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Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 12:01 am

The demotion of Dave McKinney

 Perhaps the worst thing to happen to journalism over the years is its simplistic overreliance on the mere “appearance of impropriety” to justify big, splashy stories.

No actual wrongdoing need ever be found, just something that might look a bit fishy to a reporter’s overly suspicious eyes.

It’s one of the nation’s most anti-democratic trends because it’s solely based on the foundation that everybody is corrupt. There’s no need to “prove” anything; just one or two distant connections are enough to justify destroying somebody’s reputation – which didn’t deserve protection anyway because everybody is so evil.

The most extreme local examples of this troublesome mindset appeared in the Chicago Tribune over the summer. The paper ran two front-page stories about alleged political interference in the teacher certification process.

One of the more egregious examples the reporters used to justify their hype was a legislative constituent who had contributed just a few hundred dollars over the years and then came up with a pretty darned good idea, pitched it to his state representative, who passed it along to a fellow member. The bill was overwhelmingly approved and signed into law. Only someone who’d never been close to a legislative process for the past 200 years would deem that sequence of events corrupt, but deliberate ignorance is what drives this entire appearance of impropriety movement.

And that brings us to Dave McKinney, who resigned last week as the Statehouse Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

McKinney married political consultant Ann Liston in April. Months before, however, McKinney, Liston and her business partner Eric Adelstein constructed a super-strong “firewall” between Liston and Illinois politics. Adelstein formed a new company to handle all Illinois accounts, and Liston would not participate in those campaigns nor receive any compensation. The Sun-Times signed off in January.

By all rights, that should’ve been the end of it. The Rauner campaign knew about McKinney’s marriage and never once complained, especially when McKinney was repeatedly and thoroughly gutting Gov. Pat Quinn over his botched 2010 anti-violence initiative.

Rauner’s campaign waited until October to play the “appearance of impropriety” card against McKinney when the Sun-Times ran a big story about how two people swore in affidavits that Rauner had issued threats against a top female executive at one of his investment firm’s companies.

After failing to derail the piece, the Rauner campaign launched an attack on McKinney, who was just one of the story’s three authors.

Rauner’s campaign falsely charged that Liston was directly involved with and directly profiting from anti-Rauner efforts in Illinois. McKinney should never have been put on the story, they claimed, even though two other reporters were involved, both from the local NBC TV affiliate, and the paper’s editors had thoroughly vetted and approved the piece.

Instead of just telling the Rauner people to go suck an egg, McKinney’s bosses sidelined the reporter for the better part of the week. Rauner had successfully used the “appearance of impropriety” attack against one of the state’s top political reporters just three weeks before an election. McKinney hired famed former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins and was quickly taken off his informal suspension.

But the paper balked at putting McKinney back on his own beat. He was offered other positions at the paper which he considered demotions. And then his editors initially refused to put his byline on a follow-up piece to the Rauner threat story. Appearances, ya know. McKinney quit.

But the Sun-Times has its own “appearance of impropriety” problems. Rauner owned 10 percent of the paper until last year. A published report claims Rauner purchased 900,000 shares of a once-struggling business controlled by the chairman of the Sun-Times’ parent company.

Even worse, the paper’s publisher called the Rauner campaign’s allegations against McKinney, “spurious,” as well as “inaccurate and defamatory.” Yet that same publisher reversed his almost 3-year-old policy of never endorsing candidates and approved an enthusiastic endorsement of Rauner around the very same time, leading many to ask why he would back someone for the state’s top job after the candidate had “defamed” the guy who would be covering Rauner in Springfield if he’s elected.

One would hope that journalists and their editors would learn from this debacle. The appearance of impropriety is always in the eye of the beholder. It’s absolutely impossible to defend against if someone is willing to suspend all disbelief and push that angle hard enough.

But this mindset is just too deeply embedded to be abandoned so easily, even after it unjustly derailed a good man’s career.  

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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