The first event occurred in 1977, when the Chicago Sun-Times surreptitiously purchased a tavern riddled with building-code violations, so it could document how many city inspectors and fire marshals could be bought off with a stack of $10 bills.
The second event came to light last week, when reporters at the Chicago Tribune revealed that they had produced the winning entry in a Sun-Times contest for the best video opposing the idea of selling the naming rights to Wrigley Field, the ballpark owned by the Tribune Co. (Video here.)
While both projects required exceptional stealth on the part of each newspaper, that’s where the similarity stops.
The tavern investigation, which resulted in the sanction or conviction of several inspectors, as well as promises of improved integrity on the part of city officials, served a clear public interest. The Tribune video, though cleverly executed, was nothing more than a stunt designed to embarrass the Sun-Times.
The investigation at the tavern whimsically called the Mirage was denied a Pulitzer Prize by jurors who believed the Sun-Times had engaged in unethical deception to get the story. The editors of the newspaper, which I joined shortly after the series was published, argued that the story simply couldn’t be obtained without resorting to an elaborate undercover investigation.
By contrast, the Tribune video, which is unlikely to be considered for the Pulitzer or any other award, resulted from deception for the sake of deception.
Before the Sun-Times awarded the prize in the video contest, its reporter called the Tribune intern posing as the creator of the winning video. The Trib intern, who took the call from the Sun-Times while sitting in a conference room at the Tribune, stated that she was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, which is true.
But she left out the part about being an intern at the Tribune. And being dragged along to the taping of the video after it was conceived and scripted by a group of her colleagues, including the paper’s multimedia staff. “I didn't really know what was going on until we were in the car, driving to Wrigley," said Katie Hamilton in an interview with P.J. Hufstetter of the Los Angeles Times.
As a clutch of Tribune staffers listened to Katie shining on the Sun-Times reporter, Tribune features editor Tim Bannon said he felt a twinge of unease about not telling Katie to confess that she works for the Tribune, according to the L.A. Times. In fact, the Tribune didn’t come clean until after the Sun-Times published a page one story proclaiming Katie the winner of the video contest.
Kevin Pang, the Tribune features reporter who originally cooked up the stunt, had no regrets. “We can't underscore enough that we told the truth at every step,” he told the L.A. Times. “If they asked if we were reporters at the Tribune, we would have admitted it then and there.”
So, this enterprising journalist not only deceived the Sun-Times and, by extension, the public. He apparently has succeeded in deceiving himself, too.
Reaction to this post
"Alan Mutter's self-description as a 'Newsosaur' seems right on the mark, an antiquated, Ben Hechtian view of how newsrooms should operate," responds Kevin Pang, the creator of the Tribune video. "The idea that everything we do should have a FOIA request attached is journalism elitism at its most pretentious." His full post is at Poynter Online.