Why I left

October 22, 2014

Michael Ferro
Chairman
Chicago Sun-Times

350 N. Orleans St., 10th Floor

Chicago, IL 60654

Dear Mr. Ferro:

I’ve worked for almost two decades at the Chicago Sun-Times because it had a soul.

The home of eight Pulitzer Prizes, this newspaper once set up a tavern to expose graft at City Hall and later listened to a grieving mother who wanted justice for her late son after the system failed her miserably. It has stood for hard news. It has stood for independence.

The Sun-Times is stocked with dedicated reporters, editors and columnists, who work every day with integrity, long hours and not enough pay. They are more than colleagues. They are my friends. They are my family. They are the soul of the Sun-Times.

But today, I’m faced with a difficult decision due to the disturbing developments I’ve experienced in the last two weeks that cannot be reconciled with this newspaper’s storied commitment to journalism.

At issue is the Sun-Times/NBC5 report about LeapSource and its fired female CEO, a story for which I proudly shared a byline with Carol Marin and Don Moseley. The piece focused on litigation involving the former executive, who alleged Bruce Rauner, while a director of the company, threatened her, her family and her future job prospects.

With the backing of our editors and supported by sworn testimony and interviews, the piece took us nearly a month to vet, report and write. It was approved by the legal departments at both the Sun-Times and NBC5 and was posted online simultaneously with Carol’s Oct. 7 broadcast report on NBC5. It was a Sun-Times story done in the finest traditions of the paper.

Prior to publication, the Rauner campaign used multiple tactics to block it, including having campaign staffers vowing to “go over” our heads. We are accustomed to such tactics.

But what does not come with the territory is a campaign sending to my boss an opposition-research hit piece–rife with errors–about my wife, Ann Liston. The campaign falsely claimed she was working with a PAC to defeat Rauner and demanded a disclaimer be attached to our story that would have been untrue. It was a last-ditch act of intimidation.

Yes, Ann does political consulting work for Democrats. But she has not been involved in the Illinois’ governor’s race and has focused on out-of-state campaigns. She and her business partner have gone to great lengths to prevent potential conflicts of interest, including creating a legally binding firewall that prevents Ann from participating in, strategizing in, or financially benefiting from the Illinois governor’s race. For that work, her partner formed a separate corporation with its own bank account that didn’t involve Ann in any way. In January, before we were even married, I presented this information to Sun-Times management and received approval in writing to move forward.

Faced with the Rauner campaign’s ugly attack, Sun-Times Publisher and Editor Jim Kirk immediately told the Rauner campaign that this “assault” on my integrity “border[ed] on defamation” and represented “a low point in the campaign.” In other statements, Kirk called the campaign’s tactic “spurious” and “sexist.”

Yet despite such strong rebukes, two days later, I was yanked from my beat as I reported on a legislative hearing focusing on Gov. Pat Quinn’s botched Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. My reporting for that day was then removed inexplicably from the Sun-Times website.

I was told to go on leave, a kind of house arrest that lasted almost a week. It was pure hell. Kirk told me that his bosses were considering taking me away permanently from the political and Springfield beats. He offered up other potential jobs at the paper, all of which I considered demotions. Because of my unexplained absence from my beat, colleagues started calling, asking if I had been suspended. Or fired.

Through all this, I simply wanted to get back to my beat, but the paper wouldn’t let me. And, Carol and I were instructed not to contact you or Tim Knight about the Rauner campaign’s defamatory allegations.

For guidance, I called Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor whose name is synonymous with ethics in Illinois. His involvement brought about an abrupt shift in the company’s tone from penalizing me to reinstating me. Ultimately, the company pledged I could return to the job with “no restrictions.”

Yet, on the first day back, I was advised I shouldn’t have a byline on a LeapSource-related story “right out of the gate” even though it was a legitimate follow-up to our initial story. While later relenting and offering me a contributing byline after I protested, the newspaper had failed an important test: It was not permitting me to do my job the way I had been doing it for almost two decades.

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?

Does part of the answer lie in what Kirk told me – that you couldn’t understand why the LeapSource story was even in the paper?

Days later, the newspaper reversed its three-year, no-endorsement policy and unequivocally embraced the very campaign that had unleashed what Sun-Times management had declared a defamatory attack on me.

Readers of the Sun-Times need to be able to trust the paper. 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.

I appreciate the recent, public statements of support by Kirk, an honorable man with solid news judgment who got the LeapSource story into print. But, ultimately, I don’t believe he called the shots here.

We reporters have a healthy suspicion of both parties and candidates. 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 the election. It’s about readers and their trust in us. So my decision could not wait. I hate to leave, but I must.

And so, it is with great sadness today that I tender my immediate resignation from the Sun-Times.
________________
Dave McKinney

cc: Tim Knight

Jim Kirk

Wrapports board of directors

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71 thoughts on “Why I left

  1. Oh Dave. This is terrible news. I hadn’t equated your fine stories on Rauner with our swerve into endorsement. This is very bad news, but kudos to you for taking this stand. I’m sorry that it was necessary.

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  2. Excellent letter. Don’t let the turkeys get you down. No, it’s not the Sun-Times that Chicago used to trust and respect. You deserve much more as a reporter and I have no doubt you will find another outstanding at another media outlet, because of your talent and integrity.

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  3. In a world of spin, light-weight reporting and dirty politics, you have consistently been a source of ethical journalism. I applaud you on leaving the Sun-Times, although I’m sure it was a difficult decision. My hope is your action will lead to a review — and change — in Sun-Times editorial policies. But whatever occurs there, i most look forward to reading your reports at the next venture.

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  4. I can’t help but think of the juxtaposition of this course of events with the death of Ben Bradlee. Your integrity tells me his spirit is still alive in at least some journalists.And it does not bode well for touted ethical reform in Springfield under a Gov, Rauner should he win. A sad time for journalism and for Illinois.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Let’s face it, without embracing it…Print newspapering isn’t — except for
        a few remaining community service publications — intent on being an
        exemplar for beauty, truth and “the American Way.

        It’s all about the advertising, entertaining younger audiences and making
        bucks for major chain ownrerships and private investors.

        We, as a nation, are seeing the decline of print and, in many ways, new
        responsibilities being undertaken by expanding digital media outlets.

        I miss the feel and smell of newsprint as many former journalists do. But
        looking for “souls” on trending media empires today is like hankering for
        the return of the 3-cent postal stamp.

        Best wishes to all those print outlets which still cherish something more
        than rising profits and idealistic young j-grads and their contempories who
        will continue to be underpaid in today’s media employee cubicles. JAS
        ———————————————————–

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  5. After reading your article and the other information I am not sure that I trust the Sun Times anymore and either it’s supposed unbiased reporting or it’s deciding that Rauner was the one we should vote for in the race for governor by endorsing him.

    Is that what you were trying to tell us or have I read something that was not there?

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  6. Dave this is a monumental tragedy. You are one of the great reporters I have always looked up to. How many times have I read a Dave McKinney byline and said, “Wow…I wish I had gotten THAT!” This business needs good guys, reporters with integrity who know where the bodies and the facts are buried. You are that guy. My heart breaks for our business when I see this kind of thing happen. Can’t wait ’til you are back on the beat. We need you. Phil Rogers

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Dave, I thank you for always helping me when I’ve asked. But more than that showing all of us what it means to be an ethical reporter. I am sad and proud of you. Your example of fair reporting is unquestionable.

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  8. Well, it was pretty much leave or feel like a gelding for the rest of your life so you did what you had to do. Sorry it had to come to that but the whole damn country would be a lot better off if more worker’s adopted your approach. I’ve seen work situations in which the worker’s personal integrity was constantly attacked and since these were all older worker’s I’m afraid they may never get over it. Good luck to you, now go write a book.

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  9. Dave,

    In the current internet age, it saddens me that the written word is given the “red-headed stepchild” treatment. Not only am I saddened to see newspapers go, but I’m saddened to see that good reporters are forced to become ad hoc marketing reps for whatever the corporate or political contributors demand. I wish you luck in future endeavors.

    I guess the truth hurts…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Congratulations on your bold stance.

    I hope the journalism groups, conferences, journalism reviews and broadcast media take note — and draw on your experience.

    With best wishes for the future

    Andrew Kreig
    Chicago native, Justice Integrity Project editor, and author:
    — “Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America’s Oldest Newspaper” &
    — “Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters (2013)

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  11. Dave, Sorry this happened, although being fired or resigning under fire and retaining your integrity is a positive thing! You will land on your feet and continue your positive career.

    Let me know if I can be of help.

    Doug Dobmeyer

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  12. Hang in there Dave….you are one of the best. I always enjoyed your work. This is going to backfire on the Rauner campaign big time…I am very disappointed with the Sun Times….I hope this horrible episode will result in serious changes….I wish you and your wife the very best…I hope to see you reporting somewhere else soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I have tremendous respect for the difficult decision you’ve made. It gives me hope that there are still “old school” journalists who are not afraid to stick their neck out in the name of truth and fair reporting. You know what they say about one door closing…best of luck with future adventures! Now fill out that ‘About’ section!

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    1. “Investment groups”…an important point. Many once family-owned newspapers
      like the Mpls. Star and Tribune succeeded years of outstanding leadership
      under the Twin Cities Cowles family’s ownership.

      Some of the papers’ best reporters soon afterwards began quietly disappearing, many because those papers, in terms of their respected histories, now were operated by bean counters most attuned to the bottom line — not the best journalism possible under declining news budgets. The Chicago newspaper
      was turned into a farce, compared to its journalism heydays, by a real estate
      magnate. And, sadly the list goes on. Best to all who continue to do their
      best in what used to be known as the nation’s Fourth Estate. JAS

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  14. With the resignation of Dave McKinney the Sun-Times loses a great reporter who had the heart and the integrity to make a difficult decision to leave the paper he has called home for more than two decades. The issue stemming from a shared byline on a Rauner story. As the eyes, and ears of the community a reporter has an obligation to bring the truth to light. Not judge, not sweep aside, but report. Thanks, Dave for a job well done. You’ll be missed.

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  15. Three cheers, Dave. Readers have your back (for whatever that’s worth) even if the Sun-Times doesn’t…. Meanwhile, I’m wondering why any sane human being would vote for Bruce the Bully….

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  16. This is the last time I buy the buy the Sun Times newspapers.I wonder if the Fields were still running the paper this would have happened.This means to me that big money runs Chicago and politics

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    1. Daniel Ellison wrote:
      >>I wonder if the Fields were still running the paper this would have happened.<<
      Uh, didn't the Fields sell the S-T to Rupert Murdoch?

      <<This means to me that big money runs Chicago and politics.<<
      Quoth Louie in "Casablanca": "I'm shocked, shocked." l

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  17. How could there be no replies on this yet? Well, I’ll leave one: Sue the sh*t out of Rauner (and Ferro). Too angry to put together much more in the way of words. That fairly expresses my feelings about growing up as a journalism student in the days of Woodward and Bernstein, still having respect for real journalists such as yourself and Carol Marin, and remembering the days that the Sun Times could be counted on as a counter to the right-leaning Tribune. I thought the saddest day in Chicago’s newspaper history was when the Sun Times fired all of its photographers. Well, now this is a new low…(I guess I had more to say than I thought…yeah, sue them!)

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  18. You did forget one piece of important information. Bruce Rauner was apart of the current ownership group of the Sun Times and that ownership group endorsed him and censored you in attempt to weaken your story.

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  19. In a truly democratic society the news media must be free to express, in an honest way, what our elected officials and who they appoint are doing. The idea of the new media is to be adversarial, to be suspicious of all political parties and candidates and to report to us, the citizens, what is going on behind the curtain. We MUST be informed as citizens and voters! Mr. McKinney did exactly that. He served the needs of the people to know who they were voting for and the paper he worked for gave in to the needs of the candidate and his party. That is shameful beyond words and as un-American as is possible. Our nations forefathers would be ashamed of that newspaper.

    The Chicago Sun-Times is doing exactly the thing it would take to bring about the demise of our free and open society by siding with a candidate who was being embarrassed by what is a truthful story as that candidate tries to tarnish the reputation of that journalist who wrote it. That does grave harm to us all. That must never stand!

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  20. I have not read every word of this coverage. Understanding what has happened is no surprise to me or probably any Chicago area human over the age of 30.

    Illinois Politics (probably Federal and for sure Chicago) is all about money and power. Politicians do not believe in the constitution nor do they believe in supporting their constituents.

    They believe in getting elected (reelected) first.
    If that means buying the votes, that is the “Illinois way”.
    Sure there are always some group that gets a lot of publicity (good and bad) but the objective is to either get votes by giving to a group, or to get votes from the opposition with negative publicity.

    It is a very sad commentary that politics equal mud slinging. We see/read/hear almost nothing but negative publicity about the other candidate. I do blame the media for that.
    What is almost impossible is to learn what candidates want to do if elected.
    This is true of all parties, not just the individuals.
    If the republicans lose it will be due to voters lack of understanding what THEY want to accomplish.

    Don’t get me started on the Illinois Judges on the ballot. That is an even longer discussion that gets my blood boiling.

    My congratulations to Dave McKinney on voting with the only process available.
    Dave (and a few others) do provide a glimmer of hope.

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  21. Living in Michigan, I had never heard of you before today, Mr. McKinney, but what an introduction! In a society where we follow the new Golden Rule (“Those who have the gold make the rules”), it is beyond edifying to witness bedrock integrity, both from you and from your wife and some colleagues. I have no idea what comes next for you, but your example is as shining as it is needed. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Dave, you embody journalism at its finest. I’m going to try to nominate you for the Headline Club’s “Watchdog” award.
    Charles Chi Halevi
    Ex-president of the Headline Club

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  23. and I have a grandson about to go to college to major in journalism…How sad to see fine journalists treated in this unfair, unreasonable way. Not fit for the birdcage bottom, Sun Times.

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    1. Dave, it is gratifying to find that there are reporters with integrity! I extend my sympathy to you and your wife that you had to take a personal financial hit and resign due to this travesty. I hope it gives you some small consolation that this story was the tipping point in my personal decision on who to vote for in this election. Although I am unimpressed with Quinn’s management of Illinois financial crisis, your experience shows that Rauner is a crafty bully; i cannot countenance a governor who behaves in such a manner and is underhanded in his approach. Quinn will get my vote based solely on character.

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  24. In answer to Mr. Beloit, it is the editor who has a say in the matter. It seems his say was squelched by the owner and ultimately by the Rauner campaign.

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  25. I sometimes receive blank, uncomprehending stares when I try to explain to some folks that the reason why real journalism has suddenly disappeared is because the same corporate interests that are turning our government into the Corporate State also own our media.

    Sir, I completely understand, and agree with, the course of action you’ve chosen. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that it’s absolutely essential that at least some professionals who have real integrity, such as yourself, do whatever it takes to remain in the mainstream media. Who is best served if all of the real journalists leave?

    Like

  26. Thank you for doing the honorable thing and exposing the character of candidates who would use intimidation and suppression to achieve their goals.

    Like

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