Tuesday marked the 30th anniversary of the day these words appeared on the front page of the Sunday Washington Post:
"Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.
"He nestles in a large, beige reclining chair in the living room of his comfortably furnished home in Southeast Washington. There is an almost cherubic expression on his small, round face as he talks about life — clothes, money, the Baltimore Orioles and heroin. He has been an addict since the age of 5.
"His hands are clasped behind his head, fancy running shoes adorn his feet, and a striped Izod T-shirt hangs over his thin frame. 'Bad, ain't it,' he boasts to a reporter visiting recently. 'I got me six of these.'"
It was an anniversary most would like to forget. "Jimmy's World" was all a fabrication, created by reporter Janet Cooke, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize that the Post was forced to return.
Thirty years later, Cooke's name is synonymous with the hoax she perpetrated. Her story is taught in journalism schools, and some say a portion of the damage she wreaked on the credibility of the news media remains.
"How could she do it? I still don't understand that," Benjamin C. Bradlee, the Post's executive editor at the time, told Journal-isms on Wednesday. "She was just one in a million." He noted that the Post has had no similar incidents since, and that while today's news industry has its woes, cases like Cooke's are thankfully not among them.
Still, asked whether the Cooke affair and its aftermath continue to resonate, Bradlee confessed, "They do in my soul."
Cooke's hoax cost other black journalists credibility in the minds of some editors. The fear of guilt-by-common-blackness was foremost in many black journalists' minds when Jayson Blair confessed to fabricating stories at The New York Times in 2003.
"Because she was black, innocent black journalists did penance for her sins," Gayle Pollard-Terry wrote of Cooke in 1996 for the National Association of Black Journalists' NABJ Journal. Cooke had publicly apologized that year on ABC's Nightline.
"Fifteen years later, on the May 10 Nightline report, Ted Koppel told Janet Cooke that an unidentified black woman who came to the Post after her told ABC that Cooke's transgression had made the new reporter's job all that much harder." The woman was Michel Martin, now host of NPR's Tell Me More.
"Jacqueline Thomas, then a young reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, now Washington bureau chief for the Detroit News, remembers editors suddenly challenging her work.
"In other newsrooms, some black reporters were asked if they were 'Cooke-ing' their quotes. Others were told to double-check their sources and make sure they weren't 'Cooke-ed.' Many editors told black reporters that they didn't trust them or their work. Those editors often called sources to double-check, which undermined the reporters.
"In the wake of Cooke's lies and the Post's carelessness when hiring her, resumes were suddenly double-checked. References were grilled, at times even before the new job was offered. Transcripts were required from every academic institution attended decades after graduation.
"That is the sorry legacy of 'Jimmy's World,' which has become a case study in journalism ethics classes. Her name has become synonymous with fakery and bad journalism. Her sins have cast doubts on a generation of black journalists."
Black journalists at the Post today, most of whom arrived after the Cooke incident, live with the same competitive pressures Cooke faced. Informally, they articulated thoughts that included not wanting even to hear Cooke's name, recalling the questioning their credibility took in black communities and resigning themselves to the notion that some people will always seek the easy way. They mentioned white miscreants whose names never became as prominent as Cooke's.
Via e-mail, a couple went on the record.
"Even 30 years after the fact, the Janet Cooke debacle serves as a cautionary tale and a reminder of the solemn responsibility we carry as journalists," Michael A. Fletcher told Journal-isms. "Particularly now, in this cluttered, chaotic and immensely competitive news environment, it is easy to forget the sacred bond we share with our audience. We have to tell the truth and we can not succumb to lying — or even hype or exaggeration — in an effort to stand out. The current may be moving in another direction, but we have to remember that our role is to find and report new information. And, yes, the more startling, the better that can be for business. But at the same time, we have to provide context and do our best to illuminate the complexity of the forces shaping our lives."
Added Hamil R. Harris: "Integrity, truth and reputation are all we have in this business. I am in an Atlanta airport heading to Florida to bury my stepfather who raised me. On the plane I read a few chapters of All the Presidents Men. To me the legacy of the Post is to tell the truth and hold people accountable no matter where it may lead. Ironically on the TV is a story about one of the victims in the Eddie Long scandal speaking out. Journalism is hard work. There are no shortcuts even during the age of Facebook and Twitter."
Cooke, 26 years old at the time of "Jimmy's World," has disappeared from public view. She spoke for the first time about her saga in a 1996 interview with GQ reporter Mike Sager, a former boyfriend and Washington Post metro reporter. They sold the rights to the story to Tri-Star Pictures for $1.6 million, with Cooke getting 55 percent and Sager 45 percent, according to reports at the time.
A usable script was never produced, but Sager, now a writer at large for Esquire magazine, says Cooke hasn't completely vanished. "I’ve never lost touch with janet I don’t think, tho I’m not at liberty to divulge her whereabouts. I haven’t seen her since 96," he wrote Journal-isms by e-mail. "No movie alas." He said he gets an e-mail now and then.
Sager included the GQ story in his anthology, "Scary Monsters and Super Freaks."
Daniel Hunt, American Copy Editors Society: An anniversary to remind us all of our purpose
Bill Green, Washington Post ombudsman, April 19, 1981, analysis
Lymari Morales, Gallup Organization: Distrust in U.S. Media Edges Up to Record High
Michael E. Ross, theGrio.com: 30 years later 'Jimmy's World' still casts shadow on black journalists [Sept. 30]
Patricia Sullivan, Washington Post: Aplin-Brownlee, 61; Former Post Editor Had Smelled Scandal (Oct. 26, 2007)