Another Reason Newspapers Matter: Jim Frost And The Mirage Tavern Bribes

UPDATE: I learned since posting this story that Jim Frost was the uncle of one of my high school classmates, Mike Frost. Small world for sure.

Last night while reading the digital edition of the Chicago Sun-Times I learned news photographer Jim Frost had died on March 1 at the age of 79. His fame is one I have come to know over the decades of listening to WGN radio and having a love affair with the Windy City. One who loves politics must also love the place where it is an art form. It was the darker side of politics that Frost helped uncover as a journalist, and with the power of a newspaper, he became a legend. A legend, it needs noting, that’s recounted in journalism textbooks to this day. As such, his story lands on Caffeinated Politics.

Sun-Times photographers Jim Frost (left) and Gene Pesek in their hideaway at the Mirage tavern.
Sun-Times file

His most famous images came while perched in what amounted to a journalistic deer blind at a dive bar on the Near North Side.

The game he was hunting: crooked city of Chicago inspectors.

It was all part of what came to be known as the Mirage tavern sting.

It took place inside a bar the Sun-Times bought in 1977, staffing it with reporters posing as workers in order to blow the lid off the culture of corruption involving city inspections.

In a lofted space in a back room at the bar, Mr. Frost cut a hole in the wall and covered it with a vent. From there, he and another Sun-Times photographer, the late Gene Pesek, secretly documented it all with their photos. The vent was new. But that wouldn’t work, Mr. Frost realized.

A cutaway illustration of the Mirage tavern showing undercover Sun-Times photographers Jim Frost and Gene Pesek ready to capture images of bribery and corruption that Chicago bar owners faced.
Jack Jordan / Sun-Times

“I took it home, and I beat it all up because it was not a pretty place, and a shiny vent would have been out of place,” he told the Sun-Times last year in an interview for his fellow photographer’s obituary. “The whole thing was hanging on me and Gene in a big way.”

Posing as a repairman, Mr. Frost would carry his camera equipment in a toolbox. He’d walk in and say something like “that fuse box again?” and disappear into the back, he recalled for the book “Chicago Exposed” that was published last year.

He kept the ruse alive when a plumbing inspector nearly discovered his secret spot.

The inspector was fumbling for a light switch in a back room when an undercover colleague yelled for him to stop because it would blow a fuse. The ploy gave Mr. Frost time to scramble up a ladder and hide the equipment beneath a tarp under the guise of searching for a flashlight. 

“My heart was in my throat,” said former Sun-Times reporter Pam Zekman, who played the role of a young bar owner. “Jim saved the day. The whole thing could have been blown.”

Mr. Frost would make sure the jukebox was turned up loud so the click of his camera’s shutter wouldn’t be heard.

He was a recent hire from the Daily Herald when his Sun-Times bosses called him in for a hush-hush meeting and offered him a yes-or-no choice on an important assignment that they would say nothing more about until he committed.

“I was chosen because I was the new kid in town, and none of the City Hall types would recognize me,” Mr. Frost recalled for the book.

“Not even my mom knew,” said his son Robert Frost. “He couldn’t tell her. He was so new at the time, he would have done anything. It was his dream job.”

The sting produced a 25-part series that ran for weeks and birthed a legend that’s recounted in journalism textbooks to this day.

“My favorite headline was ‘The envelope please . . .’ and showed an inspector holding the envelope,” Zekman said.

Working on the Mirage tavern investigation, Sun-Times photographer Jim Frost captured this memorable image of a Chicago fire inspector picking up a bribe. Jim Frost / Sun-Times

Informed Citizenry Vital To Democracy: Fox News Lied About Voter Fraud Rupert Murdoch Says Under Oath

Sean Hannity and the loser of the 2020 presidential election

This weekend President Joe Biden was interviewed by ABC News and a large portion of it aired on This Week Sunday morning.   While there was much interest in international affairs the part that struck me was the comments made about news coverage in the United States.  It is, after all, a topic that resonates at this desk as democracy and the dangers it faces have become a focal point since the summer of 2015. The continued repetition of lies from one television network and the lack of a fully factual accounting of national and world events is of great concern to those who hold tight to the ideals of liberal democracy.

“Everything is in the negative. We’re also finding out now that one of the outlets has decided that they would put things on that they know to be false in order to increase their ratings”, the president said. He is correct, as court documents prove.

I had, over the years, and thankfully so, several truly wonderful history teachers. They loved and understood the topics at hand; never the part-time football coach who needed more of an income so offered to teach what was not remotely understood in the textbook. My favorite and most consequential teacher was Marge Glad who left Europe in WWII and brought a worldview that resonated with me year after year.  I took every elective of hers I could fit into my schedule.

It was her repeated themes that were imprinted upon me about history, politics, and world matters that started me on a lifelong quest to know more.  She so admired Thomas Jefferson and spent one entire class lecturing about how his style of writing was to match the needs of the time with his intended audience. Both in the Founding Father family, more importantly to the colonies at large.  So, she would know the power of his meaning in relation to the threat to democracy from a segment of the populace that is adrift from facts about news events.

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Being well-informed is a vital component of a strong functioning democracy.  Or republic. But being misinformed for purely partisan reasons would be a complete repudiation of what Jefferson and his colleagues desired for this nation.

This memory of a grand educator–and why facts matter–came to mind as the news was reported Monday that Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the conservative media empire that owns Fox News, acknowledged in a deposition that several hosts for his networks promoted the false narrative that the election in 2020 was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

“They endorsed,” Mr. Murdoch said under oath in response to direct questions about the hosts Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, a legal filing by Dominion Voting Systems said.  

Mr. Murdoch’s remarks, which he made last month as part of the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox by Dominion, added to the evidence that Dominion has accumulated in an attempt to prove its central allegation: The people running the country’s most popular news network knew Trump’s claims of voter fraud during the 2020 election were false but broadcast them anyway.

Where conservatives lose further credibility can be proven by their close attachment to Trump, the one they were supposed to be covering with objective distance. I am old enough to recall the resentment registered by conservatives in the years following the Kennedy administration where it was stated reporters were chummy with JFK insiders, where even one reporter (Hugh Sidey) was able to swim in the White House pool with the president. Swim trunks, or no? But when it came to Fox News and Donald Trump all those journalistic ponderings about objectivity from right-wingers were tossed aside like a second marriage.

Stephanie Grisham, former press secretary to Donald Trump, remembers the challenges that came from so many Fox News hosts having the direct number to reach Trump in the White House residence.

“There were times the president would come down the next morning and say, ‘Well, Sean thinks we should do this,’ or, ‘Judge Jeanine thinks we should do this,’ said Grisham, referring to Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, both of whom host prime-time Fox News shows.

Grisham said West Wing staffers would simply roll their eyes in frustration as they scrambled to respond to the influence of the network’s hosts, who weighed in on everything from personnel to messaging strategy.

Lies spread by Fox News could constitute each day of blogging if one were so inclined. A separate and lengthy post could be written about Fox News employees being vaccinated even though the fact-free on-air hosts continued to deny science and professional medically-driven data to their viewers. Why report on science when the base of nitwit viewers could be drooling over anti-vaccine Senator Ron Johnson, someone very chromosome-counting close to being an ear of corn?

Consider the following from our history, and frame it within the context of white men now slumped back into the sofa watching a continuous conservative loop of misinformation on Fox News. When did they last read a daily newspaper to be actually informed on the news of the day?

In 1791, Madison remarked that Congress had an obligation to improve the “circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people”. He helped champion the Post Office Act of 1792. The act included a provision for the delivery of newspapers by the Post Office at extremely low rates for delivery of newspapers. For the century following the passage of the Post Office Act, newspapers often accounted for more than 95% of the weight of mail transported by the post office, but never made up for more than 15% of the revenue. The result of this large indirect subsidy of the fledgling industry was enormous. In 1790, before the passage of the act there was less than one newspaper produced for every 5 citizens. By 1840 there were almost three papers printed per person.

Too many Americans in the 21st century gave up reading a newspaper and slipped further into intellectual decay by believing Fox is a newsgathering operation. It is not. Real reporters and journalists have been replaced by echo chambers of far-right lingo that further prove Fox is not in any way a legitimate news-gathering and reporting operation.

Rupert Murdock confirmed that fact under oath.

A fact that has been dangerous to our democracy.

Racism Run Amok, Scott Adams Latest Lesson About How Not To Behave

I was walking in the West Towne mall Saturday evening when I heard the news that Dilbert cartoon creator Scott Adams went off this week on a racist, hate-filled, and completely asshat production of discriminatory rants.  To top off the insanity he did it all on YouTube.  The level of outrage from the business world, which is where the tire often meets the road when dealing with this type of person, greeted me once home and searched the internet for background.

The backlash began following an episode this past week of the YouTube show, “Real Coffee with Scott Adams.” Among other topics, Adams referenced a Rasmussen Reports survey that had asked whether people agreed with the statement “It’s OK to be white.”  This is where the national ear pricked up to the dog whistle question which is aimed at white resentment along with an attempt at limiting their responsibility for racism.  By using this question there is hope to deflect from the national dialogue about Black lives and how we can bend the curve towards greater awareness of racism and ways to limit and remove it.  In other words, the question is code language for those who saddle up to white supremacists.  If Adams does not like being compared with that company he should not act like a racist.

Adams, who is white, repeatedly referred to people who are Black as members of a “hate group” or a “racist hate group” and said he would no longer “help Black Americans.”

“Based on the current way things are going, the best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from Black people,” Adams said on his Wednesday show.

When this type of racism exerts itself there must be quick and powerful actions to make it clear the majority of the nation will no longer tolerate or entertain such behavior. I have a more than 50-year appreciation for newspapers and as such was truly moved by what I found to be the reaction in publishing offices, where Adams once had ongoing contracts.

The Los Angeles Times cited Adams’ “racist comments” while announcing Saturday that Dilbert will be discontinued Monday in most editions and that its final run in the Sunday comics — which are printed in advance — will be March 12.

The San Antonio Express-News, which is part of Hearst Newspapers, said Saturday that it will drop the Dilbert comic strip, effective Monday, “because of hateful and discriminatory public comments by its creator.”

The USA Today Network tweeted Friday that it also will stop publishing Dilbert “due to recent discriminatory comments by its creator.”

The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and other publications that are part of Advance Local media also announced that they are dropping Dilbert.

“This is a decision based on the principles of this news organization and the community we serve,” wrote Chris Quinn, editor of The Plain Dealer. ”We are not a home for those who espouse racism. We certainly do not want to provide them with financial support.”

Christopher Kelly, vice president of content for NJ Advance Media, wrote that the news organization believes in “the free and fair exchange of ideas.”

“But when those ideas cross into hate speech, a line must be drawn,” Kelly wrote.

It was not so long ago that people akin to Adams thought they could use homophobic and even violent language against gay men and women. It took continuous and determined measures to limit and then mostly bring an end to the verbal sewage. Society can slowly be molded and shaped. Everything from wearing seatbelts to not smoking indoors to ending the rude, crude, and demeaning language from bigots. Scott Adams is now a lesson for others to learn from.

The only question is how long before the Republican Party puts him on the same racist pedestal alongside Kyle Rittenhouse? Or how soon Donald Trump wants him to run for the U.S. Senate? You know the white sheet crowd is only hours away from commenting.

Historic House Speaker Battle Makes Front Pages of Nation’s Newspapers

The front pages of newspapers from coast-to-coast underscore the drama and history that is playing out as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives. There is no way not to be caught up in the moment of history we are living.

A Weekend Read Of History And News Reporters, Harold Holzer Delights (Again)

Looking for a weekend read that is timely, filled with history and press relations galore? Governing on the one hand is very important while understanding at the same time the absolute necessity of having a Fourth Estate as the ultimate “guarantor of freedom”.

President George Washington had the nation’s longest honeymoon in the White House, but with his second term the press, in part, turned their ink towards him in ways that stunned and scarred. He mostly stayed above the fray, above the articles, as opposed to how later presidents, who were even more thin-skinned would rebuke reporters and snarl on camera at them, such as with President Richard Nixon. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

The press was rash and fresh in 1792 and just as the executive branch took root and gained power and federal reckoning over the decades, so too did the journalism profession mature and strengthen into what can only be correctly termed, as the British do, the Fourth Estate. I am finding the book perfect as I have a long and deep interest in the dual rise of the American presidency and the media that shaped it. As I am reading it I just know that Bill Safire, the wordsmith and media-oriented writer, would thrill to the book. There is no way not to feel drawn back into the time when Abraham Lincoln made use of the new “instant communication” technology of telegraphy. No way not to smile and read on and just warm to the narrative.

If you know Harold Holzer from his Abe Lincoln and Civil War books you are most aware of his keen intellect, a research knack that shows in his works, and a narrative style that draws a reader into the pages. I very much think for the history and media types who are readers of this page The Presidents vs. The Press will be a real delight.

British Newspapers Largely Mock Boris Johnson As He Resigns From 10 Downing Street

I recall when Boris Johnson, just about three years ago, won an overwhelmingly strong election for Prime Minister. An analyst was reported, in The Economist, as viewing the political landscape being one where the former London mayor might have 10 Downing Street for a decade or more. Conservatives might have a strong hand to play for a long time it was reasoned. That column is one I have not forgotten.

But something else was also brewing in the world that was hard to predict at the point when Johnson secured his personal victory. The excesses of the far-right were about to be checked. Donald Trump would be soundly defeated in 2020, and in France, Marine Le Pen this year was to be terribly scorned by the voters, yet again. After being told that autocratic actions from certain leaders and harsh conservatism were to be our fate on the world stage the winds altered direction to give renewed hope to those who still value democratic ideals.

The xenophobia, wild nationalism, and dangerous populism that is central to the manipulation of certain electoral demographics by the far-right have proven in three powerful cases not to be enough to either get a candidate elected or retain power.

Meanwhile, the work for democracy, as in this case by conservative MPs who placed country over party when ousting Johnson, show those toiling in the vineyard of liberty can create strange alliances. With many divergent groups looking with pleasure at what has transpired comes the British newspapers reporting the resignation of the uncouth and unbalanced pusher of Brexit, Boris Johnson.

This right-winger has been sidelined, something I have waited for since that issue of The Economist made a mental notecard.

Chicago Sun-Times Reporter Lynn Sweet At Highland Park, “Worst Mass Attack In Recent Illinois History”

When it comes to news reporting from the Windy City along with political insight few come better than Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times. To say I have respected this reporter for decades would be an understatement. When it comes to solid writing and a tenaciousness for getting information Sweet is the type of journalist who always gets praised on this blog.

While I enjoy newspapers between my fingers after they land on my front stoop the decades-long appreciation I have for the Sun-Times makes it the only digital paper to be read daily at our home.

So very early this morning—or very late last night–I read a most impressive article by Sweet, who was at the Highland Park parade when hell opened up. One that I will post below in its entirety, something I seldom do. But given a paywall and the power of her words, I take this exception and simply ask that you read the following.

You know why I’m writing this.

I was at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade.

Not as the Sun-Times Washington bureau chief. As a civilian. I’m staying with my sister over this holiday. She lives in Highland Park, which is approximately 25 miles north of Chicago’s downtown. More than 30,000 people live there.

I just wanted to go to this parade and enjoy the day. Hang out with friends. Maybe after the parade, go to one of the stunning Lake Michigan beaches that hug this North Shore suburb. Or maybe have a swim at the Highland Park pool, next to the fire station. That fire station transformed into an emergency operations center after the unimaginable — is this a cliché? — happened.

In a matter of seconds, a sniper — using a high-powered, rapid-fire weapon — slaughtered six people and wounded dozens of others as the parade made its way down Central Avenue in downtown Highland Park.

The parade started about 10 a.m. I’m at the start of the route.

Leading off the parade were fire engines from Highland Park, sirens blaring in a good way — before the world changed in this suburban city at 10:14 a.m., when the sniper started shooting from a rooftop.

There was a color guard — four sailors, two with rifles on their shoulders. Soon after that, the Highland Park City Council marched, led by Mayor Nancy Rotering — who a few minutes after she passed me would be dealing with a massacre on what was supposed to be a day of celebration.

The blue-shirted members of the Highland Park High School band stepped off playing “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” Then the marchers from the League of Women Voters from Highland Park and Highwood.

It was all so delightfully normal.

Then it wasn’t.

I was watching and listening to the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band perform on top of a flatbed truck when I saw people running away from Central Avenue. “A shooter,” someone said. I saw terrified people run into an underground garage, looking for safety from the bullets.

As people were fleeing the scene, I hustled toward it. Please don’t make a big deal that I did it. I’m a reporter.

I saw, frozen in time, what people left when they fled. So many baby carriages. Folding chairs. Backpacks. Water bottles. Towels. Blankets. Police were asking people to leave the active shooting scene.

As I approached Port Clinton Square, by the reviewing stand, I saw a woman down. I don’t know if she was dead or alive. Two people were leaning over her. I saw another woman on the ground.

Then, near a bench in the square, I came upon a pool of blood, ruby red blood. There was so much blood, that the blood puddle was lumpy because so much already coagulated. The shape of the blood — was this a twisted Rorschach test? — looked like a handgun to me.

I’m going into this gruesome detail because this is what gun violence from a rapid-fire weapon with an apparent high capacity magazine looks like. My sister, Neesa, on Central near the railroad tracks, heard two sequences of rapid fire. The pause is likely when the shooter switched out magazines.

I saw my first body of the day. A blanket covered the top of the man. His shorts were soaked with blood. His legs were bloody and blood was still flowing out of him. Two more bodies were on the steps leading into Port Clinton. Thankfully, someone threw blankets over their torsos.

We know that a “person of interest” has been apprehended. He’s local, 22 years old, grew up here. We all wonder about his motive.

As I’m writing this, a friend just sent me a note from his rabbi about a member of North Shore Congregation Israel who was murdered Monday.

Both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about the horror in Highland Park. Harris will be in Chicago on Tuesday and it’s likely she will further address gun violence. Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, with Rotering and many law enforcement officials, gave a press briefing from that firehouse — the one next to the city’s pool, where we were supposed to be celebrating our nation’s independence.

The Highland Park mass shooting is getting global attention, as it should: It’s the worst mass attack in recent Illinois history.

As we mourn the Highland Park victims, let’s not forget the chronic loss of life in Chicago happening almost every day from gun violence.

On Chicago’s South and West sides, nine people were killed and at least 52 others were wounded by gunfire in Chicago as of Monday evening on this Fourth of July weekend.

In May, the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde were added to the tragically growing list of mass shootings in the U.S.

And now Highland Park.

I’ve been reporting on gun massacres for years — since the 1999 Columbine school shootings. But always from a distance. I wasn’t there when the killing happened.

Until this July Fourth.

When I was.


Newspaper Front Pages: Ideological Blow From Supreme Court Against Roe v. Wade

Friday a majority of the males on the United States Supreme Court stepped away from the law and squarely mired themselves into their political, cultural, and religious beliefs as they dealt a blow not only to abortion rights in the nation, but also to the longheld understanding regarding the importance of precedence guiding our judicial system.

This morning I gathered up a wide cross-section of front pages of newspapers from this nation, including Hawaii, to underscore the seismic consequence of placing ideologues on the high court. As can be seen on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the lead heading also noted the sinister concurring opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas as he threatened both sales of contraceptives in the nation, along with the right to gay marriage.

It is also worth noting that Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins is the only elected official that I can find (from about 100 papers) being placed on the front page (Portland Press Herald) for her spineless behavior during confirmation hearings for justices to the Court.

The nation has been offered too many examples of Collins’ glibness and silliness as she prattles on about being duped by others. I know she was unsettled Friday by the court ruling, was dismayed this morning, and surely will be distressed by cocktail hour. Once again we are reminded of how delusional she continues to be about her senatorial duties.

This is the same conservative senator who actually said after the first impeachment process of Donald Trump that “I believe that the president has learned from this case”. There is no way someone like that should not have a guardian.

Now, here is a wide selection of how the nation is reading of the assault on abortion rights in the United States.