A rebuttal on the Dave McKinney issue

Dave McKinney, the now former Chicago Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief, is married to a very talented Democratic media strategist, Ann Liston. She is a superstar in the political media strategy community having been a key figure in crafting a media strategy for President Obama in 2012 that not only cast Mitt Romney as anti-women and out of touch but also cast Barack Obama as an accomplished leader with his best work still to come. Thanks in large part to the integrated multimedia strategy Liston helped craft and implement, President Obama bucked all historical trends and won re-election despite relative low approval ratings and economic indicators.

Normally, we could care less about who is married to who in the media world. What difference does it make who your spouse is? It might matter if you author a hit piece about a front running Republican candidate for governor one month before the general election that happens to paint him as anti-women and that story goes on to become the center piece of an integrated multimedia ad campaign by the Democratic candidate. The timing of the story and the timing of the subsequent ad campaign launch lends to at least the appearance of some sort of collusion. The ad campaign is brilliant and reminiscent of Obama's "War on Women" campaign against the Republican brand in 2012, a campaign Ann Liston and her closest colleagues were instrumental in creating and deploying. Suspicious timing, suspicious coordination, familiar messaging. Coincidence?

This is the story at issue as it aired on NBC 5 Chicago on Monday, October 6, 2014: http://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/Hard-Ball-Lawsuit-Alleges-Rauner-Intimidation--278326501.html

The crux of the story is this: When Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate for Illinois Governor, was chairman of the investment firm GTCR, he hired Christine Kirk to start a new company called LeapSource. The business struggled under Kirk's leadership with Rauner and Kirk trading accusations over who was to blame for the failures.

According to a lawsuit filed by Kirk, Rauner told another board member if Kirk sued over her firing, "I will bury her ... I will bankrupt her with legal fees. I don't know if she has a family or not but if she does she better think twice about this." Rauner denies ever saying such a thing.

In her sworn deposition, Kirk alleged she was also warned by Thomas Gilman, another plaintiff along with Kirk in the lawsuit, who sat on the Board of LeapSource, saying, "Bruce had threatened" her and would make her "radioactive." Rauner denies this allegation as well.

Federal District Judge Robert Broomfield dismissed almost all of the counts of Kirk's lawsuit and neither of the plaintiffs agreed to be interviewed for the story. No one outside of the plaintiffs corroborated their accounts of what Rauner allegedly said.

Given the outcome of the lawsuit and the lack of sources willing to talk to the reporters, is there any journalistic value to this story? It is wonderful fodder for a campaign opposition researcher to craft a negative ad campaign around; but, where is the news value for the public or the voter? Essentially, the court ruled that the lawsuit was frivolous and when the reporters tried to get the plaintiffs to repeat their allegations from their depositions, they didn't want to talk about it. Then, the reporters could not find anyone else at LeapSource or GTCR to corroborate any part of the deposition statements.

Bruce Rauner's campaign was not only right to challenge the merit of publishing a poorly sourced story that served a purely political purpose but also to bring up the possible connection between this "war on women" article, its accompanying ad campaign and the wife of the reporter who essentially crafted the very concept of such a campaign.

Mr. McKinney took offense at being questioned by the Rauner campaign. After the story and subsequent ad campaign failed to gain traction with voters and move the polls, the reporter took the extraordinary step of publicly announcing the hiring a famous investigator to look into vague allegations that the Rauner campaign somehow threatened his employment with the Sun-Times. The timing of this announcement was designed to do maximum possible damage to Rauner by appearing in the press the weekend before early voting starts and prior to the final televised debate. A savvy move that a political strategist would implement.

Despite his paper standing by his flimsy story, this reporter then chooses to publicly resign in an attempt to draw even more attention to his story.

The resignation letter leaves several unanswered questions. McKinney doesn't reveal how he came across this particular lawsuit in the first place or offer an explanation as to how the Democratic opposition researchers already had it and were planning to proceed with an ad buy around it with or without the Sun Times story. If the Quinn campaign did not feed McKinney the story, why did it take the reporter and editor until October to break the story despite Rauner being a declared candidate for Illinois governor for well over a year? Why does a story like this that has been publicly accessible for years run now, when it would have maximum impact and give the candidate minimum time to respond?

When I first found out that Dave McKinney was complaining about the Rauner campaign's media tactics, my gut reaction was that he should toughen up, this is the big leagues and reporters, editors and campaign staff should have aggressive behind the scenes arguments on the merits of stories. If you can't take it, get over yourself.

Then, I had a moment of feeling bad for Dave McKinney because his spouse was getting dragged into the tussle. Once I realized who he was married too, I understood the depth of the potential conflict of interest and was irritated that the Sun Times editors didn't reveal the potential conflict in the story. I am not overly concerned that Ms. Liston would personally benefit from the story; but, her professional colleagues might and those relationships are relevant.

Then, McKinney lost any sympathy I had for him when he became a petulant child and threw a fit because someone would dare to have the audacity to question his conflict of interest...when it's what he has been doing for 20 years as a political reporter. How dare anyone suggest that his wife or her contacts in the Democratic media messaging world whose finger prints are all over the Quinn ads had any influence on McKinney's reporting or story selection. How dare we suggest that the timing was suspicious. How dare anyone question the great Dave McKinney.

Not only did he throw a fit, he did so publicly to draw more attention to himself, something journalists take pains to avoid. He is accused of a potential conflict of interest that would help Pat Quinn get re-elected, and then he defends himself...by filing a vague complaint against Bruce Rauner's campaign the weekend before early voting begins, the exact time Democratic media consultants would recommend to go public to do maximum damage to the candidate and influence the outcome of the race in favor of Quinn.

Then, to make sure the story stays alive during early voting, the reporter resigns in a public way to give the story a new 24 hour news cycle.

I hate to ruin the end of this story for those of you DVRing this show; but, now that McKinney is free from his Sun Times gig, he can continue to stoke the anti-Rauner message in as many TV, print and radio interviews as he possibly can between now and Election Day. It's what any political media strategist with an agenda to influence a race would do.

I have no sympathy for Dave McKinney. He is a big boy reporter in the political big leagues with the guts to follow his instincts and play hard ball with campaigns. He knew his marriage would raise conflict of interest questions and that no amount of paperwork would ever truly create a firewall between his work and his wife's professional life. He successfully defended his ethics to his editors and not only got them to agree to run the story, but got a boisterous defense of his professionalism from them. Instead of slipping back into the shadows to continue his work, he went out of his way to make himself the subject of the story because he decided he was too good to have to answer conflict of interest questions. His righteous indignation of having anyone dare question the obvious conflict his relationship could present is sickening (especially considering the content of this particular story and the appearance of collaboration with the Quinn campaign on a strategy to use it). He acts like the Rauner camp has it out for any journalist who writes a negative story about him; yet, they have only leveled a conflict of interest allegation against one reporter...because he is the only one with this issue.

I also have no sympathy for the Chicago Sun Times owners or editors. This story should never have run and they had no business getting back into the endorsement business after declaring they were out of it. The story was thin, had no news value and the editors should have killed it. Period. There are plenty of legitimate, credible stories regarding Bruce Rauner's professional career as an investor and business leader. This was not one of them. It should have been immediately clear to editors that this story was Democrat opposition research fodder for a campaign ad and nothing more. It didn't deserve the credibility of becoming a news story, backed by reputable reporter's byline.

If you are one of the Democrats who are reading this all the way to the end, having scoffed your way through this post because you think Rauner is a scumbag anyway and even if their was a conflict, Rauner deserved to get side swiped by journalists, I have a warning for you. Do we really want a political environment where journalists work arm-in-arm with campaigns to coordinate messaging and influence elections without consideration of news value? Do we want the referees to decide winners and losers? Democrats might take their chances opening that door in this election; but, don't assume all journalists would take your side in future races. If the umpires decide to pick a side, they are under no obligation to pick yours. We are all better served with them calling balls and strikes rather than trying to run the bases.

Whether or not the story was motivated by partisanship or relationships we may never know, but McKinney's subsequent, deliberate attempts to keep the story going and focus on himself certainly adds to the perception that he wants to influence the outcome of the election. Unfortunately, it appears Dave McKinney started running the bases before he took off his umpire uniform and the Sun Times editors let it happen.

Hopefully, this episode and the story that started it do not influence voter's decision on the race for Illinois governor. Based on the latest Chicago Tribune poll, it certainly seems voters, especially women, have dismissed it as part of their decision making process in this race.

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