The Story Behind the Chicago Newspaper that Bought a Bar – Topic

“By 1976, reporter Pam Zekman was well-acquainted with the everyday corruption that permeated Chicago. After all, the city was so well-known for shady dealings it birthed its own shorthand: ‘Chicago-style politics’ was used with frequency to describe boss-style rule and graft in government. 

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.”

—Andy Wright, “The Story Behind the Chicago Newspaper that Bought a Bar.” Topic. Issue No. 4, October 2017.

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