I’m a fan of newspaper procedurals. There’s something obviously heroic about the search for truth. I loved the way Lou Grant and The Hour breaks a story every episode. I loved how the internal office dynamic was used in The Newsroom and All The President’s Men to add conflict, stakes, and emotional investment. I even loved it in season 5 of The Wire where a part of the scrivener’s drama was existential: the collapse of the industry around them. My friends who work at the paper are amazing human beings. My grandfather who worked at a paper was amazing. So I wonder:
Where is the movie about this?! A newspaper joins an advocacy group to build a fake bar for an anti-corruption sting. is.gd/Zz6KtR
— fred gooltz (@fredgooltz) January 7, 2013
Our hero, a young reporter at the Chicago Tribune named Pam Zekman, spent a lot of time in pubs. Her bartender friends all begged her to write about widespread inspection bribery and alderman shakedowns. She wanted to be their voice. She repeatedly asked her editors to buy her a tavern in order to do a series on corruption.
One day in 1977, frustrated with rejection, she went across the street to the Sun-Times, and she found an editor ready to say yes. The project was kept secret from the rest of the paper.
Using an alias, she bought a dive bar and called it The Mirage Tavern. She teamed up with a local NGO called the Better Government Association. Fellow reporter Zay Smith and BGA investigator Jeff Allen posed as the bartender and manager, respectively. Sun-Times photographers Gene Pesek and Jim Frost were in charge of photographing the tavern’s activities from a hidden crawl space over the washrooms.
Chicago Public Radio reported:
They had some strict ground rules. Most important, says Pam Zekman, was that they couldn’t actually offer anybody a bribe. “We couldn’t say, how much would it cost me to ignore this?”
And the inspectors were too savvy to just come out and ask for money. “They’d say things like, I’d like to work with you.”
Luckily, Zeckman and crew had a guy.
“Our job became much easier when we hooked up with Mr. Fixit, Phil Barasch,” she recalls. “He was straight from Central Casting.”
“We weren’t there for more than a few minutes when he just openly told us that he would tell us how to take care of the inspectors,” Zekman recalls. “And in fact he ended up doing just that, telling us to put ten, twenty, whatever—in cash, in an envelope, and tell them Phil Barasch told me to give this to you.”
This guy, Mr. Fixit, was the secret weapon our heroes find that helps them on their journey. The reporters couldn’t believe how cheaply city inspectors could be bought. Ten, twenty bucks, and many of them would ignore anything. State officials demanded payoffs around $50. High-rollers.
During the two months they were in business, their customers included a gun-runner, a bookie, and plenty of city workers coming in for beers while supposedly on the clock. Left out of their stories were things about the neighbors– nice folks who ran a brothel. At the first whiff of a blown cover, the paper closed the bar and published a 25-part series that documented the many abuses and crimes committed at the Mirage Tavern.
The Mirage project was the talk of Chicago. TV’s 60 Minutes flew to the story. Zekman and her team spurred on major reforms including city code revisions, new procedures in city inspections. It caused investigations at city, state, and federal levels. The IRS sent in 20 agents who managed indictments of a third of the city’s electrical inspectors.
In the end, city workers got suspended and lost their jobs, and a lot of people got embarrassed… But because in Chicago things aren’t broken, they’re “fixed” – nobody went to jail.
The series was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general reporting… But the jury’s decision was overturned by the Pulitzer board when rival editor Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post led an attack on the grounds that the reporters used undercover reporting, a form of deception, to report the story.
Just when it looked like all was lost — redemption: readers responded. Scores of small business owners, innocent folks like Pam’s bartender friends, all began coming forward with their own stories. Naming names. Crowd-sourcing their courage. Blaming the politicians who were letting it happen.
“After the story ran, we had to set up a phone bank in the city room,” said project photographer Jim Frost. The complaints about shakedowns were the same as ever, he says, “but now people would actually talk.” Firebrands ran for city council on the issue. Status quo incumbents lost. The people were empowered. Hooray. Credits.