A toast to undercover journalism’s greatest coup, when reporters bought a bar

The Mirage Tavern—now the Brehon Pub—was purchased in 1977 by the Chicago Sun-Times and run by journalists who used the bar to expose corrupt city officials. Photo by Jackie Spinner.

THE MIRAGE TAVERN was never only what it seemed.

In 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times bought a tavern in downtown Chicago and set up one of the most elaborate undercover stings in American journalism history. The bartenders were reporters and investigators. The repairman was a photographer. There was a hole in the ceiling for cameras, and bar stools were positioned just so, to catch city inspectors accepting bribes in exchange for ignoring health and safety violations at a sleazy tavern in Chicago’s Near North Side neighborhood.

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In a 25-part series, Sun-Times writer Zay N. Smith (known as Norty when he tended bar), Sun-Times reporter Pam Zekman, and Bill Recktenwald, the lead investigator for the watchdog Better Government Association, detailed a Chicago underworld of bribery, skimming, and tax evasion. The series ultimately led to indictments for a third of the city’s electrical inspectors, and major reforms in city and state codes.

Forty years later, in the very same bar—now under new ownership, spruced up, and renamed the Brehon Pub— a crowd dominated by journalists raised their glasses into the air on Thursday night at a sold-out event that felt at times like a last toast to undercover journalism.

A Mirage jacket worn by the son of Zay Smith, who reported the undercover series with colleagues. Photo by Jackie Spinner.

“As an industry, we’ve written [undercover reporting] off because of the ethical challenges it poses, and frankly it’s a cost issue,” Sun-Times editor-in-chief Chris Fusco, a longtime investigative reporter himself, tells CJR*. “To be able to pull this off today would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, insurance, liability.”

We all have adopted that FOIA and shoe-leather reporting are king, and when you don’t identify yourself as a reporter you have crossed an ethical line.

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Undercover journalism still happens in America. But a review of New York University’s digital library of undercover reporting suggests that such work now happens on a much smaller scale, with only one or two reporters involved in each project. Most recently, journalist Shane Bauer spent four months undercover as a prison guard for an inside look at the American penal system for Mother Jones. (After Bauer’s story ran, Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein and editor-in-chief Clara Jeffrey detailed the “considerable financial risk” the story carried, and the magazine’s efforts to enable similar reporting in the future.) Investigative journalists Mariana van Zeller and Darren Foster host a series on the National Geographic channel called Inside: Secret America that uses undercover journalism techniques to show viewers the private worlds of covert animal rights activists and American sex slaves.

“In my history as an investigative reporter, we all have adopted that FOIA and shoe-leather reporting are king, and when you don’t identify yourself as a reporter you have crossed an ethical line,” Fusco says.

The Mirage stories harkened back to a time when a scrappy tabloid could have an entire city riveted around a newspaper series. “People were following it every day on the train like a soap opera,” Zekman told the crowd.

One of the few people to take issue with the Mirage series at the time of publication was Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post. Bradlee successfully argued against the stories winning the Pulitzer Prize because of the undercover tactics used to expose the corruption—claiming that running the bar created a conflict of interest for the journalists, and betrayed their credibility. The bar sting was the largest undercover journalism sting of its kind in 1978—and still is. At the time, however, some powerful, mostly East Coast editors turned up their noses at the “Chicago-style” tactics that Recktenwald and Zekman used to expose voter fraud and nursing home abuse to lawyers and doctors faking accidents for insurance claims.

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“In all, nobody has ever challenged us that anything was made up,” Recktenwald tells CJR. “Everybody we had who was named was given an opportunity to respond. Nobody questioned what we did. Most people said ‘You were spot-on,’ and enough changes have been made that it’s pretty clear that we were spot-on.”

Recktenwald, who went on to be an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune and now teaches journalism at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, notes that The Washington Post eventually embraced the same tactics Bradlee criticized. In 1983, only a few years after the Mirage series, Post reporter Neil Henry went undercover as a migrant worker.

In 2008, Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for a story exposing mistreatment of soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. Recktenwald mentions the story in a 2013 piece about the Mirage series’ impact, and includes a quote from the Post story that describes reporters “visiting the outpatient ward without the knowledge or permission of Walter Reed officials.”

In all, nobody has ever challenged us that anything was made up… Nobody questioned what we did. Most people said ‘You were spot-on,’ and enough changes have been made that it’s pretty clear that we were spot-on.

Should news organizations still be doing this kind of undercover work? Zekman, a two-time Pulitzer winner who has worked as an investigative reporter at the CBS affiliate in Chicago since 1981, looked out into the crowd of journalists and others gathered at the former Mirage Tavern and asked the question. Hands shot up, and people started to applaud.  This is a city that won’t be bullied by someone else’s idea of journalism. This is Chicago.

A former reporter slipped me a note. “In an era in which media outlets run the term ‘shithole’ second hand because they want to tell the truth, surely undercover journalism can be a viable strategy to that truth….”

“Do you want me to quote you?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Just use it yourself.”

This is journalism today: Reporters with things to say, former reporters with things to say, all of us crowded into a room to discuss what it was like when we could say it, when we could convince our editors to take a chance on a hunch because we knew—we knew—we had a story.

“I would never claim we stopped corruption in Chicago,” Zekman told the crowd. “But I know that it had a huge effect on the inspectors. It made them think twice.”

Someone asked Zekman if she knew what ever happened to the inspectors singled out in the series for taking a bribe.

“I’m not aware any of these folks are on the city payroll,” she said. Then she paused. “If someone is, would you please tell me?”

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Correction: This story previously identified Fusco as the Sun-Times’ managing editor. He is the editor in chief. 

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.