Zekman was part of a four-person Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team at the Chicago Tribune, where she had gone undercover in a nursing home, for a collections agency, in a hospital, and at a precinct polling place, exposing wrongdoings ranging from medical malpractice to election fraud. “We had become known for doing this kind of undercover reporting with one caveat: When there’s no other way to get the story,” says Zekman. “We didn’t do it just for the idea of doing it and we did not do it cavalierly. ”
When Zekman was poached by a rival paper, the feisty Chicago Sun-Times, she proposed a daring project that would go down in the annals of journalism history as both a feat of reporting and a focal point for ethics debates still raging today. For years, Zekman had been collecting tips about city employees extracting bribes from local businessmen, but couldn’t get sources to go on the record; she figured the only way to get the story would be to get inside the system. So she convinced her paper to buy a bar. They would staff it with newspaper workers, run it like any other watering hole (with some notable exceptions that included concealed photographers), and wait to see what happened. It was named, appropriately, the Mirage. The voices in this story are:
PAM ZEKMAN, reporter, Chicago Sun-Times
ZAY N. SMITH, reporter, Chicago Sun-Times
JIM FROST, photographer, Chicago Sun-Times
BILL RECKTENWALD, investigator, Better Government Association
Interviews have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.