moran: "You wrote, 'Meanwhile the jug [bank] jobs became routine. Most times the night before, he'd rent the heist movie Heat just to get pumped. The next morning, especially if the weather was evil enough to justify coats and hats, he'd wipe prints off his bullets and load the guns. Then he'd check out of his hotel, round up a crew--Jennings and Elem for robberies two and three, Elem and Bubba for number four, Clarence Lee and Bubba for number five--and go hunt for banks without armed guards.'

"And I'm saying," Moran went on, "that I read that as indicating that at least after the first robbery that Mr. Anderson was basically running the show."

DuBow: "That's not how I read it."

"The weirdest thing," DuBow tells me, "is how lawyers switch on and off, depending on whether you're on break time or on the record. They switch from being chummy to being dubious. It's like they're trying to put together a narrative that sort of hangs together in a very strange way. No matter how ludicrous it may be--it doesn't even have to be plausible."

"I thought Shane was well coached and not terrifically forthcoming," Moran tells me. "I don't care for that. I'm not suing Shane DuBow. I'm trying to represent a guy who's facing natural life in prison."

If journalists can't protect their notes, DuBow fears, they'll just throw them away. Posterity will suffer, and justice won't gain a thing. He thinks he smacked up against a prejudice against journalists--which is that they know from the start where their story will go and how to manipulate characters like Big C to get it there. The fact is, he says, "I would have been perfectly content to write a story about a heroic cop who gets on the trail of these bad guys and catches them. But the police department rebuffed me, and so did the FBI. The only person who would talk to me is the bank robber, so his story becomes the news. It seems a strange way for news to be created."

DuBow wound up with a story vastly more commercial than his earlier ideas, and he's not sorry he did. GQ had signed him to deliver 3,000 words about the bank-robbery experience; it tore up his contract and ran close to 8,000 about getting to know the guy who'd threatened to blow his brains out.

"There's a bigger idea I've been kicking around," DuBow says. "I feel like there's something about the way a lot of stories get written these days by freelancers. When you're a freelancer you kind of have to trade on the experiences of your life to have a career, because those are the stories you have access to no one else does. So you find yourself buffeted by whatever happens to you, and that becomes your professional life. And not only does it feel kind of random--what crosses your path and what stories you work on--but as a freelancer working at home you're more exposed to happenstance than the person who spends most of the day in the office."

The latest happenstance was the unpleasant deposition. "It's interesting how they pick and choose what pieces of the article they want to use," he says.

When I tell DeBow I know Moran, he asks what he's like. A good guy, I reply, but he's a lawyer with a client. And you're a journalist.

"If you're a victim and also a reporter you forfeit all the stuff victims get," DuBow reflects. "Be it people's distaste for media or something else, if it's a crime against a reporter everything goes out the window."

Rehabbing the "L" Word

"Our center of gravity is left-liberal," said Robert Kuttner, a founding editor of the magazine the American Prospect. "The left edge of the possible."

We spoke Monday, during Kuttner's visit to Chicago to stir up excitement for this week's relaunching of the Prospect as a biweekly. A quarterly when Kuttner and Robert Reich and Paul Starr created it ten years ago, the Prospect eventually went to six times a year. "The magazine has been a little bit too wonky," Kuttner explained. More issues will mean fewer "heavy-duty policy articles" in each one and more columns and culture. "By making the Prospect a little more accessible and fun to read," he said, "we can reach a much bigger audience just a shade beyond our reach in the old format." The goal is to climb from the original 2,700 subscribers to 100,000 readers in five years.

A couple of hours before our conversation, a new book showed up in the office called Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America. I opened it at random to a section called "We're Not Lefties."

"The Left has been letting us down. It has become tired, self-satisfied and dogmatic," said the author, Kalle Lasn. "Today the fire in its belly has gone out. It isn't getting the job done."

This is pretty conventional wisdom. I read it to Kuttner and asked if he hears it all the time.

"We're not the Nation," he said. "We don't think of ourselves as lefties. We think of ourselves as mainstream liberals. FDR liberals or Wellstone liberals, if you would. The Left with a capital L gets so involved in these political battles as to who's more correct. That's not who we are."

But the problem is that useful distinctions between lefty and liberal, not to mention PC crackpot fringe and liberal, have been pretty much eradicated. "There are people like Paul Wellstone, Ted Kennedy, Warren Beatty who use 'liberal' proudly," Kuttner said. "I'd be surprised if Gore or Bradley used 'liberal' proudly"--even though an article in the new issue explains "Why Both Bradley and Gore Are Going Left."

Kuttner went on, "Part of the purpose of the magazine is to rehabilitate the word. Like William Buckley rehabilitated 'conservative.'" He explained that the idea ten years ago was to publish a little quarterly for opinion makers. "Our horizons are much broader now. There's such a gap in the press now, there's no flagship liberal magazine. We think we can fill that niche. I think ideas have political influence, and the fact that liberal magazines are moving right and there are so many conservative magazines is some kind of political statement.

"The fact that a respectable magazine is saying [liberal] things emboldens politicians. The absence of it also does damage. When someone says, 'Gee, maybe we shouldn't privatize Social Security' and looks around for validation and affirmation and does not find it, that does damage. Liberals are out of fashion. There are all kinds of signals that grown-up liberals should become conservatives. Anything that reinforces what they believe is like a lifeline."

A syndicated columnist, Kuttner used to be economics editor of the New Republic. Paul Starr is a professor of sociology at Princeton. Robert Reich was President Clinton's first secretary of labor. When "liberal" ceases to be a mindless pejorative, their magazine probably will have a lot to do with it.

I told Kuttner that for a time I kept a file of the whining appeals I got from self-pitying liberal journals, each begging me to join their gallant little band of readers in the hopeless fight against yahoo hordes.

We don't do that, he promised. "The sackcloth and ashes and, even worse, the 'we lucky marooned few' is just political death. And probably journalistic death too."

News Bite

Deep in the Sunday Tribune's heart of darkness--the vast interior reaches--a gallant argument appeared last weekend from real estate columnist Steve Kerch. His target was the line championed by his own paper's editorial page and page-three columnist that the city had shamelessly favored one of Richie Daley's buddies, throwing him a prime development deal in Lincoln Park and forsaking millions of additional dollars pledged by a losing bidder. The buddy is Michael Marchese, whom the Tribune seemed to enjoy identifying as the mayor's "frequent dinner companion."

The city's big developers--including losing bidder William Smith--all win some and lose some, Kerch wrote. He noted that Smith's bid didn't happen to meet all the conditions set down by the CTA for developing its old bus lot on Clark Street south of Diversey, so maybe it lost for reasons other than whom Smith didn't break bread with the night before.

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

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