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Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 12:01 am

Dave McKinney: Mensch

 I’ve known Dave McKinney, erstwhile Springfield bureau chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, for about three years now. We have lunch now and again. We’ll catch a Cardinals game when I can get free tickets.

It was during one of these games that Dave told me about his new love, the woman who would become his wife. He was as smitten as I’ve ever seen anyone. He also talked about his old love, newspapering, and how he would handle the inevitable questions that would arise, him being an elite Statehouse reporter since 1995, she being a Democratic political consultant paid to dig up dirt on Republicans and play defense when the mud starts flying. Later, a few months before his wedding last summer, he told me, with considerable relief, that arrangements had been made and questions about conflicts settled with his employer. He could get married, keep his job and cover the upcoming campaign, which was already shaping up as epic.

Pretty lucky guy.

McKinney is old school. When he scored a copy of the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” edition of the Chicago Tribune from 1948, he cherished it not so much for its sheer coolness, but because it memorialized an infamous blunder by a rival newspaper. He relished scoops, and he had many over the years. He has a quiet voice, but he isn’t afraid to get in pols’ faces, witness when he asked then Gov. George Ryan about falling poll numbers back in 2000.

“Now, what would you expect?” Ryan told McKinney. “After a guy like you has written all of those articles about me for 14 months and they’re screaming headlines about what a bad guy I am, and then they take a poll and say, ‘How’s old George doing?’”

Then came the story about Bruce Rauner.

I wasn’t overly impressed with McKinney’s Oct. 6 piece, co-authored with two other people, that, overnight, turned into a television ad for Gov. Pat Quinn. So what if Rauner said that he would destroy an out-of-favor executive if she sued for wrongful termination, go after her family, bury her bankrupt her with legal fees? Should anyone have been surprised? If Rauner has a business card, it should have “cutthroat capitalist” on it. He doesn’t make $60 million a year by teaching yoga.

If you want a by-any-means-necessary, play-for-keeps governor, Rauner is your man, and that was pretty obvious long before McKinney wrote the story about him threatening the woman whose lawsuit was largely dismissed by a judge. It figured that Rauner would pressure the Sun-Times to kill the piece and, failing that, try to convince the paper to publish a disclaimer noting that McKinney’s wife is a Democratic operative. That’s what people like Rauner do, and you don’t have to work at a big-city paper for long before someone like Rauner comes along, trying to get from a higher-up what he couldn’t get from a reporter.

The difference here is that Rauner appears to have prevailed with higher-ups at the Sun-Times. It doesn’t help matters of appearance that Rauner owned 10 percent of the newspaper’s parent company until shortly before he announced his campaign.

After publication of the Rauner piece that had been vetted by editors in the newsroom, McKinney was yanked off his beat for nearly a week. He was reinstated after hiring a lawyer, then was forced to resign. McKinney wasn’t ousted by Rauner or anyone at the Sun-Times, he was forced from his job by a much higher power: his own conscience. In reinstating McKinney, Sun-Times managers declared that he’d done nothing wrong, told him that he could return to work without restrictions, then, on his first day back, promptly balked at putting a McKinney byline on a story he had written about Rauner.

Reporters get lied to every day. It’s part of the job. But if you’re a journalist with any gumption, you can’t work with people you can’t trust, and so McKinney had no choice but to quit after this bizarre shell game with his livelihood in the finishing weeks of a white-hot gubernatorial race.

McKinney will land on his feet somewhere, but maybe not in journalism. All newspapers talk a good game, but lots of editors are afraid of someone like McKinney who, naively or not, demands as much integrity from his employer as he does from himself. What effect, if any, the McKinney affair will have on the gubernatorial race remains to be seen, but this doesn’t seem likely to swing many votes in a contest that pits a ruthless businessman against an oft-bumbling incumbent who once referred to himself as Soy Boy. If Rauner’s hit-and-run investments in nursing homes, his tax shelters in the Cayman Islands, his flip-flops on the minimum wage, his scorched-earth zeal for making money on the backs of others hasn’t convinced you not to vote for him, then you probably don’t care what kind of pressure he put on a newspaper about McKinney or anything else.

In the end, then, we have learned nothing about either Rauner or McKinney. We have, however learned a great deal about the Sun-Times. The only thing that can salvage a shred of the newspaper’s credibility now is an explanation that makes sense coupled with a rolling head or two. You can’t suspend a reporter, then say you have that reporter’s back, then yank his byline, all the while proclaiming that everything is on the up-and-up. If McKinney’s marriage was going to cost him his job, he should have been told before the wedding. Instead, the Sun-Times told him that everything would be fine, then cut him off at the knees on the back end.

Somebody at the Sun-Times botched this, and horribly. Whoever it was needs to own up to the mistake, apologize – both to McKinney and readers – and then resign. And even then, the Cubs will likely win the World Series before the Sun-Times can again be trusted to cover politics and government in Springfield.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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