First there was Watergate. Then there was The Mirage.
Plenty of kids from around the nation got into journalism after reading — or watching — All the President’s Men. The Woodward/Bernstein book and subsequent blockbuster movie detailing the Washington Post journalists peeling away the layers of the stinking onion that was the then-worst political scandal in our nation’s history (it’s since been superseded by the revelation that Barack Obama was a communist, coke-addicted, gay-orgy-organizing, Muslim mole) made the two punk city beat reporters heroes to a generation.
It had been said a million times that the J-schools were flooded with new students post-W-gate but that turned out to be a myth. The fancy journalism reviews studied J-school admission records in subsequent years and found no great uptick. But those kids who did go into the likes of Northwestern’s Medill School or NYU or the University of Maryland from, say, 1975 through 1985 did so largely because they wanted to do what W/B had done — not necessarily bring down a presidency but uncover massive corruption and an attempt by bad people to, essentially, bring down American democracy. One journalism historian, a fellow named Gene Roberts, said Woodward & Bernstein’s work was “maybe the single greatest reporting effort of all time.”
Just three years after Richard Nixon resigned, several reporters and photographers for the Chicago Sun-Times convinced the paper to finance the purchase of a run-down bar in the city’s then-just-as-rundown River North neighborhood in order to get the real dope on the bribery and corruption that passed for normal every day in almost every business that was inspected by city departments at the time.
The white envelope stuffed with cash, the tens and twenties folded into palms and passed by handshake, the “gifts,” the free meals, the booze, whatever would work served as the currency for businesses to get passed by city inspectors. Chicagoans, for chrissakes, were even sort of proud of their town’s corruption. “You t’ink New York’s bad,” we’d all say to each other, ” d’ey got nuttin’ on us!”
The reporters and photogs were part of the Sun-Times‘ investigative reporting staff, something that all too few newspapers have anymore. Pam Zekman, Zay Smith, and Bill Recktenwald, along with camera guys Jim Frost and Gene Pesek for months operated the place, called The Mirage. All the while, the reporters took notes and the photographers, hidden behind false ceilings and walls, clicked away as building inspectors, Fire Department inspectors, liquor license bureau inspectors, and nominal gumshoes of every stripe came in with their hands out and took bribes to overlook violations that, conceivably, could have resulted in tragedy.
And then one day, the Sun-Times ran a huge front page headline that read, simply, “The Mirage.”
And, oh, how those inspectors wished it all had been. People lost their jobs. People went to jail. At the very least, the money tree’d been chopped down for a lot of city employees. And suddenly, Chicagoans, after reading about this whole dirty business, didn’t feel quite so proud about their corruption anymore.
The Sun-Times last week threw itself a bash celebrating the 40th anniversary of the series. The reporters and photographers were the guests of honor at the very site where The Mirage once operated. It’s now a snazzy, fashionable joint called Brehon’s in the even more snazzy and fashionable River North neighborhood.
Yeah, times change. Municipal corruption now entails big money men throwing big checks at big politicians’ campaign coffers in exchange for big public works projects and big permits to build big shrines to themselves. The little guys who pocketed those folded tens and twenties now are clean as whistles, honest as angels.
And the newspaper investigative reporting unit is as old school, as dead, as disco.
You’ve got to wonder: Have times changed for the better?
Even Bigger Talk
The new and improved Big Talk is back again this afternoon at 5:30 with my guest, aerial silks performer and drag king, Sue Rall.
I’m telling you, I love the new half-hour format. It pained me, back in the days of the eight-minute show, to have to toss away so much good conversation. I still toss away plenty of stuff — my interviews usually last an hour to an hour and a half — but now the Big Talk chat-fests reveal so much more of the humor, the lightness, the seriousness, the whys, the whats, and the essential whos of my guests.
Tune in every Thursday at 5:30pm, immediately following the Daily Local News, and then check back here every Friday morning for links to the online show. And — keep this in mind, if you would — every four weeks the Limestone Post runs a profile, clacked out by me, of that week’s guest. Next one? Coming February 22nd, Brother William Morris, attorney, civic volunteer. host of WFIU’s Soul Kitchen and — most importantly — WFHB alumnus.