For Mike McGraw, it was always about the story, never about his ego.
He was a relentless truth teller, a reporter who, once having latched on to a subject, wouldn’t let go until he got to the bottom of the matter.
He was offended by injustice, despised phoniness and had no patience for pieties and platitudes.
I didn’t have the good luck to collaborate with Mick, his preferred name, when we were colleagues at The Kansas City Star. We did, however, chat a lot, especially when Mick was working on a series of stories questioning the convictions of the five men who were imprisoned for causing an explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters in 1988.
I came from a legal background and Mick wanted to make sure he got the legal aspects of the stories right. I don’t know if I was of much help to him, but I was always impressed by the penetrating questions he asked and his ability to grasp the essential legal issues.
It was only after I began working at KCUR that I had the good fortune to work together with Mick. I had written some stories questioning whether federal prosecutors in Kansas City, Kansas, had violated defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights when they got hold of tapes of attorney-client conversations. Mick, who was then working at KCPT, called me and said he thought there was a larger issue of prosecutorial misconduct implicated by the stories, and did I have an interest in working together with him?
Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. To say that working with him was an unadulterated pleasure is to understate the matter. He was tough as nails but scrupulously fair. His interviewing skills were nonpareil: He was one of the few reporters I’ve ever seen who could ask hard questions of a subject and yet, somehow, not betray a hint of hostility toward that person. He was skeptical but never cynical, hard-nosed but willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.
And if there’s any reporter who had the ability to connect the dots as ably and unerringly as Mike McGraw, I’ve yet to meet him or her.
I used to joke with him that he was the reason I became a vegetarian – but I wasn’t entirely joking. In 1992, he was part of a team of Star reporters that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One of those stories was about the Meat Inspection Service. It read like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle redux. It was a meticulous piece of reporting, describing in graphic detail the unsanitary conditions in slaughterhouses and the stuff that goes into the meat we eat. From that day on, I never ate meat again.
I tell this not to enrobe myself in virtue but to explain how Mick had that rare ability that all of us reporters aspire to achieve but few of us do: Mick’s reporting had an impact. Whether we’re talking about the wrongly convicted who were released from prison because of his efforts, or the politicians whose feet he held to the fire, Mick was not just a reporter’s reporter. He was a champion of the forgotten and neglected, a man who literally seethed when confronted with injustices that cried out to be righted.
His death at the all-too young age of 69 leaves the world a poorer place.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.