The Alleged – and Discredited –Bias of a Reporter Meets the Real Bias of Newspaper Management
By Lena Williams, Guild-CWA :: For nearly 20 years Dave McKinney tirelessly gave his all as a political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.
As the paper’s Springfield bureau chief, McKinney covered the state capital and its politicos without fear or favor, maintaining a delicate balance of objectivity and integrity in his work.
But McKinney reluctantly resigned from his job on Oct. 22 after his bosses at the Sun-Times sided with Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate for governor who ultimately won the race, instead of its respected reporter in a dispute over his political coverage.
“We reporters have a healthy suspicion of both parties and candidates,” McKinney wrote in his Oct. 22 letter of resignation. “It’s our job. It’s regrettable that this issue has emerged in the homestretch of an important election in Illinois, but respectfully, this isn’t about either candidate or election. It’s about readers and their trust in us. So my decision could not wait. I hate to leave, but I must.”
McKinney’s resignation and the circumstances surrounding it sent shockwaves through journalistic circles and the Chicago community with several of his former colleagues, The Newspaper Guild, media companies and ordinary citizens voicing support for McKinney and demanding an explanation about his forced departure. More than 500 people have signed a petition spearheaded by the Chicago Newspaper Guild in support of McKinney and calling on Sun-Times management to “come clean” about what happened.
This much is known.
During the Illinois gubernatorial race, the Rauner campaign tried to block publication of a story written by McKinney and two reporters for NBC5 in Chicago. The piece focused on a lawsuit filed by a former female CEO at LeapSource, who alleged that Rauner, while a director of the company, threatened her, her family and her future job prospects.
Prior to publication, the Rauner campaign tried various tactics to keep the story from seeing the light of day.
Those tactics included a claim of conflict of interest for McKinney, a newlywed, whose wife, Ann Liston, works for a media relations firm that represents Democrats, including Rauner’s opponent, incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn.
Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business described the situation this way in an Oct. 20 column:
“When Mr. McKinney got engaged last winter, he approached his editor, Mr. Kirk, and informed that (the firm) Adelstein/Liston had agreed to insulate his wife from any involvement with Mr. Quinn or clients such as the Democratic Governors Association, which is spending millions on anti-Rauner ads this fall. The arrangement was in writing, involved establishing a separate corporate subsidiary, and was so detailed that it will prevent Ms. Liston from earning her share of profits on the DGA ads, Adelstein/Liston principal Eric Adelstein told me. Equally significant, he continued, “The paper said ‘great.’ They signed off on it.”
Hinz went on to write that “such political cross-pollination is not unusual in Chicago… For good or bad, the media culture has accepted such arrangements — provided there really is a wall — on the grounds that everyone has a right to make a living.”
In his resignation letter to Michael Ferro, chairman of the Sun-Times, McKinney explained that the story, backed by editors, sworn testimony and interviews, and approved by the legal departments at both the Sun-Times and NBC5, was posted online simultaneously with the Oct. 7 broadcast on NBC5,
“It was a Sun-Times story done in the finest traditions of the paper,” wrote McKinney.
Sun-Times Publisher and Editor Jim Kirk initially told the Rauner campaign that “this assault” on McKinney’s integrity “bordered on defamation” and represented “a low point in the campaign.” Kirk also called the campaign’s tactics “spurious” and “sexist.”
Yet two days later, McKinney was yanked from his beat while reporting on a hearing focusing on the blotched Neighborhood Recovery Initiation of incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat.
“My reporting for that day was then removed inexplicably from the Sun-Times website,” McKinney said in the resignation letter.
He was then told to go on leave for almost a week. He described it as “a kind of house arrest” that was “pure hell.”
Kirk told him that his bosses were considering taking him away from the political and Springfield beats permanently. He was offered other jobs at the paper, which he considered demotions. His unexplained absence from his beat led colleagues to assume he had been suspended or fired.
Only after McKinney retained a lawyer –a well-known former assistant U. S. attorney who prosecuted former Illinois Gov. George Ryan — did the company back off its plans to reassign him and offer full reinstatement without condition.
But on his first day back, McKinney was asked to forego a byline on a story he was working on regarding Rauner. Management relented only after McKinney protested.
“Was all this retaliation for breaking an important news story that had the blessing of the paper’s editor and publisher, the company’s lawyer and our NBC5 partners?” McKinney wondered.
To make matters worse, the Sun-Times reversed its three-year policy against political endorsements and backed Rauner, an investor in Sun-Times media until 2012, leaving McKinney in an untenable, humiliating position.
Should he stay on the job, knowing that his editors had forsaken him? Should he swallow his pride and chalk it all up to politics? Should he remain in the newsroom and live to fight another day?
McKinney chose the honorable thing to do. He left.
McKinney said his departure has had a “chilling effect” in the newsroom.
“While I don’t speak for my colleagues, I’m aware that many share my concern,” he said in the letter. “I’m convinced this newspaper no longer has the backs of reporters like me.
He’s right. The Sun-Times’s handling of McKinney speaks volumes about the paper’s journalistic integrity, priorities and future as a member of the fourth estate. As The Chicago Newspaper Guild said in its letter of protest for a news company like the Sun-Times to “stand in the way of a reporter’s ethics when it comes to reporting the news is unacceptable.”The Sun-Times has set a dangerous precedent that has repercussions far beyond its newsroom. Editors at the paper should be ashamed of their actions and take the necessary steps to immediately rectify the situation for journalism’s sake.