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 would break 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, raise stakes, and build emotional investment. I even loved it in the somewhat maligned season 5 of The Wire where a new part of the scrivener’s drama was existential: the collapse of the industry around them. My friends who work at The Times 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.
Our hero, a young reporter at the Chicago Tribune named Pam Zekman, spent a lot of time in pubs. Her bartender pals all begged her to write about widespread inspection bribery and alderman shakedowns. She decided to be their voice. She repeatedly asked her editors to buy her a tavern in order to do a massive series on widespread political corruption and the dangerous degradation of government’s regulatory responsibility.
One day in 1977, frustrated with rejection, she went across the street to the smaller scrappy paper the Sun-Times, where she found an editor ready to say yes. They even agreed to the crazy idea of buying her a tavern to play with. The project was kept secret from the rest of the newspaper.
Using an alias, she bought a dive bar and renamed it “The Mirage Tavern.” She teamed up with a local liberal advocacy organization 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.
They were careful to not become guilty of entrapment. As 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.”
It began to look like the plan would fall apart because the bad guys were just a little too clever, and because Pam and her editor’s journalistic ethics were too strong.
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 discover that helps them on their journey. After they learn the secrets from Mr. Fixit and it works like a charm, their editors agree to keep the operation running.
The reporters couldn’t believe how cheaply city inspectors could be bought-off. Ten, twenty bucks, and many of them would ignore anything. Even deadly things. State officials demanded payoffs of around $50 to risk lives. More and more members of the Chicago City Council started showing up, expecting a piece of the “cheddar” – one of the nicknames for this protection racket bribery cash.
During the two months they were in business, the “customers” who came into The Mirage hoping to partner in some nefarious way included a gun-runner and a bookie. Actual customers included city workers from the Mayor’s Office staff, the Chicago Police Department, and Sanitation workers, all coming in for beers while supposedly on the clock. Left out of Pam’s stories were things they learned about the upstairs neighbors – nice folks, and regular customers, who quietly ran a brothel.
Some of the reporters at times had to pretend to be romantically involved. The Mirage staff had to constantly keep each other abreast of the ever-expanding cover-story lies. Such a precarious web of lies never lasts long. At the first whiff of a blown cover, Pam and her funny sidekick Zay Smith alerted the bosses at the paper. They closed the bar and began publishing a 25-part series that documented the many government abuses and outright crimes committed at the Mirage Tavern.
From the first installment, The Mirage project was the talk of Chicago. TV’s 60 Minutes flew out to piggy-back onto the story. Pam 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 important people got embarrassed (including the powerful Tribune newspaper syndicate who passed on the amazing idea…) But because in Chicago things aren’t broken, they’re “fixed” – nobody went to jail.
Upon completion, the series was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general reporting… But the jury’s decision was overturned by the Pulitzer board when jealous 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.
“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.”
The BGA recruited some of these business owners and good government advocates to run for office promising to actually fixit. The Sun glowingly covered those campaigns. Cheering at their rallies were victims of similar shakedowns around Chicago who blamed the politicians who had been letting it happen for years.
A new generation of young, firebrand outsider candidates ran for City Council on the issue – this obvious slice of Chicago’s endemic corruption. A dozen Status quo incumbents lost in the elections that November. The people were empowered. One of Pam’s friends even won her campaign (with Pam’s help). And Zay decided that he would write a book about their adventure.