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The Chicago Solar Occasions Purchase a Bar – Undercover Journalists

The Chicago Solar Occasions Purchase a Bar – Undercover Journalists

2023-05-22 01:26:09

BY 1976, REPORTER PAM ZEKMAN was well-acquainted with the on a regular basis corruption that permeated Chicago. In spite of everything, town was so well-known for shady dealings it birthed its personal shorthand: “Chicago-style politics” was used with frequency to explain boss-style rule and graft in authorities.

Illustration by Jack Jordan/Chicago Solar-Occasions.

Zekman was a part of a four-person Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative crew on the Chicago Tribune, the place she had gone undercover in a nursing residence, for a collections company, in a hospital, and at a precinct polling place, exposing wrongdoings starting from medical malpractice to election fraud. “We had turn into identified for doing this sort of undercover reporting with one caveat: When there’s no different option to get the story,” says Zekman. “We didn’t do it only for the thought of doing it and we didn’t do it cavalierly. ”

When Zekman was poached by a rival paper, the feisty Chicago Solar-Occasions, she proposed a daring challenge that may go down within the annals of journalism historical past as each a feat of reporting and a focus for ethics debates nonetheless raging in the present day. For years, Zekman had been gathering tips on metropolis workers extracting bribes from native businessmen, however couldn’t get sources to go on the report; she figured the one option to get the story could be to get contained in the system. So she satisfied her paper to purchase a bar. They might employees it with newspaper staff, run it like every other watering gap (with some notable exceptions that included hid photographers), and wait to see what occurred. It was named, appropriately, the Mirage. The voices on this story are:

PAM ZEKMAN, reporter, Chicago Solar-Occasions

ZAY N. SMITH, reporter, Chicago Solar-Occasions

JIM FROST, photographer, Chicago Solar-Occasions

BILL RECKTENWALD, investigator, Higher Authorities Affiliation

Interviews have been condensed and edited for size and readability.

Bartender Jeff Allen watching water drain from bar sink drain instantly onto basement ground. All pictures by Jim Frost of the Chicago Solar-Occasions


Pam: We began getting cellphone calls from companies that had been complaining about having to pay a gentle stream of inspectors that come into the eating places and bars on the lookout for payoffs to disregard metropolis violations. And we might exit to speak with them or attempt to discuss with them on the cellphone into going public with this and never a single one would do it for concern that they might have hassle with town endlessly in the event that they went public with it and town would shut them down. We couldn’t get anyone to go on the report.

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Zay: Corruption was an on a regular basis factor. It’s in any metropolis, however in Chicago we perfected many strategies of it through the years.

Jim: In Chicago, within the ‘70s? To go up in opposition to Metropolis Corridor? It’s suicide. No person would do it.

Pam: The thought advanced with George Bliss, who was one in all my mentors on the Tribune. He and I proposed that the Tribune go undercover and purchase a bar. And see what occurs to us and see if we’re put by means of the identical factor. The thought was introduced to attorneys for the Tribune on the time and so they just about killed it.

However when Pam ran the identical concept to Solar-Occasions editor James F. Hoge in February 1976, he pounced on it—they might discover the cash, he informed her. In December, Hoge formally greenlit the challenge. The paper would companion with an area watchdog group, the Better Government Association, which investigated corruption in Chicago. Pam known as her contact Invoice Recktenwald on the BGA with the information: the Solar-Occasions was shopping for a bar. The pair would pose as a married couple, Pam and Ray Patterson, aspiring tavern house owners.

Video games being carried into the bar.


Pam: Invoice Recktenwald from the Higher Authorities Affiliation and I went bar purchasing as quickly as we acquired the go-ahead from our bosses.

Invoice: We had attention-grabbing conversations with individuals who had been house owners about, ‘Yeah, you needed to pay folks off.’ Very frank discussions; it was an open secret. Once we had been a reporter and an investigator, folks wouldn’t discuss. Now that we had been a husband and spouse pretending to purchase a tavern, folks wouldn’t shut up.

Pam: We checked out a number of places. This location was comparatively near the Solar-Occasions so that folks dispatched to the bar after they wanted to assist us—notably photographers who had been going to be assigned to the challenge—would have the ability to get there simply.

After months of on the lookout for the fitting bar, the group landed on a super location: An unassuming tavern known as the Firehouse on 731 North Wells Avenue and situated about ten minutes from Rush Avenue, a bustling commerce hall. Along with being near the Solar-Occasions places of work, the bar got here with an surprising perk—a enterprise dealer who knowledgeable Pam and Invoice he would assist them cheat on their taxes and purchase off officers.

Pam: Phil Barasch was the enterprise dealer who was dealing with the sale. He had additionally been the accountant for the previous bar proprietor and Invoice Recktenwald and I went to fulfill with Phil about this bar and we knew instantly after assembly this enterprise dealer that this was going to be the bar. We additionally felt extraordinarily snug in regards to the potential way forward for the challenge as a result of he laid out for us, with no prompting on our half, how he was going to steer us by means of the method of getting licensed and getting inspected and getting our inspections permitted—he could be contacting the constructing inspector and the hearth inspector and no matter inspector we must take care of and we should always depart an envelope with a sure amount of money, and he informed us what the money quantity must be for every inspector. And the way to do all of it!

Invoice: He was a kind of guys, after you shake his hand, you wish to go wash.

A metropolis inspector checks the beer cooler.

JUNE 1977

Pam and Invoice purchased the bar—for $5,000 down on the $18,000 asking value. (By the tip of the challenge, the online value to the Solar-Occasions and BGA could be $25,000.) Now they only needed to open it, all whereas sustaining secrecy and following strict journalistic floor guidelines.

Invoice: One of many issues we wished to verify was that if anyone was indicted due to this, that it wasn’t us. And that meant that any papers we signed, like the appliance for the license, needed to be one hundred pc truthful as a result of it was being signed below penalty of perjury; that the cash getting used to finance this got here from a authorized supply. And we seemed on the entrapment legal guidelines as a result of we knew folks would say it was entrapment.

Pam: The rule we adopted the entire time was to not say something, or stress anyone to do something they weren’t usually inclined to do.

Zay: It was a really extremely stored secret. Three editors, Pam and I, and two photographers participated from a hidden loft. That was it from our paper. We didn’t even inform the writer.

Pam: The newsroom didn’t know what we had been engaged on.

Jim: I didn’t even inform my spouse what I used to be as much as.

Zay: It was a giant likelihood. The quilt may very well be blown at any time. What if somebody was killed within the tavern? It occurs, in a metropolis like Chicago. It was a really nervy factor to do.

Pam: It was a relentless, nearly 24/7 reporting challenge the place, at any given time, one thing might go unsuitable.

A Chicago inspector within the bar. It turned out to be extremely straightforward to catch metropolis officers taking bribes.


After rejecting a number of tavern names—similar to “Le Tappe Lloyd”, a play on “tabloid”—the crew settled on an inside-joke: “Mirage,” an idealmoniker for a constructing riddled with code violations and coated in pigeon droppings.

Pam: The basement was a large number by way of leaking water from pipes creating unsanitary circumstances. The bogs had been less than code. There have been only a entire number of issues that we knew inspectors would probably have hassle with.

Invoice: There was some extent that we did carry an individual in who was a structural professional to guarantee us that the constructing wouldn’t collapse if we crammed it up with folks.

Zay: It was soiled, badly stored, simply type of a haunt for a number of tipplers within the neighborhood. We cleaned it up as finest we might, opened for enterprise, and waited to see what town would carry us.

The reporters embellished the Mirage with hanging vegetation and Marimekko prints and put in a jukebox and pinball machine. An indication outdoors supplied a jaunty drawing of a cactus. Zay glided by his faculty nickname, Norty; Invoice (aka Ray) grew out muttonchops and a mustache to disguise his look, and Pam tied a shawl over her most recognizable function, a head of shiny crimson hair. The Mirage formally opened for enterprise on August seventeenth, however proof of corruption arrived a lot earlier.

Zay: The payoff parade started earlier than we opened. The well being inspector, when he inspected us— I imply, the basement simply had maggots glistening on the ground. Upstairs it was no higher. He shook us down for a couple of dollars and handed the place.

Pam: I believe one of many issues that amazed us is that these inspectors bought out public security on a budget. They weren’t taking big quantities. We had been informed to depart $10 for one inspector, and $25 for an additional inspector.

Invoice: The plumbing inspectors, the constructing inspectors, the electrical inspectors, the hearth inspectors— all of them took envelopes with cash in them and so they all handed us. And we should always by no means have handed.

All through the method, the Mirage employees assiduously documented each trespass.

Pam: We took notes instantly after having an encounter with one of many inspectors. When there was an apparent journalistic factor to report and report, I took plenty of notes and so did whoever else concerned in regardless of the occasion was. We stored, in essence, a diary.

Zay: We wished to have photographers for varied occasions, and by chance, in the back of the bar, there was a cupboard space after which a ladder as much as one other cupboard space about ten ft up. And it was the proper place for them to be, there was a air flow opening at that time and so they rigged that so they might shoot by means of it with out being seen.

Jim:  Our cowl was we had been repairmen. Each Gene [Gene Pesek, another Sun-Times photographer assigned to the story] and I, in our automobile trunk, we had overalls, caps, and gloves and no matter a serviceman might need. After which we had a giant instrument field and the massive instrument field was to place your digicam in to get it out and in. And so we might get the decision that an inspector had proven up—and typically they confirmed up as a shock. If you acquired that decision in your two-way radio, no matter you had been doing, you simply walked out. You go to your automobile, pull in your coveralls, seize your toolbox, drive over there and stroll in and say one thing to the bartender as you walked in, ‘Hey is that outlet nonetheless shorting out within the again?’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ and also you’d fade into the again and go up into the loft and take your digicam out and sit and look ahead to the change to happen.

From left are: Solar-Occasions reporters William Recktenwald, higher Authorities Ass. Investigator, Pamela Zekman, Zay Smith and Jeff Allen, who posed because the Mirage’s proprietor.

In the meantime, amidst the payoffs and reporting, the crew—most of whom had no expertise working a small enterprise—nonetheless needed to run a bar.

Zay: I at all times placed on the jukebox Peggy Lee singing “Fever” which appears to me an appropriate tune for that place. Additionally on the jukebox was the Star Wars cantina theme. Which appeared very becoming for our clientele.

Invoice: We had been on a strict funds, so we had taken plenty of stuff in. Pam introduced in her microwave from residence and her blender.

Pam: Typically within the morning I used to be there on my own. Some folks would stroll in and ask for a drink that I had no concept the way to make. One couple wished a margarita at 11 within the morning, two margaritas. I didn’t have a clue as to what went right into a margarita or the way to make the salt stick across the high of the glass. One other man wished a shot and beer and I didn’t know precisely what that was and I put the shot into the beer. Which I now know is a horrible factor to do.

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Zay: We lastly determined, you realize what, I’m going to go to bartender faculty, as a result of a) I’d be taught bartending, and b) I’d find out about the way you deal with suggestions and taxes and discover one other angle from which to view the corruptions that may exist. It was a superb bartending faculty; I discovered the way to make 85 drinks. I got here again having a tough concept of the way to work behind the bar.

Invoice: There was a combat and I’m undecided precisely who began it or the way it began as a result of I wasn’t watching fastidiously in the beginning half, however what occurred to me as being actually unusual is that individuals who had beforehand been sitting having good conversations with one another abruptly are on this slugfest. Individuals pushing, chairs going over. One of many bartenders was an intern on the BGA, skinny child, jumps over the bar and abruptly I see him going again over the opposite path. I don’t know if he was pushed or tossed.

Zay: One among our prospects who got here in on daily basis, all of a sudden mentioned to nobody specifically, however loudly, “I’ve figured it out, I’ve lastly figured it out, this place is a entrance! It’s gotta be a entrance for one thing.” I simply laughed him off.

Pam in kitchen. The Mirage was given permits to promote and put together meals regardless that its kitchen contained not less than two flagrant code violations: a hood above a grill with no exhaust fan and a sink that had been painted over.

The Mirage shuttered on Halloween; it was cleaned up and resold. Throughout its scant 4 months in operation, the crew been shaken down by everybody from pinball machine operators to state liquor officers and had collected proof of a widespread tradition of payoffs and negligence amongst metropolis inspectors, together with systematic tax fraud that was costing town an estimated $16 million yearly. Zay commandeered his personal room on the Solar-Occasions to start turning stacks of notes right into a collection of tales; Pam commenced months of follow-up reporting. On January 8, 1978, the Solar-Occasions debuted its first story in a 25-part series detailing the goings on on the Mirage. The story was an prompt hit.

Invoice: I’d take the L in and see folks studying the paper, you realize they’re studying your story. I knew the place the jumps had been and what was within the jumps, and also you’d see folks begin to smile or chuckle at issues that had been within the tales.

Pam: Zay Smith did an unbelievable job [with the writing] and it was one thing folks had been speaking about on daily basis. And it wound up getting worldwide consideration, a lot to my amazement. It performed in different nations and it was an enormous, big success.

Jim: There was in all probability 5 – 6 months after the factor broke that we had been simply going in every single place. Pam and Zay and Gene and I’d go as a crew to do appearances at universities, journalism colleges, metropolis golf equipment, journalism golf equipment.

Zay: I walked again down from the Metropolis Room, heading to my desk, and we had a row of desks down the center and it was known as “Murderers Row” as a result of columnists—the celebrities—sat in that row. And as I walked previous them, they seemed up at me—they had been clearly studying the papers that had simply come out—and so they smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. And I assumed, ‘Properly, that’s good! They preferred it!’ And it made me really feel good. I used to be later informed they gave me a thumbs-up as a result of I acquired the phrase ‘ass’ within the paper. They’d been making an attempt to get the phrase ‘ass’ previous the copy desk for years.

The 25-part collection had fast and lasting influence. Over a dozen officers had been suspended or fired. By June 1979, 18 metropolis electrical inspectors had been convicted of bribery. Mayor Michael A. Bilandic created an Workplace of Skilled Evaluation to ferret out corrupt metropolis workers, and the Illinois Division of Income created a process pressure to uncover tax fraud dubbed the “Mirage Unit.” The collection, which had uncovered citywide corruption with cinematic aptitude, was an apparent candidate for a Pulitzer, and was subsequently nominated by the Pulitzer jury within the class of Native Investigative Reporting. However when the nomination reached the board, issues derailed shortly. Eugene C. Patterson, board member and editor and president of the St. Petersburg Occasions, declared that the nomination sparked “the most fascinating debate ever heard at Pulitzer.” The Mirage story, he mentioned, “had a component of entrapment.” Benjamin C. Bradlee, government editor of The Washington Submit and likewise a board member, said that, “We instruct our reporters to not misrepresent themselves, interval. We felt a Solar-Occasions award for this entry might ship journalism on a unsuitable course.” The Pulitzer was awarded to Pennsylvania’s Pottsville Republicanfor a collection on coal and arranged crime.

Pam: We discovered that we had been in the midst of a rising controversy over undercover reporting and do you have to establish your self as a reporter in any respect prices and by no means do that—that was one of many criticisms. There was an issue that grew over using undercover reporting to reveal wrongdoing versus reporting on wrongdoing primarily based on nameless sources. There was a normal on the time that was developed by TheWashington Submit within the Watergate period of ‘two nameless sources makes it okay’. My drawback with that’s I actually really feel that undercover reporting—when there’s no different option to get a narrative, and when there’s a considerable abuse that impacts lots of people—is a much more dependable technique of reporting than charging any person with wrongdoing primarily based on nameless sources so that they don’t know the place it’s coming from.

Zay: A number of weeks later, The Washington Submit began a collection—and it was a superb collection—known as “Down & Out.” And what was the collection? A Washington Submit reporter pretended to be homeless for a period of time to see what was occurring. So that you inform me the distinction.

Invoice: All people we talked about we had names for and all people had a chance to reply. Nobody mentioned, ‘No, I wasn’t there,’ ‘No, that didn’t occur’. They only shut up.

Pam: These inspectors walked within the bar and did what they apparently had been doing in all of their inspections or a superb a part of their inspections. They had been accepting payoffs and inspiring or pressuring companies to make the pay offs by holding the thought of passing or failing an inspection over the heads of the enterprise folks. We simply opened up for enterprise and allow them to do what they usually do.

Patterson and Bradlee weren’t unanimous of their objection; board member Clayton Kirkpatrick, editor and vice-president of Zekman’s former employer, The Chicago Tribune, objected, saying later, “I don’t see every other method they might have uncovered what they did.” The Columbia Journalism Evaluation ran a Writer’s Notes column during which it awarded the challenge its personal “imaginary award”.

Photographers Jim Frost and Gene Pesek.

In conversations in regards to the validity of undercover reporting, the Mirage is a perennial subject. At this time, the Society of Skilled Journalism includes in its Code of Ethics the edict that reporters ought to “Keep away from undercover or different surreptitious strategies of gathering info until conventional, open strategies is not going to yield the data very important to the general public.” Current high-profile situations of undercover reporting embody reporter Suki Kim’s months posing as a missionary and teacherin North Korea and an expose on for-profit prisons in Mother Jones during which a reporter went undercover as a jail guard. In an article addressing the story, Mom Jones editor-in-chiefClara Jeffery wrote, “Shane’s story will draw a good bit of curiosity across the newsgathering strategies employed. However don’t let anybody distract you from the story itself. As a result of the story itself is revealing as hell.”

PAM ZEKMAN labored on the Solar-Occasions till 1981, when she turned an on-air investigative reporter at WBBM, Chicago’s CBS affiliate, the place she nonetheless works. She shares two Pulitzer Prizes for work finished on the Tribune and Solar-Occasions. She continued to work undercover after the Mirage, includingposing as a affected person at an abortion clinic as a part of an investigation that uncovered pointless procedures being carried out on girls for revenue.

BILL RECKTENWALD joined the employees of the Tribune as a reporter not lengthy after the Mirage story broke. Amongst his many tasks was a collection of tales written about his time undercover as a jail guard at Pontiac State Jail, which resulted within the restructuring of the state jail system. He’s at the moment a senior lecturer and journalist-in-residence on the Faculty of Journalism at Southern Illinois College.

ZAY N. SMITH continued to work as an investigative reporter on the Solar-Occasions till he turned a columnist. His in style column QT ran from 1995 to 2008. He nonetheless writes online. Smith and Zekman wrote a ebook in regards to the Mirage, printed in 1979, titled, merely, The Mirage.

JIM FROST labored on the Solar-Occasions till 2006. After the Mirage challenge he centered on function story images, although he was paired up with Zekman once more for the abortion clinic story, for which he took pictures with a digicam hidden in a briefcase. He now runs his personal images enterprise and lives in Wisconsin.


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