In the spring of 2006, Steve Fainaru — then a war correspondent for the Washington Post — went for a long, contemplative hike near Phoenix Lake with his editor, Phil Bennett. The two Marin natives found themselves visiting the area at the same time and set off on the hike to discuss Fainaru’s impending return to Iraq. The tranquility of Marin’s trails were a stark contrast to the conflict then raging in Iraq, but by the end of the hike (and a round of beers at Sam’s Cafe in Tiburon), the two journalists had resolved that Fainaru’s next area of coverage should focus on the role of American independent contractors in Iraq.
That fateful walk set Fainaru on the path to a 14-month investigation that spawned a series of articles in the Washington Post — and eventually led not only to the best-selling book Big Boy Rules — America’s Mercenaries fighting in Iraq but also, in 2008, to a Pulitzer Prize.
Extraordinary accomplishments for a journalist — unless you happen to be named Fainaru. Steve’s younger brother Mark, who lives in Petaluma, may be even more well-known. Working at the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Fainaru-Wada broke open what came to be known as the BALCO scandal, implicating some of the top athletes in America, including Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, in the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. That effort led to the 46-year-old’s best-selling book (co-authored by Lance Williams) Game of Shadows — as well as a George Polk Award for journalism. Two top investigative journalists from Marin? Perhaps not that surprising. But brothers?
“We were always a ‘news’ family,” explains Fainaru-Wada.
“Some of my earliest memories are of the Los Angeles Times spread around the breakfast table,” agrees Fainaru, now 49. “There was always a paper around.”
The family facility for words has deep roots. The brothers’ maternal grandfather (who penned the timeless song “Green Eyes”) was a Tin Pan Alley lyricist, and their paternal grandfather was the editor of a Romanian daily newspaper in Detroit.
“Their dad’s dad was a flaming Communist who was eventually blacklisted,” says the Fainaru brothers’ mom, Ellen Gilbert, who now works in Sausalito as a speech and language pathologist. “Politics were central in our family. We talked about everything, and everyone had a lot of strong opinions, to say the least.”
The pair’s love of journalism was further stoked by their time spent writing for the Bark, Redwood High School’s esteemed student newspaper. “My two advisers at Redwood were Sylvia Jones and Donald Brown,” says Mark. “They were critical in every way to me becoming a journalist and having passion and respect for it. Redwood was an incredible training ground. They knew what they were doing and took it seriously.” It’s no surprise that both writers got their starts in sports journalism. Steve played football and baseball at Redwood, and Mark was a varsity baseball player at Redwood as well.
Another factor in Marin’s double-header in journalistic accomplishment was simple sibling dynamics. “I watched Steve’s track, and it was appealing,” says Mark, though older brother Steve notes, “I wasn’t aware that Mark was really following me. He was writing for the Marin Independent Journal as a sophomore, covering games. He could have skipped college, honestly, because as a teenager, he was already a working journalist. I never really encouraged it — it just happened.”
In 2010, Steve left the Post to take a position as managing editor for The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to independent reporting of San Francisco Bay Area news. “I was working out here for the Post, but I was really traveling too much,” he says. “I wanted to try my hand at editing, and after being a foreign correspondent for so long, The Bay Citizen was a real opportunity to create an organization that can do innovative and quality journalism, to grow journalism and to start something new from scratch.” After years of living abroad and on the East Coast, he’s happy to be back in the Bay Area, where he lives in El Cerrito with his girlfriend, Maureen Fan — herself a Washington Post writer, a former Beijing bureau chief and a Marin native.
Mark continues to cover sports with an investigative twist, having left the Chronicle in 2007 for ESPN, where he is a regular contributor to the network’s Outside the Lines program. Mark’s work on camera for ESPN has been similarly rewarding, though a bit strange for the newsprint veteran. “I never saw myself as a TV guy, and I still don’t. But it’s such a different medium, and I’m learning a ton about how to tell stories there. It’s a new challenge that I’m mostly enjoying.”
Fainaru-Wada says that after all the tumult of his BALCO experience — from grand jury subpoenas to appearances on Letterman — the most nerve-wracking experience turned out to be his graduation speech to the Redwood High class of 2007. “I’ve never been more nervous in my life,” he says. “It was a complete honor — especially with Sylvia Jones in the audience — and it turned out to be the highlight of my time involving BALCO.”
Their mother is, as expected, vastly proud of both siblings. “Oh my God, I’m so fortunate, so grateful and proud of them for not only their successes, but who they are,” she says. And after threats to Mark for his BALCO coverage and the inherent dangers of Steve covering the war in Iraq, she’s glad they’re now all together in the Bay Area: “They’ve given me amazing grandchildren. That we’re all living in same area now is just so great. We celebrate everything together, and really, I just feel fortunate.”