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:

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