Former Chicago Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief Dave McKinney's resignation from the paper is fueling players in both the political and media worlds to speculate about not only the future of the Windy City's oldest news publication, but also what it means for journalism in the state in a greater sense -- and what a Rauner-ruled Illinois could look like.
After 19 years at the newspaper, McKinney issued his immediate resignation Wednesday, stating in an open letter that, essentially, he had no choice but to make the "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."
The "disturbing developments" stem from the newspaper's response to the "multiple tactics" GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner's campaign deployed in an attempt to stop the publication of a story co-written by McKinney, Carol Marin and Don Moseley. The article detailed allegations that Rauner threatened a former employee, ex-LeapSource CEO Christine Kirk, as well as her family when it became clear that she planned to sue Rauner and his then-investment firm GTCR. Despite threats from the Republican's campaign stating they would "go over" the heads of those working on the story, according to McKinney, the piece ran.
And that's when the Rauner camp reportedly pounced even more viciously, penning an "opposition-research hit piece-rife with errors-about" McKinney's wife Ann Liston, a Democratic consultant. Although Sun-Times Publisher and Editor Jim Kirk responded to the Rauner camp's allegations of a conflict of interest, saying the "'assault' on my integrity 'border[ed] on defamation' and represented 'a low point in the campaign,'" according to the political reporter, actions were allegedly taken days later to silence and demote him.
Enter Sun-Times Chairman Michael Ferro.
Ferro and Rauner have a long-standing relationship, having worked on a number of deals together, including purchasing the parent company of Sun-Times Media, Wrapports LLC. Prior to running for governor, Rauner sold his share of the company to Ferro for $5 million. But what many do not know is that Rauner also invested millions into Merge Healthcare, for which Ferro's company, Merrick Ventures, paid $20 million for a controlling stake in 2008.
Merge Healthcare was close to going under when Ferro jumped in to save the health records and imaging software firm. By 2010, Rauner owned 900,000 shares of Merge Healthcare. Other notable Chicago-area billionaires who bought into the struggling company, once stewarded by Ferro as chairman, include J.B. Pritzker and Matt Hulszizer. Rauner has since divested from Merge Healthcare. But the business relationship is still a notable one considering the multi-millionaire once plunged millions of dollars into a struggling company owned by Ferro. And considering many question whether the Sun-Times' recent decision to endorse Rauner, after the newspaper stayed out of the endorsement game for three years, has to do with the GOP candidate's former ties to the newspaper and Ferro, one can only logically extend that train of thought to the Merge Healthcare deal.
Gov. Pat Quinn's camp, along with numerous community groups and organizations in the state, have repeatedly requested that Rauner release his full tax returns and schedules from previous years as a means to ensure that the GOP candidate is clear of business relationships that could be a conflict of interest if he were to take office as governor.
"Mr. Rauner has a duty to disclose his complete income tax return - including schedules - from the previous year well before the election in addition to complete records and schedules for recent years which he is deliberately hiding from the public," Quinn said back in July. "The only way for the public to evaluate what loopholes Mr. Rauner jumped through to dramatically reduce his own tax burden and whether or not he has any conflicts of interest in his finances is through the release of his complete income tax returns, including schedules."
Those cries for transparency could be validated and strengthened by the Sun-Times' McKinney debacle, as Rauner's ties to Ferro are at the very least questionable when looking at how the endorsement and the veteran reporter's treatment at the newspaper has played out. The Quinn campaign released a statement highlighting the chilling effect this situation has had on local media.
"Bruce Rauner's temperament, his attack on a free press and his history of bullying have become a major issue in the closing days of this race," Quinn's Communications Director Brooke Anderson said. "Stifling dissent and silencing reporters strike at the basic pillars of democracy. This is indicative of the intimidation tactics that have long defined Bruce Rauner's career and campaign, and is exactly why he cannot be trusted with the Governor's Office."
This all begs two questions: 1. Now that the Sun-Times appears poised to sell all of its suburban newspapers to the Tribune and has lost McKinney, what's next for one of the city's most identifiable news sources? Is it set to go under as some have suggested? 2. If Rauner were able to play even the slightest hand in the demise of McKinney's career at the Sun-Times, what does that mean for the freedom of the press in Illinois if the Republican were to take over the governor's mansion?
UPDATE (10/24/14): Despite reports from sources indicating otherwise, Rauner may still own shares in Merge Healthcare. In a disclosure filed on November 23, 2013, Rauner listed himself as a stockholder in the company.
Image: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green