Main Streets

How a Chicago reporter left his desk to crack a criminal code

Veteran Chicago Sun-Times crime reporter Frank Main 86C was sitting in a McDonald’s in Chicago’s gritty Uptown neighborhood interviewing Willie Brown, an ex-con and former member of the infamous Vice Lords street gang. Brown had recently been shot in the leg during an altercation, and Main was investigating the incident for a series of news stories on Chicago crime.

Then, as Brown casually popped chicken McNuggets into his mouth, Main’s routine assignment took a decidedly unexpected turn: the man who had shot Brown ambled into Mickey D’s. When Brown saw his assailant, he exclaimed to Main, “There he is. That’s him right there!”

The scene became even stranger when what could have been a violent reunion morphed into a poignant moment, as Brown and the shooter hugged and told each other, “We cool.”

So if Brown knew who shot him, and that man was conspicuously out walking the streets of Chicago, why wasn’t he in jail?

Because in Chicago, “snitches get stitches.”

Main’s reporting on the Willie Brown shooting was part of his 2011 Pulitzer Prize―winning Sun-Times series focusing on Chicago’s “no snitch” code. It’s a complicated set of social rules condoned and followed by many who live in the city’s most crime-ridden areas, and it’s a practice that keeps killers and gunmen on the street. In short, many Chicagoans who could identify people who have committed violent crimes won’t cooperate with the police because they don’t trust the authorities, they fear retribution, or they want to take care of the situation themselves.

“The certainty of punishment is very, very low in Chicago, and that’s going to embolden people,” a defense attorney told Main during his reporting. “It’s going to lead to less fear by the people who are going to consider shooting. That’s very alarming.”

Using a Freedom of Information Act request, Main discovered during his investigations that when you crunch the numbers, in 2009, “fewer than one in ten nonfatal shootings resulted in charges.” To put that even more starkly, if you decided to shoot someone in Chicago that year, you essentially had a 90 percent chance of getting away with it. As the city’s chief of detectives explained to Main, police “are starving for people to come forward.”

Main, who earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Emory in 1986, won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for his exposure of the no-snitch code, working with fellow Sun-Times reporter Mark Konkol and photographer John J. Kim. The prize committee honored the group “for their immersive documentation of violence in Chicago neighborhoods, probing the lives of victims, criminals, and detectives as a widespread code of silence impedes solutions.”

Despite the potentially risky McDonald’s reunion, Main says that getting in harm’s way is rarely required in his job—and the reasons why actually reflect well on his profession. “I do a lot of work in rough neighborhoods,” the 47-year-old explains. “People who live in those neighborhoods see reporters a lot, unfortunately, because there is a lot of violence that happens in those neighborhoods. They see reporters oftentimes as a conduit to get out their message, because we may be the only way they are able to communicate with the public.”

Main was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and took an early interest in writing. “I always thought of myself as a writer, ever since I was in maybe third grade,” Main says. “I would bring home what I had written in school, and my parents and their friends would read it and say, wow, that is great. It encouraged me to keep writing.”

Ironically, the future Pulitzer winner attended Emory during a nearly fifty-year period when it had no journalism offerings, a decade before a $1.35 gift from Atlanta’s Cox Foundation restored the program in 1996. But Main doesn’t believe the lack of formal journalism training has held him back. “A liberal arts education—especially in English, political science, or psychology—gives you insight into the human character, psyche, and the way people deal with each other,” Main says. “Machiavelli, all the political philosophers, Montesquieu, Locke, Hobbes, and all that stuff gives you an idea of why our country ticks. And I think I would have lost a lot if I didn’t have that kind of background.”

Main also says writing for the Emory Wheel gave him a feel for the rush—and the responsibility—that can accompany journalism. “I got a real charge out of it because the stories I was writing were about Jimmy Carter and The Carter Center and about how people in the neighborhood were up in arms about this road going across their yards,” he recalls. “This was a story about the former president of the United States and his legacy center and how even a guy like that had to deal with a public that wasn’t happy about the way his center was going to affect their lives. And the idea that some kid in college could challenge Jimmy Carter’s plans, or at least present the criticism to him for a response, was pretty heady stuff.”

After graduating from Emory in 1986, Main earned his master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University. “It was like a boot camp,” says Main. “In a way, it sucked all the creativity out of you so that you could write in an AP style, quickly, without mistakes. And then the rest of your journalism career you spend trying to build back some creativity on top of this bare-bones formula that has been beaten into your head in journalism school.”

Main landed a first job as a reporter back in his boyhood home at the Tulsa World. After three years there, he wrote for the Baton Rouge Sun-Times for a year, spent two more at the Baton Rouge Advocate, and then five years at the Cincinnati/Kentucky Post before getting a job in Chicago at the Sun-Times in 1998.

As a big-city crime beat writer, Main was constantly churning out copy, averaging about 225 stories published in the newspaper each year. The genesis of the series that won a Pulitzer was a desire to step back from the grind of short, daily deadline reporting and take a wider and deeper look at crime in Chicago. “I really respected David Simon’s work in his book Homicide,” says Main. “And I always thought that it would be unbelievable to have that much access, for a whole year in his case, in following Baltimore homicide detectives around. They say whatever they want to say, and you report it straight. And the idea of seeing unfiltered reality like that is what every reporter wants to do.”

Main convinced his editors to allow him to try something similar, and he was given four months to shadow Chicago homicide detectives and document the obstacles they face. There was only one problem—at the end of those four months, Main’s editors didn’t think he had a cohesive story that focused on detectives investigating and solving one case, so they told him to shelve the project. At that point, the idea that this reporting would never see print was much more likely than that it would somehow end up winning a Pulitzer Prize.

As Main got back to his regular work, though, he began to see a pattern in other cases that matched the reasons why the detectives he had followed couldn’t solve the case he had been chronicling. In short, people who had substantial amounts of information about crimes that had been committed would not come forward and tell police what they knew. Main took the “no-snitch” code, stitched it into his previous reporting, added more examples, and the series came into focus.

“This is a disparate series that wound up being connected because these themes had to emerge out of the reporting,” says Main.

“Frank is a dogged reporter,” says colleague Konkol, who shared the Pulitzer. “He is meticulous about everything from public records to commas and punctuation. But the best thing about him is he is able to keep sources even though he is not always kind to them in the newspaper. I think it’s because he’s from Oklahoma. I think it’s the gentleman in him that he learned from his parents, and I think that’s what police detectives and police brass get from him. A lot of guys don’t have that kind of subtle way with authorities.”

In the end, Main says he thinks the “no-snitch” series is largely about integrity, and how that term can mean different things to different people. “I know that there are various codes that people operate by on the street, but I guess I wasn’t aware how much they control people’s behavior out there,” he says. “That the motive for revenge or retribution would be less strong than the motive not to look like a weenie in front of your fellow gang members. Or that you wouldn’t want retribution for getting shot because you would fear that that person would come back and hurt someone you loved. If I’m standing in their shoes and I know who shot me, I’m telling the cops right away. So it did make me examine my own ideas on integrity.”

The day the Pulitzers were announced, Main was working at his desk until the jolt when he heard the words “Pulitzer Prize” and his own name uttered in the same sentence. In the midst of the celebration that followed, Sun-Times renowned film critic Roger Ebert sent Main and his colleagues a congratulatory email that could only come from a fellow winner.

“There are Pulitzers in many categories, but in my mind the most important prizes are given in the areas of local and international reporting and photography,” Ebert wrote. “To go out and collect the news and give it shape and meaning is the great task of newspapers. In our city, so lovely and yet in such pain from violence, you covered the most urgent story. You may have saved lives.”

Main has witnessed a substantial shift in journalism since he started, with newspapers now focusing more on quick-hit stories than on intensely investigated issues. He takes every opportunity to proselytize for his profession, such as meeting with Emory journalism students during his twenty-fifth college reunion.

Main also met with another Pulitzer Prize winner, Hank Klibanoff, James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism.

“Frank Main and his colleagues produced astonishing stories that read and bleed Chicago,” Klibanoff said of Main’s work. “Their work on the mindless revolving door that keeps spitting unpunished criminals back onto the streets took extraordinary reporting from the streets. When Frank was on campus for Homecoming, it was wonderful for our journalism students to hear from a reporter whose workplace is not in the newsroom but on the city streets and sidewalks. His investigative work blends street smarts with data, but the street time is his signature.”

One reason Main says he enjoys speaking with young journalists so much is that it gives him an opportunity to explain how crucial to society serious reporting can be.

“There always will be a need for somebody to tell the public, in an unvarnished way, what’s going on,” says Main. “I would tell an aspiring journalist that journalism is a calling. It allows citizens to make wise decisions, and it’s our job to gather the information to help them do that.”

John D. Thomas 86C 97G, author of the novel Karaoke of Blood, is currently working on a book about the cultural history of saliva.

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