Going into Journalism with a Helmet On

by Ally Daskalopoulos

What do you get when you take a downstate Illinois journalist, a few corrupt governors and the messy innerworkings of Illinois politics?  Well, you get one of the best named statehouse reporters in the country, Dave McKinney.

McKinney was in fourth grade when former president Richard Nixon gave his resignation speech in 1974.  Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post reported on the Watergate scandal and the events that led up to Nixon’s eventual resignation. It was Woodward and Bernstein that started a revolution of journalists upholding their role in holding the powerful accountable, and reporters from McKinney’s generation followed in their footsteps.

“It became a calling in a way, I always knew I wanted to write,” said McKinney in a Zoom interview. “I remember having this euphoric feeling of I’m doing what I love and I’m getting paid for it,” he said.

McKinney started out at the Daily Herald newspaper covering municipal government in the Chicago Suburbs. McKinney explained how he immersed himself in local government with each assignment.   “Understanding how government works is really important,” McKinney said.

Hearing about McKinney’s local stories reminded me of my own novice investigative reporting. As a young reporter, it was daunting speaking to someone who got to be in the same room as powerful political leaders on a daily basis. I wondered if journalists like McKinney ever felt nervous or scared of what the future held.

On our call, McKinney sat at his desk with a framed photo of  Illinois’ thirtieth governor, Henry Horner, behind him. After interning at the Chicago Sun-Times in the mid-80s, McKinney was always trying to get back there. So, in 1995, McKinney began what became a 19-year career at the Sun-Times as the Springfield bureau chief. For nearly two decades, McKinney covered six governors, countless elections, policy implementations and Obama’s rise to power.

According to McKinney, statehouse jobs are unfortunately often overlooked.  “In Illinois more so than other states, you need an understanding of the criminal justice system, because there’s so much corruption.” McKinney was there when former Gov. George Ryan was convicted of conspiracy, racketeering, money-laundering and fraud. He was also there when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and became another Illinois governor who went to federal prison.

In 2014, McKinney proceeded to cover future Gov. Bruce Rauner. What he did not anticipate was that covering Rauner’s campaign would change his career in a different way than before.

McKinney resigned from the Sun-Times that same year. The events leading up to his resignation started when he began investigating a story with Carol Marin and Don Moseley. Together they reported on Rauner’s former company and his alleged intimidation of an ex-business partner.

“You can’t get any better than a court document,” McKinney said of his investigative process on the story.

After the story aired, the Rauner campaign went after McKinney insinuating that his wife, a political consultant who never worked on Illinois governor campaigns, was working against Rauner.

Initially, the Sun-Times publisher and editor came to McKinney’s defense. Yet, days later he was taken off the beat which turned into a leave of absence.  McKinney was cleared to return soon after but was forbidden from having a byline on a quick follow-up story to his initial collaborated reporting on the allegations against Rauner. After McKinney protested this order, the Sun-Times agreed to give him a part in the byline. Yet, the paper had already failed McKinney in his eyes.  McKinney felt he had no choice but to quit. Coincidentally, Rauner was an investor of the Sun-Times and the paper quickly endorsed him in his campaign for governor.

McKinney bravely relived the experience for me, calling it a “tumultuous situation.”

“They really pulled the rug out from underneath me,” he said. “My reporting and my integrity were undercut. It was surreal.”

McKinney’s political reporting experience became atypical after his resignation, with time spent at Reuters and now at Chicago’s WBEZ.

On his transition to the NPR affiliate, McKinney looks at it as being much closer to the end of his career than the start of it. “Because of that this idea of radio was invigorating,” McKinney said.

Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from my conversation with McKinney was that it’s not so much where you’re working, but what you’re doing.

“Know there’s a calling to it and a greater good to it. It’s a really important part of our democracy,” McKinney said.

Yet, McKinney warned me that, “you have to go into the profession with a helmet on and be prepared to be pounded.”

After our conversation, I understood that I won’t always be paid well for asking the hard questions and doing a job that many want no part of.

McKinney shared a saying from the university president at his alma mater from the 1800s, “tell the truth and don’t be afraid.”

With his helmet securely fastened, McKinney has walked around with those words in his back pocket throughout his career. Hearing that has made this young reporter a little less afraid.

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