The Mirage: A fake tavern that uncovered real corruption (ten bucks at a time)

In 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times bought and ran a bar. For real. Only for a few months, but it was enough to create one of the all-time great stories– and great achievements– in Chicago journalism.

Building inspector picks up his $15 bribe at the Mirage Tavern

Building inspector Burt Herrera picks up his $15 bribe at the Mirage Tavern (Photo by Jim Frost for the Chicago Sun-Times)

So Pam Zekman– then a reporter at the Sun-Times– had the idea that the only way to document this story was to live it. Her boss agreed, and– with help from the Better Government Association– they sent her out to shop for a tavern. (Bars were, and are, subject to more regulation and inspection than almost any other small business.)

Here’s how it happened: Reporters got calls all the time from small-business owners saying they were sick and tired of being shaken down for bribes by city inspectors. But nobody would go on the record. They figured the city would find a way to get back at them, and they were probably right.

So Pam Zekman– then a reporter at the Sun-Times– decided that the only way to document this story was to live it.

Her boss agreed, and– with help from the Better Government Association– they sent her out to shop for a tavern. (Bars were, and are, subject to more regulation and inspection than almost any other small business.) By September, the Mirage Tavern was ready to open.

By then, they had already found corrupt inspectors aplenty, along with a spectacularly sleazy accountant who called himself “Mr. Fixit,” and who gave them specific instructions about how to pay off a city inspector.

The big surprise? How cheaply the inspectors could be bought. Ten, twenty bucks, and many of them would ignore anything.

During the two months they were in business, they had some interesting customers– including a gun-runner, a bookie, and plenty of city workers coming in for a beer or three while supposedly on the clock. And they got to know the neighbors– like the folks who ran the brothel down the street.

After they folded up shop, on Halloween, they took a couple months to fact-check some details and write up the results. The first stories were published on Sunday, January 8, 1978 (followed, that same evening, by a 60 Minutes segment in which Mike Wallace got Mr. Fixit to acknowledge, on national TV, that he routinely committed tax fraud, using the line, “Look, between you and me…”).

As a result, city workers got suspended and lost their jobs, and a lot of people got embarrassed. But–hey, this is Chicago– nobody went to jail.

I got to take a look back at the project– and interview some of the journalists who pulled it off–for WBEZ, on today’s episode of Venture. Look there for a longer writeup, or to download the audio.

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