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Column: While mourning the loss of muckraker Bill Recktenwald, here’s some good news for the future of newsrooms

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In the heyday of undercover reporting in Chicago, Bill Recktenwald was a master of disguise.

For a probe of election fraud in the late 1960s, he went undercover as an indigent drifter. Registering multiple times to vote, he signed with names such as James Joyce, Jay Gatsby and Henry David Thoreau. He worked incognito as a prison guard and as a private ambulance worker.

In perhaps the most flamboyant investigation in Chicago journalism history, Recktenwald posed as a bartender in a watering hole — the Mirage Tavern. It was purchased by the Chicago Sun-Times, working in partnership with Recktenwald’s employer (and now mine), the Better Government Association. Their 25-part series in 1978 exposed pervasive bribery and led to changes to state inspection codes.

Unassuming but groundbreaking. Hiding in plain sight, but with the power to change government. That was Bill Recktenwald.

The same can be said about the field of journalism to which Recktenwald devoted his career,which included decades of work and mentoring of young reporters at the Tribune. Newspapers, at their best, are not flashy or fake. They are serious about their work, meticulous about their facts, and incensed about corruption, ineptitude and inequity.

Recktenwald died last month at age 79. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. And Recktenwald’s passing is yet another reminder that the news industry itself isn’t what it once was, either.


© Chicago Tribune

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