Magazine article Editor & Publisher

One 'Mirage' That Proved All Too Real

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

One 'Mirage' That Proved All Too Real

Article excerpt

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. …

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