The Mirage Bar: When Journalists Got It Right

Readability

The Mirage Bar: When Journalists Got It Right

The numer­ous errors and con­tin­u­ing employ­ment of ABC News reporter Brian Ross made me think about what went wrong with inves­tiga­tive journalism.

As a young reporter in the 1970s, I cut my teeth in Chicago, a city where jour­nal­ism came straight off The Front Page.

Back in 1977, The Chicago Sun-​Times bought a bar, The Mirage, to inves­ti­gate pay­offs to local and state officials.

Jour­nal­ist Pam Zek­man and Bet­ter Gov­ern­ment Asso­ci­a­tion chief inves­ti­ga­tor Bill Reck­ten­wald pur­chased the bar under aliases. Reporter Zay N. Smith, who wrote the series, and BGA inves­ti­ga­tor Jeff Allen posed as the bar­tender and man­ager, respec­tively. Sun-​Times pho­tog­ra­phers Gene Pesek and Jim Frost posed as repair­men and were in charge of pho­tograph­ing the tavern’s activ­i­ties from a hid­den sec­tion of the tav­ern built over the washrooms.

Cor­rupt prac­tices ran the gamut from shake­downs to tax fraud.

The amounts were small, typ­i­cally less than $100, or what the team called the super­mar­ket approach to graft: low prices, high volume.

For exam­ple, a city elec­tri­cal inspec­tor agreed to over­look the tavern’s faulty wiring. A fire depart­ment lieu­tenant signed off on the bar’s grand open­ing despite loose wiring hang­ing from rafters and a base­ment piled high with trash. A city health inspec­tor ignored mag­gots and drains that emp­tied down to the base­ment floor. A state liquor inspec­tor ignored fruit flies in the booze.

The crimes also included ille­gal kick­backs from pin­ball and juke­box oper­a­tors as well as tax fraud. An accoun­tant gave the team lessons on how to keep two sets of books to skim prof­its with­out pay­ing taxes. He also advised them what time of day inspec­tors showed up and how much their shake­downs would typ­i­cally cost. The only offi­cials he warned against brib­ing were the police, not­ing that “if you pay off a cop, they keep com­ing around every month, like flies, look­ing for a payoff.”

The Mirage resulted in major reforms, includ­ing city code revi­sions, new pro­ce­dures in inspec­tions, and inves­ti­ga­tions at fed­eral, state, and city lev­els. The IRS looked at tax fraud in pri­mar­ily cash busi­nesses. The Illi­nois Depart­ment of Rev­enue formed a new inves­tiga­tive team: the Mirage Audit Unit. A fed­eral inves­ti­ga­tion resulted in the indict­ments of a third of the city’s elec­tri­cal inspec­tors in 1978.

The series was ini­tially nom­i­nated for the Pulitzer Prize for gen­eral report­ing, but the awards board decided not to give the prize to the Sun-​Times when Ben Bradlee of The Wash­ing­ton Post led an attack because the reporters used under­cover report­ing to do the story.

Bradlee made some good deci­sions in his career. Deny­ing the Pulitzer to the Mirage reporters was not one of them.

I am struck by how jour­nal­ists got it right back then even in a city where jour­nal­ism and ethics may not have been uttered fre­quently in the same sentence.

ABC’s lat­est deba­cle is rem­i­nis­cent of a grow­ing pen­chant for bad inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism from Hulk Hogan’s sex life to the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia “rape” story.

Here is back­ground about the Mirage story: https://​www​.topic​.com/​t​h​e​-​s​t​o​r​y​-​b​e​h​i​n​d​-​t​h​e​-​c​h​i​c​a​g​o​-​n​e​w​s​p​a​p​e​r​-​t​h​a​t​-​b​o​u​g​h​t​-​a-bar

Update (DTG) If you want to sup­port a site that pro­duces sto­ries like this while help­ing out a blog­ger who has just been laid off please con­sider hit­ting DaTipJar




Please con­sider sub­scrib­ing, if we can get 95 sub­scribers at $20 a month this can be done full time while keep­ing great writ­ers like Chris paid


Choose a Sub­scrip­tion level



The numerous errors and continuing employment of ABC News reporter Brian Ross made me think about what went wrong with investigative journalism.

As a young reporter in the 1970s, I cut my teeth in Chicago, a city where journalism came straight off The Front Page.

Back in 1977, The Chicago Sun-Times bought a bar, The Mirage, to investigate payoffs to local and state officials.

Journalist Pam Zekman and Better Government Association chief investigator Bill Recktenwald purchased the bar under aliases. Reporter Zay N. Smith, who wrote the series, and BGA investigator Jeff Allen posed as the bartender and manager, respectively. Sun-Times photographers Gene Pesek and Jim Frost posed as repairmen and were in charge of photographing the tavern’s activities from a hidden section of the tavern built over the washrooms.

Corrupt practices ran the gamut from shakedowns to tax fraud.

The amounts were small, typically less than $100, or what the team called the supermarket approach to graft: low prices, high volume.

For example, a city electrical inspector agreed to overlook the tavern’s faulty wiring. A fire department lieutenant signed off on the bar’s grand opening despite loose wiring hanging from rafters and a basement piled high with trash. A city health inspector ignored maggots and drains that emptied down to the basement floor. A state liquor inspector ignored fruit flies in the booze. 

The crimes also included illegal kickbacks from pinball and jukebox operators as well as tax fraud. An accountant gave the team lessons on how to keep two sets of books to skim profits without paying taxes. He also advised them what time of day inspectors showed up and how much their shakedowns would typically cost. The only officials he warned against bribing were the police, noting that “if you pay off a cop, they keep coming around every month, like flies, looking for a payoff.”

The Mirage resulted in major reforms, including city code revisions, new procedures in inspections, and investigations at federal, state, and city levels. The IRS looked at tax fraud in primarily cash businesses. The Illinois Department of Revenue formed a new investigative team: the Mirage Audit Unit. A federal investigation resulted in the indictments of a third of the city’s electrical inspectors in 1978.

The series was initially nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for general reporting, but the awards board decided not to give the prize to the Sun-Times when Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post led an attack because the reporters used undercover reporting to do the story.

Bradlee made some good decisions in his career. Denying the Pulitzer to the Mirage reporters was not one of them.

I am struck by how  journalists got it right back then even in a city where journalism and ethics may not have been uttered frequently in the same sentence.

ABC’s latest debacle is reminiscent of a growing penchant for bad investigative journalism from Hulk Hogan’s sex life to the University of Virginia “rape” story.

Here is background about the Mirage story: https://www.topic.com/the-story-behind-the-chicago-newspaper-that-bought-a-bar

Update (DTG) If you want to support a site that produces stories like this while helping out a blogger who has just been laid off please consider hitting DaTipJar




Please consider subscribing, if we can get 95 subscribers at $20 a month this can be done full time while keeping great writers like Chris paid


Choose a Subscription level