Matthew Karnitschnig is POLITICO’s chief Europe correspondent.
BERLIN — I first met Stephen Brown on a sunny spring day in 2015 at the aptly named Böse Buben Bar (“Bad Boys Bar”) in central Berlin.
“What’s your mobile number so I can wave when I get there — not sure you’ll recognise me (no hair, glasses, black jacket, white shirt, jeans),” he wrote, giving me a first taste of his dry wit.
We were meeting for lunch just hours before POLITICO’s European operation would go live. Though we’d both signed on to the new project, we wouldn’t start for another few weeks. I suggested a toast with the local pilsner the bar had on tap.
“Yeah, go on then,” I recall him saying. The phrase caught my ear and I would later learn it could mean just about anything out of Stephen’s mouth.
We immediately bonded. The band of English-speaking correspondents who leave their home countries to spend decades writing about countries not their own, while trying (and mostly failing) to navigate the local culture and master its tongue, is small. Though it sounds glamourous in the abstract, such work can be grueling, not to mention isolating and lonely.
Though we’d never worked together or even seen one another before, we instinctively knew exactly who the other was and what he was all about. We’d both lived our lives (as F. Scott Fitzgerald memorably wrote) “within and without.”
Truth is, we were both a bit wary of what lay ahead that day. Each of us had spent his career working for more traditional, establishment media with roots stretching back to the 19th century — Stephen for Reuters across Latin America and Europe, and I, the younger journeyman, for the Wall Street Journal and the wires, across the Continent and America.
We were both in search of something new that didn’t involve selling out to “the dark side” (PR), but we weren’t really sure if POLITICO would work out in Europe. Most people we knew thought we were a bit crazy to bet our futures on an American political website with no track record on this side of the Atlantic. We weren’t exactly digital natives either; ours might best be described as the “pay-phone generation,” the last to learn to type on a typewriter or write in shorthand (which I’ve long forgotten).
Yet there we were, two middle-aged hacks, our best days seemingly behind us, sipping beer in the April sun as we prepared to jump off a cliff together.
We spent lunch swapping stories about “The Baron” (a term of endearment for Reuters, where I’d also worked), slagging people we disliked there and bemoaning the sorry state of the profession we’d chosen and would never abandon.
By the end, I took comfort in knowing this quirky English newsman would be jumping with me.
At POLITICO, we found a new beginning in every sense of the word. Stephen would become not just my editor, but my co-conspirator. He was often the first person I spoke to in the morning and the last in the evening, whether I was on assignment in Belgrade, Athens, Paris or Warsaw.
Together with Matt Kaminski, the editor mastermind behind POLITICO’S European expansion, we plotted story angles and crafted provocative, sometimes incendiary, headlines (“Merkel’s migrant morality play,” “Europe at war”), hoping to draw attention to what was then still a fledgling website.
We endured any number of interminable European summits, the highlight of which was usually the steak frites in the subterranean canteen and (at least for me) our conversations about our journalistic exploits, both real and imagined.
Once, during one of those all-night affairs, a reporter approached us at the dingy bar by the European Council press center to say he recognized me from Twitter.
“He’s even more of an asshole in person,” Stephen shot back, grinning.
Yes, Stephen knew better than most how to “take the piss,” as he liked to say.
Few people took POLITICO very seriously in those early days. For the first time in our careers, Stephen and I weren’t voices of the establishment. We were flying a pirate flag, helping to make what our critics (and many former colleagues) derided as little more than an “elitist tabloid.”
What they didn’t realize was that that was our intention. And we loved every minute of it. As Kaminski liked to put it, reading POLITICO needed to be a guilty pleasure, not homework.
We didn’t always meet that standard, but when we did, it was often thanks to Stephen’s wordsmithing. Other names, including mine, were at the top of the page, but Stephen’s fingerprints were all over the copy, tightening, refining and above all improving — most often without us even noticing.
After Kaminski was called to Washington in the fall of 2018 to join POLITICO’s leadership there, it was clear to most of us that there was only one person who could fill his shoes.
I remember the relief I felt after a senior manager called me to say, “You got your wish.”
I’d been worried because I knew Stephen would have never become the top editor at the other places I’d worked. He lacked the killer instinct and the political acumen to navigate those byzantine corporate cultures. He didn’t manage up or have the stomach for backstabbing. He was both too nice and too genuine.
Acts of kindness
When Stephen asked you how you were (“Ya alright?”), it wasn’t a platitude; he really wanted to know. Just days before his death, he took the time to write to an intern to congratulate her on a story she’d written, even apologizing for not writing sooner. The article, he said, “was really nicely done” — a small act of kindness and encouragement that means the world to an aspiring reporter.
That simple human connection is why his death last week has unleashed such grief among those of us who were fortunate enough to know him.
When the news of his death reached me on Thursday, my younger daughter, sensing my shock, asked if he’d been a friend. It was a simple question, posed with a child’s neutral curiosity, but I struggled to offer a coherent answer.
Over the past few days, I’ve gone through much of my correspondence with Stephen — texts, emails, etc. He never hesitated to put me in my place in private, usually with more than enough justification.
“Fucking hell, Matt,” he wrote several years ago, referring to a wayward tweet I’d sent from a barstool. “Did you have to compare him to Adolf?!”
Stephen hated Twitter. The nuance-free, lowest-common-denominator debates represented the opposite of how he communicated. Responding to my bombastic defense of American democracy after the last U.S. presidential election, he wrote:
“I actually disagree with you and think that continental European democracy is more genuine than the U.S./UK versions, which, though dissimilar in structure, rely on this eternal alternation of power between two parties. Even the French have brought in new political parties to adapt to the times, as have the Germans (to a lesser extent, but the Greens were innovative in their time, and the AfD, well, it represents some people). The Brits and Americans recycle the same parties to convince their relatively uneducated populations that they are free to vote the party of their choice — as long as it is one of two models. Real government is conducted elsewhere, of course. Shall I tweet that?”
I always knew he was really angry when he reverted to British spelling.
“This may come as a shock to you, but some people don’t share your sense of humour,” he wrote after another Twitter run-in that had sparked a further round of complaints.
The headaches my behavior caused notwithstanding, he enjoyed nothing more than to see me receive a public comeuppance.
“You’re getting a well-deserved kicking on Twitter, I see,” he wrote me once with obvious glee. “Please be temperate in your replies or better still, don’t reply.”
My all-time favorite admonition: “Behave.”
On rare occasions, usually when someone had, by his estimation, unfairly gone after one of our reporters or POLITICO itself, Stephen quietly asked me to respond in kind.
“He’s a great one for criticising other hacks,” he wrote me last year, the offending tweet attached. “Go on, then. You have my blessing.”
In public, Stephen never failed to have my back, even if he disagreed with what I’d written. And as anyone familiar with my writing for POLITICO will know, it tends to evoke strong reactions, even controversy. More than eight years my senior, he was as much my big brother as he was my editor.
“I love the way journalists who quit journalism become the biggest experts in how to do journalism,” he wrote to me recently after receiving an irate complaint about one of my stories. “If they were so fucking good at it, why did they quit?”
After a prominent German politician threatened to sue us over a piece I’d written about him last year, Stephen immediately roused our company lawyers to fashion a response that made clear we had no intention of changing a word. He then encouraged me to follow up on the profile with another story about the threat itself.
A couple of days after that piece appeared, he asked if I’d received any feedback from the politician or his lawyers. I told him I hadn’t.
“He’s too busy riding around on his Vespa with his long hair trailing in the wind,” he joked, a reference to the German conservative’s questionable claim that he’d lived a rebellious youth.
A veteran editor told me when I was starting out that the most important quality in a reporter wasn’t writing ability or intellect, but “fire in the belly.”
Stephen had that to the end. He was happiest clutching a reporter’s notebook in one hand, a pen in the other, chasing the news.
Last year, he led our reporting team at the Munich Security Conference, the annual gathering of senior military and government officials. Most editors of his stature visit such an event to schmooze and feel important in the midst of the “international elite.”
Stephen went to report. I don’t think I ever saw him happier.
Searching for answers
I once heard journalism described as a “personality disorder.”
That might be true for some (myself included), but for Stephen it was an outlet for his natural inquisitiveness.
Unlike many of us, he didn’t pretend to have all the answers. In fact, he made clear he was searching for them and wanted us to join him in the struggle.
“Do you think it’s OK to compare something to Apartheid in a headline?” he asked me earlier this month. (I’m still thinking about that one.)
It wasn’t all highbrow reflection, though. Like any good journalist, he loved nothing more than good gossip. He sometimes called me from his Mini on his way home from work, not to talk shop, but to hear (or spread) the latest rumors. “Go on, then,” he’d say, urging me reveal whatever I’d picked up on the grapevine about the people we knew.
I’m going to miss those chats and his relentless teasing of me for being from “redneck” Arizona. I’ll miss his countless stories (especially the one about how he was once refused service in an East London pub, allegedly for being “too posh,” which he told me at least a dozen times over the years but I’ve never quite believed).
Most of all — to return to my daughter’s astute question — I’ll miss a loyal friend, a mentor, and the most decent man I’m likely to ever know.
So go on then, Stephen.
May your gentle soul rest in peace.
Read Stephen Brown’s obituary here.