Sun-Times reporter McKinney cites ‘chilling effect’ in quitting

Dave McKinney

Dave McKinney

Dave McKinney’s resignation Wednesday after 19 years as a reporter for the Sun-Times is a huge loss for the newspaper and its readers at a time when neither can afford to be without his diligent, uncompromising and vital work.

McKinney’s impassioned public letter of resignation to Michael Ferro Jr., chairman of Sun-Times parent company Wrapports LLC, is a must-read for anyone who cares about ethics and integrity in journalism.

“Readers of the Sun-Times need to be able to trust the paper,” McKinney wrote. “They need to know a wall exists between owners and the newsroom to preserve the integrity of what is published. A breach in that wall exists at the Sun-Times. It’s had a chilling effect in the newsroom. While I don’t speak for my colleagues, I’m aware that many share my concern. I’m convinced this newspaper no longer has the backs of reporters like me.”

McKinney’s decision to quit as Springfield bureau chief and political writer for the Sun-Times culminated a two-week drama that began when he reported on a lawsuit involving Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate for governor (and former Wrapports investor). McKinney shared a byline with Carol Marin and Don Moseley on the joint investigation by the Sun-Times and NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5. The 2005 lawsuit, which later was dismissed, had been filed by a former employee of one of Rauner’s companies and contained allegations of intimidation by Rauner.

Both the Sun-Times and NBC 5 ran the story despite pressure from the Rauner campaign, which not only challenged the validity of the piece but raised questions about McKinney’s objectivity because of his wife’s political consulting work for Democrats. The story subsequently became fodder for a commercial by Democrat Pat Quinn in his reelection bid against Rauner.

Jim Kirk

Jim Kirk

While McKinney was told to take a few days off with pay (“a kind of house arrest” that he says was “pure hell”), Jim Kirk, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Sun-Times, looked into the Rauner camp’s charges and concluded they were without merit. Twice Kirk issued public statements fully supporting McKinney and calling the allegations against him “spurious” “inaccurate” and “defamatory.”

McKinney appeared to be back on the beat, fully reinstated and writing again about the race for governor (including a followup on the lawsuit story that started it all). But late last Friday Crain’s Chicago Business reported that McKinney had retained Patrick Collins, the former U.S. attorney, to investigate whether the Rauner camp tried to interfere with McKinney’s employment. After that, it would have been difficult to imagine McKinney staying on — especially if Rauner became governor.

On Wednesday, no one was more surprised than Kirk that McKinney chose to quit after he’d backed him so forcefully and unequivocally.

“It is with reluctance that I accept Dave McKinney’s resignation,” Kirk said in a statement. “As recently as this Monday on our op/ed page, I stated that Dave is among the best in our profession.  I meant it then and I mean it now. The pause we took last week was to ensure there were no conflicts of interest and was taken simply to protect Dave McKinney, the Sun-Times and its readers as we were under attack in a heated political campaign. We came to the right result, found the political attacks against us to be false and we stand by our reporting, our journalists and this great newspaper.

“I disagree with Dave’s questioning the integrity of this newspaper and my role as editor and publisher.  I call the shots. While I’ve been here, our ownership and management have never quashed a story and they have always respected the journalistic integrity of this paper.”