Twenty-five years after the Mirage.
October 4, 2002 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Twenty-five years after the Mirage. Wade past the Bob Greene digression up high to the meat of this piece -- a look back at the Chicago Sun-Times' landmark investigative project, the Mirage Tavern. The premise: What if a newspaper opened a bar? Who would come calling? In this case, a parade of petty scammers on a variety of public and private payrolls, each with their hand out for a shakedown. It was a singular look at corruption at the small-business level, a 25-day series people actually read and chuckled over, and yet it was denied the Pulitzer Prize and marked a watershed moment, after which undercover journalism was seen as fundamentally dishonest
posted by nance (31 comments total)

 
The Mirage Bar is a great story. It's the kind of story you can't get just by interviewing a lot of people. There are times journalists should be deceptive and times they should not. The Mirage Bar is an example of a time when deception worked.
posted by stevefromsparks at 2:02 PM on October 4, 2002


I'm familiar with Bradlee et al's argument that "truth-telling enterprises should not be involved in deception"; the cynical journalist in me suggests that excuse is itself a deception, a way to justify avoiding the type of journalism that not only exposes how things work but is exactly the kind of stories that touch reader's day-to-day lives. Sure, post-Watergate there were all sorts of crazy schemes; sure, some of them may have brushed ethical lines or, if followed through on, tarnished the name of journalism.

Oh, and as Bradlee et al knew, they are expensive. One of the main reasons there is less and less investigative projects is because it takes loadsadough to remove a journalist -- and maybe a researcher, photographer, editor, etc -- from the day to day grind of feeding the goat and letting them design and run projects like Mirage. And then there are the legal bills. And then there's the fact that many projects just never work out. For every deep throat, there's 10 nutjobs with an alluring "leak" that is, in fact, bogus.

But back to the point: There is an important principle that says the public's right to know trumps almost all ethical concerns. Since I'm a 'Nuck, I should caveat that with the reminder that we (generally) hold the public's right to know does not include the merely sensational but information and issues that affect public health, government integrity, etc.

Sure, opening, running a bar is an expensive proposition: So is living in a city with endemic municipal corruption and powerful organized crime.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:16 PM on October 4, 2002


The biggest joke of Bradlee's quote is that reporting would be impossible without the biggest con of all -- the line every journalist peddles each time they interview a source: You can trust me. Tell me what you know and I won't fuck you over. When journalism is at its heart a confidence game, I don't see why undercover operations like the Mirage ought to be frowned upon.
posted by rcade at 2:36 PM on October 4, 2002


I am very down with the public servant conception of the journalist. Journalistic ethics, to me, is an unyielding alliance with the reader. They are the only concern, sources be damned. Journalists have no obligations to those involved in the topics they cover, even when they're private citizens, and the only reason that journalists respect sources wishes regarding anonymity, etc., is to ensure their ability to serve their audience in the long term. I actually am even ambivalent about most newspapers' policy (including the AP) of not reporting the identities of rape victims, and agree with it primarily because otherwise relations with law enforcement would greatly deteriorate (I do empathize with the victims greatly- this is a measure of just how strongly I feel about the bond to the audience).

I think the Mirage project was very well concieved, great journalism, the stuff audiences both need and want. Wish it had been recognized.
posted by gsteff at 2:45 PM on October 4, 2002


Great article, nance, thanks for posting it. There are more details here and here (search for "mirage"). The paper actually "notified the Illinois law enforcement authorities who monitored the whole thing to make sure there was no question of entrapment." And here's an interview with Pam Zekman, the woman who came up with the idea. There was also a book.

I understand the objections to this kind of hidden-camera investigation - Photographers hid in a secret compartment above a bathroom - but they're not convincing. Setting up the bar doesn't involve anything like, say, lying on your resume to get a job at a company you want to investigate, a tactic Miner notes can be legally actionable. Besides, with the success of "Caught on Camera!" and the like, TV news has no problem running minor undercover stings of neighborhood plumbers and refrigerator repairmen. It's only the big targets they shy away from now.

Is anyone else amazed the Sun-Times could run a bar with journalists as employees and not go bankrupt in a week? ;)
posted by mediareport at 2:54 PM on October 4, 2002


gsteff: Journalistic ethics, to me, is an unyielding alliance with the reader. They are the only concern, sources be damned.

What about looking at yourself in the mirror every morning? Do we damn that, too? You go too far, gsteff - way too far. Honoring promises made to sources isn't done *only* to keep those sources around for a later story.

rcade: reporting would be impossible without the biggest con of all -- the line every journalist peddles each time they interview a source: You can trust me. Tell me what you know and I won't fuck you over.

Bullshit. Like most jobs, interviewing a source for a potentially incriminating story is a balancing act, an intriguing puzzle and a serious challenge. It's hardly "at its heart" a con game.
posted by mediareport at 3:03 PM on October 4, 2002


Bullshit.

Completely unnecessary.
posted by rcade at 3:10 PM on October 4, 2002


The paper had to notify Illinois law enforcement authorities because it's illegal to bribe public officials. They weren't going to do the project unless they got someone to go along, so the equivalent of the Illinois state police agreed to participate, saving the Sun-Times of having to ask local police to participate (and thus tipping off potential targets). After they'd make a bribe, they had a telephone number they would call and dictate a memo of what happened. The book is not especially well written, but I think all journalists should read it to get insight into the story.
posted by stevefromsparks at 3:27 PM on October 4, 2002


Completely unnecessary.

Which would be unlike your crack that my job is at heart a con game how, exactly?

Here, I'll apologize first. ;)
posted by mediareport at 3:40 PM on October 4, 2002


I'm a journalism graduate and a former newspaper reporter, mediareport. I know how the profession works, and I think it's a valuable and worthwhile calling. However, anyone who is any good at interviewing is a con artist, seducing people into saying more than they should, often with great subtlety and artistry.
posted by rcade at 4:10 PM on October 4, 2002


Not quite the same as "I'm going to fuck you over," though, is it?
posted by mediareport at 4:14 PM on October 4, 2002


Does the book have the actual text of the stories? I realized, reading this, that while I know a lot about the series, and I saw the "60 Minutes" segment, I never actually read the stories. I was intrigued by Miner's description of people on the el laughing at the funny parts. An investigative project with funny parts? This thing *was* a miracle.
posted by nance at 4:17 PM on October 4, 2002


"However, anyone who is any good at interviewing is a con artist, seducing people into saying more than they should, often with great subtlety and artistry."

From my experience -- both as a reporter doing spot news and features, including investigative stuff -- I've found this is not often the case. There is some weird piece of human DNA that seemingly compels people to talk to journalists. Even people who should know better or have something to hide. God bless it; my job would be much more difficult, and our society much more fragmented and suspicious, without it.

Yes, interviewing is an art. And yes, some journalists -- heck, most good journalists -- know when to lay on the charm and when to bring out the hammer. But saying we somehow con people suggests to me you didn't spend much time in the biz.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:24 PM on October 4, 2002


People talk too much to the press out of vanity and stupidity.

But saying we somehow con people suggests to me you didn't spend much time in the biz.

I love how journalism can't be discussed by journalists without it quickly becoming a size competition. I worked in the profession for around 14 years. Long enough for you?
posted by rcade at 4:50 PM on October 4, 2002


Seems like it was more than enough time for you.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:04 PM on October 4, 2002


I love journalism. I just don't have to blow smoke up my own ass to feel good about it.
posted by rcade at 5:19 PM on October 4, 2002


Hey, here's an idea: Let's take it down a notch. I've always been able to talk to journalists - the smart ones, anyway - without "size competitions." Of course, we do call "bullshit" on each other regularly. :)

The only point I'm objecting to, rcade, is your very strong implication that journalism inherently involves "fucking people over." If that's not what you meant by this:

reporting would be impossible without the biggest con of all -- the line every journalist peddles each time they interview a source: You can trust me. Tell me what you know and I won't fuck you over.

...then what did you mean?
posted by mediareport at 5:27 PM on October 4, 2002


Now I know how magicians feel when they publicly reveal how a trick is done and draw the outrage of their peers.

What did I mean? Exactly what I said: Journalism wouldn't be possible without sources who were led to believe they wouldn't be fucked over, and there are many, many instances where journalists know that's exactly what will happen when a story sees print. It amuses me to no end that people are still willing to talk to 60 Minutes with a camera pointed up their nostrils.

Most journalists exhibit varying degrees of nobility and higher purpose on the job, but I don't know any who end interviews when they venture into territory that would be bad for the source on professional, legal, or personal grounds.

"Are you sure you should be telling me this about your son's weapon collection, Ma'am? Couldn't this be used against him at his upcoming trial?"

The idea that a reporter has a source's best interests in mind is a huge con. Even in the instances where a reporter does exhibit reluctance to run something, editors will run it anyway.

If one of my family members was embroiled in a controversy that was a subject of press inquiry, the first thing I would tell them is "don't trust any reporters!" I think many journalists would offer the same advice.
posted by rcade at 7:37 PM on October 4, 2002


Pam Zekman was one of the mike-wielding reporters at the end of The Fugitive, along with John Drummond, another real fixture of Chicago media. Lester Holt also appeared, years before his sudden success at MSNBC and the Today Show.

I'm not so sure it was the kind of watershed you say, nance; in many ways Watergate had spurred a new era of investigative journalism, but the Mirage series in its own fashion showed the limits of that approach. The debate on entrapment in law enforcement holds some of the same ethical quandaries: aren't the police supposed to be honest? Many people are surprised to learn that it is legal for the police to lie during an interrogation. Those limits, in reporting as well as in law, are still being probed, as with the Chiquita Banana voicemail case. The reporting seemed good, but the information was obtained by a technique that opened the paper up to criminal charges, and they were forced to disavow the entire story, and bail on the reporter.

Ultimately there's probably truth in the idea that reporting based on criminal deception is dangerously poisonous to the fruity tree of truth that newspapers, especially still, hold dear. When you consider that the freedom accorded reporters in earlier eras amounted, often, to gross invasions of privacy (e.g. the City News reporters who would break into houses to get photographs of crime victims), has its own dangers.

Another case shows that these questions remain relevant: India's Tehelkagate scandal.
posted by dhartung at 9:34 PM on October 4, 2002


Journalism wouldn't be possible without sources who were led to believe they wouldn't be fucked over, and there are many, many instances where journalists know that's exactly what will happen when a story sees print.

Which, of course, implies that there are instances where journalists *don't* have to fuck over sources to create journalism. Nice backing off, rcade; you've made my point nicely. It's the specific paper/reporter situation that matters, not some massive flaw inherent in the profession.

The idea that a reporter has a source's best interests in mind is a huge con.

So let me get this straight. A source that comes to a reporter at personal risk of their job (because, let's say, they believe that reporter has been generally fair in print) and asks for help revealing a wrong - that source is someone whose best interests it's *impossible* for the reporter to keep in mind. Is that what you're saying?

If so, I call that bu..I mean, horse hockey. You're overgeneralizing like mad. I've been in plenty of situations where a source gave me valuable information in confidence, and I honored that confidence even though the story would have been more effective - even sexier - with the information attributed. I didn't "fuck over" my sources then, and I wouldn't now.

I.e., journalism *was* possible without fucking someone over. Just admit you overgeneralized horribly and move on, rcade.
posted by mediareport at 11:59 PM on October 4, 2002


mediareport: I've heard serious journalists say practically the same thing as rcade has, without being jumped on for it - to wit, that the interview process did not evolve with the best interests of the subject in mind, etc., and is in fact perfectly suited for giving people enough rope to hang themselves, etc. Can't name any specific names, but I'm more than sure that rcade's sentiment isn't new or particularly controversial. That the public interest may be served by interviewing doesn't make it any less of a confidence game, in a certain sense.
posted by raysmj at 6:24 AM on October 5, 2002


An investigative-reporter friend of mine compares the Chiquita case to "when the cops bust into your house without a warrant and find a pound of cocaine on your coffee table. You're not going to jail, but you still had a pound of cocaine."

I can see the objections to undercover journalism -- although we still accept that police can go undercover, and draw a very shaky line at "entrapment" -- but I was touched by the comment of the Mirage participant who said "all we did was what any citizen should be able to do -- open a business." It was impossible to do so without involving yourself in wrongdoing; why isn't demonstrating that, in a vivid, entertaining, immediate way, good journalism? The new view is you leave this stuff to the police and then beg for the crumbs from the table. It's hard to see that as a victory for truth.
posted by nance at 6:31 AM on October 5, 2002


The reporting seemed good, but the information was obtained by a technique that opened the paper up to criminal charges

The reporting didn't just "seem" good, dhartung; it *was* good, and only a very tiny percentage of the information was obtained by the voicemail theft. Read the Chiquita series for yourself and I think you'll agree. And start boycotting Chiquita.

and they were forced to disavow the entire story, and bail on the reporter.

I hope you don't think I'm nitpicking, but the Enquirer wasn't "forced" to disavow the entire story; it *chose* to disavow the entire story and make the quick payout and abject apology rather than tell the truth. They didn't have to go that route, although there was clearly fault in what the reporter did.

raysmj: The interview process is a con game "in a certain sense" just like any business negotiation is a con game "in a certain sense." I'll grant you that much. The idea that I have to "fuck people over" to do an effective interview or write an effective story, however, is nonsense. I personally know of only one reporter who I feel believes that; in fact, there was more than one occasion on which I had to work my "con" extra hard to make up for the skepticism of reporters he'd left in his wake. He left town just about the same time I started hearing from folks on his beat that they were refusing to talk to him ever again. Not certain those two things were related, but I have my suspicions.
posted by mediareport at 6:56 AM on October 5, 2002


You don't "fuck people over" in an interview. But you have the potential to do so (which is all rcade was saying, I think), and, as noted, certain aspects of interviewing are designed to get info out of people that they wouldn't otherwise give. It's not like a careful cross-examination process, where you're sure both sides are biased in favor of clients or the state and absolutely trying their darndest to trip you up.

Which makes me think: I've been a witness before. It's unnerving. I've been interviewed too, about a minor, uncontroversial subject. The reporter was beyond pleasant and courteous, I was barely quoted, and it was all in all a kinda fun experience. Still, I was asked a couple of questions that, if I had answered them in an unthinking manner or hadn't known the tricks of of the trade, might have left me looking like a jerk or moron. I doubt this was intentional on the reporter's part, but I caught myself quickly. There was, I think, no ill will there. It was instead just an intuitive thing. It's hard to describe.

It seems apparent to me that the interview process just evolved in such a way as to effect a certain type of interviewer-subject relationship, to people in certain roles that they play out despite themselves. But it's not clear from the start what these roles are. As such, journalism does not represent an even halfway scientific or rational means at getting at the truth. Journalists aren't "professionals" like doctors or attorneys. Journalism does the world a lot of good, but it would be better (and the writing more interesting), I think, if journalists would just feel free to be journalists and not worried about being seen as professionals.
posted by raysmj at 7:35 AM on October 5, 2002


oh, and mediareport: The basic idea behind interviews is not to gain the truth, but to get news for the next day's paper or the next TV news show or Internet update. More precisely, the process can't be rational or halfway scientific because it's raison d'etre is to bring you news (without which you have no newspaper, Internet report or TV show) as quickly as possible.
posted by raysmj at 8:03 AM on October 5, 2002


Okay, you guys have to stop this. You're giving us all a bad name. Yes, reporters sometimes print stuff that hurts people who trusted them, no, it's not a general rule, yes, most reporters do try to protect the innocent, and yes, most reporters would advise their friends not to talk to the press.

To get back to the subject, the case that made me crazy was the ABC Food Lion story, where two reporters lied on fake resumes to get jobs in a supermarket. They found the butchers painting old meat with BLEACH for resale but the story became a big hoo-ha about their ethics, not the market's. Let's balance two lies, shall we? "I'm an out of work supermarket employee and I don't have a hidden camera" vs "this rancid meat with bleach on it is good to eat, let's sell it to a lot of unsuspecting people."
The reporters - who were out to help the public (and yeah, maybe get a little glory) - ended up with a $5 million judgement against them, later overturned. And the chilling effect means more wrongdoing that could have been ferreted out with a little journalistic deception is going on freely.
posted by CunningLinguist at 12:12 PM on October 5, 2002


Okay, you guys have to stop this. You're giving us all a bad name.

Er, you might want to try presenting the Food Lion case fairly before telling someone else they're giving the profession a bad name. The federal trial took place just up the road in Greensboro; the facts are rather more complex than CunningLinguist's version:

"Food Lion claims that when ABC used hidden-camera footage of a Food Lion employee talking about how she had cooked a batch of out-of-date chicken, it edited out the part where she says she brought the matter up with her manager, who directed her to throw the chicken away. Food Lion even claimed the ABC producers had staged entire scenes...In one case found in the outtakes shown by Food Lion in court, an ABC employee sold a piece of moldy kielbasa sausage to two other ABC employees, while both parties to the transaction filmed it with hidden cameras. 'PrimeTime staged nothing,' Sawyer said in the piece."

There's more at stake here than a fake resume. According to the Greensboro News & Record's city editor at the time (writing at mediaresearch.org, if the conservative site matters), the reason Food Lion's lawyers went after the fraud rather than libel is that they decided it would be too difficult to prove malice. But he says the jury saw outtakes like this:

An ABC producer working in the meat department, speculating that the "sell-by" date on some chicken had expired, then putting the chicken on sale anyway and telling a cameraman to film it.

That's more than "a little journalistic deception," CunningLinguist.

raysmj: journalism does not represent an even halfway scientific or rational means at getting at the truth.

I couldn't disagree more with the statement above, raysmj, or your generalization about the interviewer-subject relationship. And the speed vs. accuracy balancing act is old news, but "getting it first" is hardly the sole raison d'etre of journalism. At its best, journalism is at least as good a method for "getting at the truth" as science.
posted by mediareport at 2:17 PM on October 5, 2002


Says you.

And lots of people say otherwise. I read and listen to all kinds of news / journalism, and have recently started to become disillusioned with sources I used to trust.

When I hear Morning Edition's Bob Edwards asking leading questions designed to put the interviewee in a position to get sucker-punched 60 seconds down the line, I come to the conclusion that there are few, if any, trustworthy journalists, print or otherwise

Now, having said that, I want to explain that it's not intended as a slam against journalists, but rather a slam against people. Most people don't have any ability to be objective - it doesn't matter whether they're a journalist, a scientist, or a ditch digger. We're all wrapped up in our own perceptions / agenda / truth / whatever you wish to call it. And, we want to push that truth to convince others of correctness of our "truth".

The slam on journalists is not that they are any worse than any other group of people in the world. They're not. It's just that they like to pretend that they are so much nobler than the rest of us, when they are so devoted to getting the dirt (third hand example by Stanley Fish located here).

As a result of hundreds of anecdotal accounts like this, as well as my own experiences as a consumer of journalism, one of my lifelong goals is never to be involved in any kind of story for any reason. To paraphrase a bad Matthew Broderick movie - "The only safe way to deal with journalists is not to play".
posted by Irontom at 7:03 AM on October 7, 2002


When I hear Morning Edition's Bob Edwards asking leading questions designed to put the interviewee in a position to get sucker-punched 60 seconds down the line, I come to the conclusion that there are few, if any, trustworthy journalists, print or otherwise

The same goes for "scientific" research that's been bought and paid for by corporate interests. The point is the methods themselves are both useful and valuable tools. I don't see how Bob Edwards' failures have anything to do with the inherent value of journalism as a method for getting at truth.
posted by mediareport at 5:09 PM on October 8, 2002


My insinuation was that Bob Edwards was the top of the journalistic heap, in my opinion. This is because a great deal of his stuff is live interviews, not cut up to present a particular point (as is done in taped interviews and print journalism).

However, when I see the man I regard as the best example of his profession engaging in tactics that are debatable questionable clearly one sided, I come to the conclusion that the vanity of journalists that they are somehow more objective in reporting the "truth" to us is laughable.

Did you read the article I linked to? It clearly described this same kind of chicanery. The public knows something is wrong. Hell, even members of your own profession admit that something is clearly wrong. Why do you persist in maintaining that everything is just great?
posted by Irontom at 5:10 AM on October 10, 2002


What are you talking about? When did I claim "everything is just great" in journalism? It's obviously not. And I know about the Committee of Concerned Journalists, thanks. Again, my point referred to the argument that the inherent nature of science makes it a better tool for "getting at truth" than the inherent nature of journalism. Regardless of the practice of journalism as experienced by Stanley Fish, the method of journalism remains a great, useful tool for understanding and spreading truth. Similarly, the scientific method remains a great, useful tool for understanding truth regardless of the practice experienced by certain criminal defendants.

I liked his on-air presence well enough, but Bob Edwards struck me as less an investigative journalist than a news anchor. No disrespect intended, but the Robert Friedman link above about Israel/Palestine seems to me a much better example of the craft at its peak.

I'm curious to learn if you'd agree.
posted by mediareport at 6:41 PM on October 10, 2002


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