By: Mark Fitzgerald
The establishment now known as the Brehon Pub was packed on a hot and humid Friday night in late August. The front of the Chicago Irish bar was filled with neighborhood regulars. The back room overflowed with visitors from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) convention.
But for two hours, the hundred or so SPJ members standing chockablock and sweating into their Smithwick’s Ales weren’t really at the Brehon Pub ? they were drinking in history at the site of the Mirage tavern, birthplace of one of journalism’s greatest, and perhaps most controversial, undercover newspaper investigative projects.
In a 1978 investigation with the Better Government Association, the Chicago Sun-Times bought a broken-down watering hole, renamed it the Mirage, put reporters behind the bar and photographers in hidden positions, and waited. Even before the Mirage opened, the Sun-Times found the story it was looking for. Corrupt city inspectors of all stripes were willing to expedite red tape, and overlook real or invented violations for cash in an envelope.
After the Mirage opened, the shakedowns came regularly ? all of it caught on film and documented in daily memos by the reporters. When, for instance, the state liquor inspector came by, “He simply took all the money from the cash register,” recalled Pam Zekman, who convinced the Sun-Times to take on the tavern project after her old employers at the rival Chicago Tribune rejected the idea.
Zekman, now an investigative reporter for Chicago’s local CBS television station, was one of four journalists who reminisced about the sting for the SPJ crowd. While the Brehon Pub regulars shouted over U2 hits in the other room, the rapt SPJ members were as quiet as a symphony audience as they strained to hear the Mirage four speak. “It was a dream assignment ? and a nightmare,” Sun-Times columnist Zay N. Smith told the SPJ crowd.
Mixing alcohol and bribery made for thorny journalism ethics questions, while the chance of the sting being found out by corrupt officials ? or, worse, the Trib ? made for nervous workdays in the bar.
In the Mirage’s brief life, Smith was “Norty the bartender.” Smith actually went to bartending school to prepare for his role, but it didn’t exactly stick. He could never recall from memory how to make a Singapore Sling or other exotic drinks, so he made them all the same: tossing in a random assortment of fruit juices, a splash of grenadine ? and a heavy pour of gin. “One guy told me, ‘This is a different kind of Singapore Sling ? but it’s good,'” he said.
And the first time someone asked Zekman for a shot and a beer, she put the shot glass in the beer.
Workdays weren’t quite as zany for Jim Frost. One of two Sun-Times photographers assigned to the bar, he spent the days in a cramped hidden loft, waiting to shoot the bribe-passing from a fake ventilation vent. But the real vents in the loft were the problem, he said: they vented directly from the toilets. “It was the most stomach-wrenching, stressful project I’ve even done,” Frost told the SPJ members.
When the Sun-Times published the Mirage series, it caused an immediate sensation, but no one ever went to jail for it. And the corruption was truly petty, according to William Recktenwald, who was the Better Government Association’s chief investigator during the operation. “We spent a total of maybe $200” in bribes during the month the Mirage was open, he adds. But those petty amounts were a continuing burden on Chicago’s small-business owners.
The Mirage series helped break the corruption that had plagued small businesses in Chicago almost since its founding. When Pulitzer Prize season came along, the Sun-Times series looked like a lock ? until furious lobbying by editors of The Washington Post and others convinced jurors that disguising reporters as bar owners and bartenders was unethical reporting.
It’s still a sore subject with the Mirage veterans. “Every word in that series is right, everything documented ? there’s no Jimmy-the-8-year-old in there,” says Recktenwald. (The reference, of course, is to “Jimmy’s World,” the article about an eight-year-old heroin addict by Janet Cooke that won a 1981 Pulitzer Prize that the Post was forced to return when it was revealed that the entire story was fabricated.)
The series had no unidentified sources, he notes. And it was every bit as ethical as a restaurant critic not announcing his or her affiliation before sitting down for a meal. “Journalists may think of themselves as powerful, but there’s no rule we have to read Miranda rights to people,” adds Recktenwald, who went on to become a reporter at the rival Tribune and now is journalist in residence at Southern Illinois University.
With articles about the regulars and a bar brawl that nearly derailed the project, the Mirage series was a human interest story almost as much as an investigative piece. As Smith says above the din from the tipplers in the next room: “A tavern is a city writ small.”