Mirage (n) 2. Something that appears real or possible but is not.
January 9, 2013 3:14 PM   Subscribe

"It looked like any neighborhood tavern in Chicago. The beer was cold, the bratwursts hot."

"The Mirage Tavern was a drinking establishment at 731 N. Wells St. in Chicago purchased by the Chicago Sun-Times in 1977 to investigate widespread allegations of official corruption and shakedowns visited on small businesses by city officials. The journalists used hidden cameras to help ensure that city inspectors caught accepting payoffs for ignoring safety hazards were all properly documented."

Thirty-five years ago this week, the Sun-Times began a 25-part series, which documented its work with government watchdog organization Better Government Association and venerated TV news program 60 Minutes* to capture the shakedowns, shoddy inspections, and graft galore. And now Sun-Times digital editor Marcus Gilmer is reposting every story on the day it ran in 1977 here along with additional reporting and details.

* Related: this WBEZ/NPR story about the origin of the plan which gives a great summary of the players, how things were done in Chicago back then, and the changes it inspired; it also provides the amusing detail that Mike Wallace's visits to the bar almost blew the cover. (In a post-Super Bowl episode of 60 Minutes that aired the evening after the first Mirage story ran in the paper, Wallace ended up interviewing Phil Barasche - known as Mr. Fixit - a local accountant who gave the new 'small business owners'/enterprising reporters advice on what the going rates for appropriate bribes were and how to keep cooked books.)

(Previously Metafilter discussed the Mirage story at 25.)
posted by MCMikeNamara (12 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of the original Mirage Tavern stories are reprinted in the book, which is worth hunting down if you are interested in the whole thing.

Hard to imagine any kind of media outlet doing something like this today.
posted by enn at 3:17 PM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

The only officials he warned against bribing were the police, noting that "if you pay off a cop, they keep coming around every month, like flies, looking for a payoff".
That's kinda funny and kinda terrible, both at the same time.
posted by yeoz at 3:17 PM on January 9, 2013

The fact that this is news is making me feel very old.
posted by Pararrayos at 3:27 PM on January 9, 2013

The reason I would be a horrible undercover reporter/bartender/anything is that every time the phone rang and I answered it "Mirage Tavern", I would laugh and laugh and laugh at how clever we were being.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 4:18 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nowadays the media is so in bed with the powers that be that there would never be such a thing as this again. Sad really.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 4:19 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

That customers photo on the Wikipedia page looks a lot like a metafitler meetup
posted by srboisvert at 5:08 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

When my sister-in-law and her husband were trying to move out of Chicago about 15 years ago, they had to have a city housing inspector sign off on the paperwork before the house sale could close. He kept coming back and coming back, and never signing. Things like, "loose pipe fittings," "improperly latched windows," etcetera. They could not figure out what to do, or what was going on. Finally, their realtor told them directly: "You must give him $500, in cash, next time he shows up." They couldn't believe it, but wanted desperately to finish up so they could move out of state. They gave the guy the cash, but still feel crummy about it.
posted by Malla at 5:38 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's astonishing to me that the only copies of these landmark articles available for reproduction appear to be on crummy microfilm.
posted by Scram at 11:34 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Almost a decade ago, I worked at a specialty deli/import store in Chicago. It was the second deli I'd ever worked at, but the first in Chicago. I remember I was absolutely shocked by their methods of sanitation (a moist rag on the counter next to the slicers all day long, no date-tracking of any meats or in-house salads) but it was the only job I found and I was good at it. While I was there, the family who had owned the place since the 1950s sold the deli. Some time during the transition, there was a health department inspection. I watched the inspector walk the store with a look of disdain on his face; I just KNEW we would be shut down. The old owner, the new owner and the inspector sat down at the table in the kitchen in back. As they talked for a bit I passed through and I swear I saw greenery change hands. We stayed open. I later offered my sanitation training experience, and we replaced the all-day damp rags with measured sanitizer water buckets. We started tracking in-out dates from receiving/making the salads. We started keeping temperature logs of the coolers. We started wearing gloves and encouraged the employees to WASH THEIR HANDS. In less than 2 years, the new owners ran the place out of business. But man, before seeing that process I thought all the tales of "the machine" from my parents were just stories of a bygone era.
posted by onehalfjunco at 12:04 AM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nowadays the media is so in bed with the powers that be that there would never be such a thing as this again. Sad really.

It doesn't seem like local newspapers and television will ever have the funding for this kind of investigating again. Or that bloggers or social media can fill the gap very well in cases like this.

Print Newspaper Advertising Revenue Adjusted for inflation 1950 to 2011
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:20 AM on January 10, 2013

Point of order: scribd sucks.
posted by Twang at 9:27 AM on January 10, 2013

It's astonishing to me that the only copies of these landmark articles available for reproduction appear to be on crummy microfilm.

Point of order: scribd sucks.

Yes and yes. On one hand, I LOVE seeing the stories in their original format.* But on the other, couldn't the text be somewhere else too?

Of course, if the Sun-Times published a paper that was just the same paper they published 100/50/35 years ago, I'd probably be a daily paid subscriber, so I may be a weird outlier when it comes to "what newspapers should be doing with their money."

Related: I really regret not putting a direct link to this cutaway illustration in the original post because there is something about it that is so beautiful I want to live in it, obvious seediness and all. I've printed it out and hung it in my cubicle as a secret reminder to myself to always do things better. (I am not in a creative field.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:20 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older The Accidental Birth of the 12" Single   |   Mushi Mushi Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments