By Casey Bukro
Once again, one of Chicago’s top journalists is telling his bosses to “take this job and shove it.”
The latest example is Dave McKinney, a highly respected Chicago Sun-Times political reporter and Springfield statehouse bureau chief.
McKinney complained of being “yanked from my beat” and placed on temporary leave after staffers for Bruce Rauner, candidate for Illinois governor in an election that was only weeks away, made accusations against McKinney and his wife “in a last-ditch act of intimidation” trying to kill a story about Rauner.
McKinney pointed out that the Sun-Times editorially endorsed Rauner’s run for governor.
“Readers of the Sun-Times need to be able to trust the paper,” McKinney wrote in his resignation letter. “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.”
Journalists were quick to come to McKinney’s defense.
The Chicago Headline Club, with a membership of about 500 journalists, said it was “shocked and disappointed” at McKinney’s treatment, and called it “a sad day in the history of the Sun-Times and Chicago journalism.” The news spread fast.
In response, Jim Kirk, Sun-Times publisher and editor-in-chief, called McKinney “among the best in our profession,” but his leave was intended to “ensure there were no conflicts of interest……” Kirk denied that the newspaper’s ownership and management had any role in the matter. He took responsibility for the decisions.
Chicago tends to take its journalism, and sometimes its journalists, seriously.
The last time such an open conflict over news ethics erupted was in 1997, when Carol Marin and Ron Magers quit as evening co-anchors at WMAQ-TV Channel 5 over management’s decision to hire trash talk host Jerry Springer as a commentator on their news broadcast. Springer was known for hosting a show that featured raucous domestic disputes.
Marin and Magers considered Springer’s role on their broadcast “an affront to their credibility and integrity.”
On the day she quit, Marin had a story in the Chicago Sun-Times, where she is a political writer, with the headline: “Credibility, Thy Name Isn’t Springer.”
The decision to hire Springer turned out disastrous for WMAQ-TV. Not only did it lose two admired co-anchors, its 10 p.m. newscast ratings plunged 13 percent.
Robert Feder, a media columnist for the Sun-Times at the time, wrote that Channel 5 executives admitted that hiring Springer was a mistake after losing the anchors and “sending thousands of viewers fleeing in disgust.”
Springer also quit WMAQ after only two nights on the air, saying “it’s gotten too personal.”
Television viewers often form bonds with TV personalities, who are usually attractive and friendly. It’s as though those people on TV are personal friends, sometimes.
Those kinds of bonds seldom form with the largely invisible newspaper writers and reporters, who sometimes describe themselves as “ink-stained wretches.”
In this multi-media world, McKinney did appear on television via Skype broadcasts, reporting on political developments in Springfield. But it’s unlikely that readers will flee from the Sun-Times over the McKinney affair, as viewers fled WMAQ over the resignations of Marin and Magers.
In one of those strange twists, Carol Marin collaborated with McKinney on the Rauner investigation. Marin responded, saying the Rauner investigation was fair and accurate, although a “scorched earth” philosophy is not unusual in a political campaign.
“And so the Rauner team went over our heads to our bosses at NBC5 and the Sun-Times….” with untrue accusations, she wrote.
Hardball is the way the game is played in Chicago in both cases. But the basic issues are the same: Ethics, credibility and integrity.