Lisagors to honor Mirage Tavern team — 40 years later

Zay Smith, Pam Zekman and Bill Recktenwald in 2018 (Photo: Kevin Tanaka/Sun-Times)

The three legendary Chicago reporters who went undercover in 1978 to break the famous Mirage Tavern investigative series will be honored at this year’s Peter Lisagor Awards presentation.

Pam Zekman and Zay Smith, who were reporters for the Sun-Times, and Bill Recktenwald, who was chief investigator for the Better Government Association, will receive Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Chicago Headline Club. The group’s 41st annual Peter Lisagor Awards dinner will be May 11 at Union League Club, 65 West Jackson Boulevard.

Teri Arvesu

Named for the late Chicago Daily News Washington bureau chief, the Lisagor Awards recognize excellence in Chicago area journalism, including print, broadcast and digital media. Finalists in 115 categories were announced Thursday. (Here is the link to a complete list of nominees.)

Emcee of this year’s event will be Teri Arvesu, vice president of news and content at Univision Chicago Local Media. (Here is the link for tickets.)

Zekman, Smith and Recktenwald reunited earlier this year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the landmark 25-part series in the Sun-Times. The Sun-Times sponsored the reunion and panel discussion at Brehon Pub on the site of the original Mirage Tavern in River North.

Bill Recktenwald, Pam Zekman and Zay Smith in 1978

To expose the misconduct of city inspectors on the take, the Sun-Times bought the run-down bar 731 North Wells Street and documented the graft and corruption that walked in the door. Photographers Jim Frost and Gene Pesek captured it all.

At the retrospective in January, Zekman recalled pitching the idea to buy the tavern when she joined the Sun-Times from the Chicago Tribune’s investigative task force.

“Chicago does have a history for doing investigative reporting undercover when it’s necessary because there’s no other way to get the story, and there was truly no other way to get this story,” said Zekman, who’s been an investigative reporter at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2 since 1981. “We all thought it was very important to try to document it, because the corruption was so systemic.”

Although widely hailed, the Mirage series was denied a Pulitzer Prize by jurors (led by Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee) who believed the Sun-Times had crossed ethical lines by engaging in undercover deception.

Thursday’s comment of the day: Hannah Kohut: My God, I hope they sell and get the hell out of town. Current owners and board members have been digging the hole deeper and deeper. I back the Tribune staff 100%.