Investigative Classics is a weekly feature on noteworthy past examples of the reporting craft.
Pamela Zekman knew that Chicago city inspectors demanded bribes to ignore violations. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter couldn’t get her sources to go on the record.
So she convinced her editors at the Chicago Sun-Times to let her buy a bar in 1977, which she and her colleagues operated. It was named, appropriately enough, the Mirage. The first article in the 25-part series summarized the parade of corruption they had witnessed:
- Payoffs of $10 to $100 grabbed by city inspectors who ignore health and safety hazards when the price is right.
- Shakedowns by state liquor inspectors who demand whatever is in the tavern’s cash register for their silence about liquor violations.
- Tax fraud by accountants who conspire to with taverns to cheat on state and federal taxes in a practice so widespread it may be costing Illinois $16 million in sales tax alone.
- Misconduct and negligence by public employees who loaf on the job, use city equipment for private gain and routinely demand cash under the table for what should be public services.
- Illegal kickbacks, tax skimming and offers of political fixes from jukebox and pinball machine operators – including one former policeman who alone may be failing to report a half-million dollars a year in taxable income.
Zekman and her colleague Zay N. Smith also described an entrenched system of corruption:
Private contractors came routinely to act as payoff go-betweens for city inspectors afraid to accept gifts from strangers.
The Mirage learned the system when it attempted construction including a urinal without a city permit and a food grill without adequate ventilation.
It was the plumbing contractor who talked to the plumbing inspector and reported back, “Everything’s all set. I’m going to add $50 on the bill to take care of him. He says he’ll look the other way.”
A similar payoff, this time for $100, worked for the food grill. But there was an added twist. A building inspector offered advice on how to cope with the ventilation inspector and avoid $2,000 worth of ductwork: “Maybe I can call him and he can come around and you can try to work it out. Maybe you can make a drop.”…
The Mirage, almost as it opened, became a favorite place for hustlers and loafers on the public payroll.
A city garbage crew grabbed 415 on the side when it agreed to pick up the Mirage’s garbage – a job strictly for private scavengers. The crew came back the next week and for 410 helped the Mirage clean its basement. It was all done with city equipment, on city time.
A city street crew laid out about $500 worth of the city’s asphalt along the east edge of Wells Street so the Mirage’s basement wouldn’t catch water. This was done, on a moment’s notice, in trade for a few drinks and the promise of a free lunch.
The Mirage series led to criminal charges - by June 1979, 18 city electrical inspectors had been convicted of bribery – and reform efforts at the city and state level.
But its most lasting impact may be on the practice of journalism. The series was an obvious contender for the Pulitzer Prize, sparking what board member Eugene C. Patterson called “the most fascinating debate ever heard at Pulitzer.”
At issue were the ethics of such undercover actions, a long celebrated aspect of the trade that was reviewing new scrutiny in the post-Watergate era. Patterson told the Washington Post, "All of us have been a party to some masquerade in the past and no one played holier-than-thou on the Board, but we've pulled up our ethical socks a whole lot. There's a stringent new code of ethics to the point that we very sparingly use these weapons of deception. I think The Mirage Bar had an element of entrapment."
Washington Post editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee, who was also on the Pulitzer board, added: "We instruct our reporters not to misrepresent themselves, period. We felt a Sun-Times award for this entry could send journalism on a wrong course."
The Mirage story, then, helped solidify new standards for the practice of journalism at mainstream outfits that greatly discouraged undercover operations – a standard lamented by Zekman among others.
Of course, that wasn't the end of such tactics. A year later, for example, one of Bradlee’s Post reporters, Neil Henry, “lived for two months as a bum” to report his 12-part series “Down & Out.”
Lately Post journalists haven't taken too kindly to some undercover journalism; they fought back last year when conservative "guerrilla journalism" outfit Project Veritas tried a video sting on them.
So clandestine news has gone from hoisting corrupt suds to media trying to hoist one another on their own petards.