There is an unwritten rule in journalism that reporters must never misrepresent themselves, which is adhered to except when it isn’t: Think of any undercover investigation you’ve seen, like the surreptitious videos documenting abuses in animal agriculture that should be enough to shock anyone’s conscience – who would want to argue that isn’t journalism, too?
Not us. Suppose for the sake of argument two TV news reporters got undercover footage of your supermarket selling old meat that had been washed with bleach to mask putrefaction, and cheese that was gnawed by rats. You would probably want to know; and you would count that as not just fair reporting but essential. But what if the reporters got the footage by obtaining employment at the supermarket under false pretenses? That was the conundrum with ABC News and the Food Lion grocery chain in 1992. Can we mislead to do good?
Before Food Lion there was the Mirage tavern, and there was Zay Smith, whose death last Monday at 71 reminded us of the story of the bar that he helped pull off, and for which he and other Chicago Sun-Times journalists almost won a Pulitzer.
In 1976, hoping to catch flagrantly corrupt city inspectors in the act of taking bribes, Sun-Times reporter Pam Zekman convinced her editor to buy a bar. Zekman and an investigator from a Chicago better-government group posed as husband and wife and negotiated the purchase in 1977 of the Firehouse, an unassuming joint near the Sun-Times, for $5,000 down, through a broker who offered to show them how to pay off city officials. Smith went to bartending school. After a hasty makeover, including installing a loft in the back behind a false wall for Sun-Times photographers, the Mirage was open for business in August. Smith, the lead writer, was behind the bar taking mental notes.
Four months later, after gathering proof of shakedowns as well as systematic tax fraud – “The plumbing inspectors, the building inspectors, the electric inspectors, the fire inspectors, they all took envelopes with money in them and they all passed us, and we should never have passed,” Smith recalled – the Mirage was closed and resold. Smith cranked the stories. And then the fun began. On Jan. 8, 1978, the Sun-Times debuted the first in a 25-part series about the Mirage. Readers were crazy for it. City and state officials were fired. Electrical inspectors were convicted of bribery.
The Sun-Times entered the series in that year’s Pulitzer Prizes. A jury nominated it for best Local Investigative Reporting. Then the nomination went to the Pulitzer board, where Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post, put the kibosh on it. “We instruct our reporters not to misrepresent themselves, period,” he said. “We felt a Sun-Times award for this entry could send journalism on a wrong course.”
If we are to judge by the right courses journalism has traveled over the last 40 years, the jury is still out on that. And the Mirage is still a landmark in journalism, and no one who remembers it will concede it is a cautionary tale because it was a whale of a tale.
“A few weeks later, The Washington Post started a series – and it was a good series – called ‘Down & Out,’” Smith said. “And what was the series? A Washington Post reporter pretended to be homeless for a period of time to see what was going on. So you tell me the difference.”
Smith was an investigative reporter and then a columnist at the Sun-Times until 2008. He and Zekman wrote a book, “The Mirage,” in 1979. In his columns, remembered a Chicago press critic, Smith blended sentimentality with “the feather-light touch of a safe cracker.”