The fabulist who changed journalism

Janet Cooke

Janet Cooke entered the acre-square newsroom of The Washington Post wearing a red wool suit and a white silk shirt. It was her first day of work. She was two hours late. She’d gotten lost walking the three blocks from her hotel.

It was the third day of 1980, the beginning of a new chapter for this 25-year-old black woman whose upper-middle class parents had sent their daughters to the finest white prep schools but insisted upon living close to their roots in Toledo. As Cooke made her way down the long aisle through the desk pods of the Metro Section, heads turned. Editors and reporters noted the shortness of her pleated skirt, the apparent self-possession of her gait, the length of her acrylic fingernails. In this post-Watergate era of big stories, star reporters, and “creative tension,” most members of the Metro staff were young and well-pedigreed, true believers in the power of the fourth estate, captained by history’s own Bob Woodward, who was trying his hand for the first time as an assistant managing editor. Deep inside the Beltway, in the heart of the nation’s political culture, the Post’s was a newsroom like all others—and like no other, a distinct creature of the city it covered, rife with intrigue and machination. The customary greeting among its 900 staffers, working just blocks from the White House: “What’s the gossip?”

At the moment, clearly, it was Janet Cooke.

Six months earlier her résumé had crossed Ben Bradlee’s desk. The legendary executive editor—known for his silver hair and salty language, his friendship with JFK, and his willingness to stand behind aggressive reporting—had taken up a red grease pencil and circled “Phi Beta Kappa,” “Vassar,” and “Black Journalists Association.” At a time when the newspaper business was just beginning a journey toward workplace diversity, here was a twofer, a highly talented black woman with an impressive résumé. Bradlee passed Cooke’s information to Woodward, with the message that the young Toledo Blade reporter should be recruited before The New York Times or the networks scooped her up.

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On September 28, 1980, nearly nine months and 52 bylines after her first day at the Post, “Jimmy’s World” was published on the front page. Cooke’s story, about an 8-year-old heroin addict, created an instant sensation—the 1980s equivalent of “going viral”—reprinted around the country and around the world. As DC Mayor Marion Barry and city health and police officials hustled to find the child and prosecute his guardian-tormentors, the Post stood fast behind its First Amendment right to protect its reporter from having to reveal the boy’s whereabouts. For this, the paper was heavily criticized, especially by black residents in the then-majority African-American city. Where journalists saw a blockbuster story, with bright writing and a deep social impact, civilians saw a child in need, and activists saw a captivating example of the black man’s burden. Jimmy was never found.

On April 13, 1981, Cooke was awarded a Pulitzer. She won after the well-intentioned Pulitzer committee, enthusiastic about both Cooke’s story and the possibility of awarding the first Pulitzer in journalism ever to an African-American woman, juggled her entry from the local-news category to the feature-writing category in order to assure her a prize.

 

“Cooke was a warning shot. It was a harbinger of all kinds of journalistic scandals to come.”

 

Proud of its former employee, the Toledo Blade quickly prepared a story. It went to press at 8am. Later that morning, according to an exhaustive investigation by Post ombudsman Bill Green, Blade editors read biographical sketches of the Pulitzer winners that moved over the Associated Press wire. The sketches were based on the résumés submitted with the entries. The Blade’s bio for Janet, taken from its own personnel records, differed considerably. On her Pulitzer résumé, according to Post accounts, Cooke claimed to have graduated magna cum laude from Vassar College and to have received a master’s degree from the University of Toledo. From what the Blade knew, she’d attended Vassar only for her freshman year and received a bachelor of arts from the University of Toledo. Blade editors alerted the wire service.

Sometime after 3 in the afternoon, Bradlee and Managing Editor Howard Simons received simultaneous phone calls. An AP editor wanted Simons. The assistant to the president of Vassar wanted Bradlee. Both callers were asking about Janet’s résumé.

“Take her to the woodshed,” Bradlee ordered, according to Green.

For nearly 11 hours—in various offices and conference rooms at the Post, in the Capitol Hilton bar, and even in City Editor Milton Coleman’s car as the two drove around Southeast DC looking for Jimmy’s house—Janet was alternately interrogated, cajoled, comforted, pressured, and flattered by Bradlee, Woodward, Simons, Coleman, and others.

Finally, at 1:45am, Cooke confessed to Woodward’s Deputy AME David Maraniss. “There is no Jimmy and no family,” she said, according to Maraniss. “It was a fabrication. I want to give the prize back.”

Disgraced, the Post returned the Pulitzer. (The prize was re-awarded to Teresa Carpenter of The Village Voice.)

“The paper absolutely changed that moment,” says Donald E. Graham, the Post’s publisher at the time, scion of the family that owned and ran the paper for eight decades, until its sale in 2013 to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

And from that moment forward, journalism changed, too. Cooke became infamous, the first in a line of publicly exposed fabulists including Stephen Glass of The New Republic, Jayson Blair of The New York Times, and Jack Kelley of USA Today.

Cooke’s transgressions rocked the foundations of trust the press had built since the post-World War II blossoming of the information age. After centuries of Fleet Streeters, muckrakers, and yellow journalists, the public had welcomed Walter Cronkite into their living rooms; the crusading work of journalists had freed America from a bad war and a crooked presidency. All over the country, reporters were busy ferreting out corruption of all kinds. Now, suddenly, with Cooke, the press had fallen from grace.

Cooke’s case also came to symbolize myriad other issues and transgressions in both journalism and the world at large, including the use of unnamed sources, minority recruitment, newsroom ethics, résumé fraud, and the tendency of some writers, operating in the genre known as creative nonfiction, to take license in the pursuit of more literary work.

“The Janet Cooke fabrication was shocking because it came at a time when most people respected newspapers and respected what we now call the media,” says Howard Kurtz, a media critic and former Post staffer.

“Cooke was a warning shot,” Kurtz says. “It was a harbinger of all kinds of journalistic scandals to come.”

In the interest of disclosure, I know Janet Cooke.

The day she first appeared in the Post newsroom, I was 23, a former copy boy two years into a reporting job on the Metro staff.

Back then, the Metro staff was considered a training ground. In a newsroom stocked with legends like Bradlee and Woodward, we were known as “the kids,” even though most of us were in our late 20s and 30s. I was a bit on the young side; most of the other staffers had been interns out of the Ivy Leagues or star writers at other papers before coming to Metro. Also in the mix were a dozen or so women and minorities hired into two-year internships, a pipeline to newsroom diversity.

It was a heady time in the newspaper business, a golden age when the news budget was flush and the media carried a sheen of importance and invincibility. The Post’s own Woodward and Carl Bernstein had inspired a crowded field of young reporters to join the business in the interest of wearing the white hat of the public’s right to know.

We were a tight-knit group, competitors and comrades both. We played co-ed touch football on Sundays on a field just north of the Washington Monument. (Even Woodward played on occasion. Maureen Dowd, then at The Washington Star, had nice speed and a good pair of hands.) We partied together at Woodward’s Georgetown manse, at Maraniss’s suburban house, at various bars all over town.

But most of all, we worked. Everyone had dark circles under their eyes, everyone was always rushing around, stumbling over themselves to find what our absolute leader, Bradlee, liked to call a “Holy Shit” story. We wanted the brass ring—assignment to a special project that would showcase our talents and win an award; promotion to the National or Foreign or Style staff; a book or movie contract. Given our boss and role model, anything seemed possible.

At the same time, we were true believers in the standards set by Woodward and Bradlee. There was a star system, yes. There was creative tension, yes. But at the same time, we knew that shortcuts and screw ups or questionable information would not be tolerated. The idea of fabricating a quote, much less a character or an entire story, was unimaginable—akin to sinning in church.

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In a letter confirming that her Prize-winning story was “in essence a fabrication,” Cooke also submitted her resignation. (Note: Cooke incorrectly cited September 28, 1981, as her story’s publication date. The correct date is September 28, 1980.)

Into this swirl came Janet Cooke, fresh from her hometown Toledo Blade. I met her late one night at her desk in the Weekly section, to which she’d been assigned. A zoned supplement to the paper, it was known as a training ground for affirmative-action hires and a dumping ground for older relics on their way to retirement. To the black members of the Post staff, the Weeklies were known as the Ghetto.

By the end of February, Cooke and I had begun dating. While we lasted officially only until June, our relationship continued in fits and starts for another year—a painful, exhilarating, 20-something psychodrama, during which time the Jimmy story was produced.

After the Pulitzer was returned, I was suspected of collaborating with Cooke on “Jimmy’s World,” my name having been found on the “edit trail” of the Post’s computer system. From the beginning, part of our relationship involved my services as an informal reader, not unusual among colleagues in any newsroom. Several times I made suggestions on “Jimmy’s World” for style and flow; countless other times I read drafts for suggestions and support.

The truth is, I had my suspicions about the story from the beginning, but I couldn’t bring myself to flat-out ask Janet if Jimmy was real. I’m not sure I wanted to know. To some extent, I suspected myself of being jealous—the piece had award-winner written all over it. In my favor was the fact that, months before the Pulitzer announcement, I voiced my concerns about the article to two older and respected reporters, Patrick Tyler and Joe Pichirallo, who formed one of Woodward’s pet investigative teams. After the Pulitzer was returned, Woodward grilled me twice over two days. Had I something to confess, I surely would have.

In 1996, following Janet’s return to the states after living in France for more than a decade, she decided to tell her story. She spoke to me at length for a piece published in GQ, entitled “Janet’s World,” the only substantial interview Cooke ever gave. The story details Cooke’s difficult upbringing and her lifelong use of lies as a coping mechanism, primarily against the exceptionally high expectations and inflexible rules of her parents, her father particularly. It also documents her difficulties navigating the racial politics of the day—by some accounts, “Jimmy’s World” would never have happened if not for the good intentions of those who thought their role was to level the playing field for minorities.

Thirty-five years since the Pulitzer was awarded and returned, interest in Cooke and her story—a cautionary tale at once so singular and so universal—has not waned.

Nearly every semester I get calls from reporters, producers, and journalism students seeking to track down Cooke for an interview. Most journalism schools offer some form of ethics course as part of their curriculum. I suspect all of them mention Cooke somewhere in the syllabus.

The influence of Cooke’s transgressions runs through the corpus of modern journalism like blood through the circulatory system, leaving no area untouched. Racial and sexual diversity in the newsroom. The use of unnamed sources. The responsibility of editors to question reporters’ stories—should all writers be considered guilty until proven accurate? The responsibility of writers to fact-check their own stories. The pressures of working on deadline and being judged by one’s output. The perils of literary journalism. And the perils of human frailty—what responsibility does an institution have to look beyond a person’s résumé and into his or her psyche?

“What caused Janet to do what she did was personal,” says Walt Harrington, a former longtime Post staffer and editor and a colleague of Cooke’s who went on to teach journalism at the University of Illinois. “As it happened, the organization pushed a flawed person into [something she couldn’t handle]. It’s like taking a person who’s weak and encouraging them to do something that they’re not equipped to resist. But at the same time, any system should be thoughtful about that kind of person.”

I am nominally in touch with Cooke via email. I don’t think I will betray her trust by reporting that she is living within the borders of the continental United States, within a family setting, and pursuing a career that does not primarily involve writing.

While I faithfully forward all requests for interviews, Cooke consistently declines to speak further of her role in the Pulitzer scandal. Clearly it has taken a toll.

“What more is there for anyone to write?” she said in response to my email about this story. And then she added, in her typical droll fashion, “Essentially, I’ve spent the last 30 years waiting to die.”

Knowing her as I do, she was only half kidding.

Beyond Cooke’s personal story—of an ambitious and talented but flawed young woman who dreamed of covering the White House—is the larger one, the unintended effect of her transgressions. Not only did she fabricate; she won the Pulitzer. Not only did she lie; she did so in the grandest fashion, on the biggest stage, and in the process disgraced her employers, pulling the wool over some of the brightest eyes in the business.

And if someone could do that right under the noses of Bradlee and Woodward and company, how could any reporter ever be trusted again?

Beautifully written and well-researched, “Jimmy’s World” was a perfect storm of a story—a compelling combination of writer and subject matter and the politics of the day. It described an 8-year-old on heroin and the drug trade around him. The story ran about 2,100 words, starting on the front page, a little long for a standard newspaper feature but short compared to investigative projects that were in vogue. The article included Cooke’s reporting about the city’s burgeoning heroin trade, the emergence of the Golden Crescent in Asia as a major producer, and the impact of drugs on the community, years before the crack epidemic made this a common theme.

At the heart of the piece was a fourth-grader who lived in a heroin “shooting gallery” with his mother and her boyfriend, a drug dealer named Ron. “And every day, Ron or someone else fires up Jimmy, plunging a needle into his bony arm, sending the fourth-grader into a hypnotic nod,” Cooke wrote.

The piece comes to a chilling end with Jimmy receiving his heroin fix as the reporter watches. “The needle slides into the boy’s soft skin like a straw pushed into the center of a freshly baked cake. . . . ‘Pretty soon, man,’ Ron says, ‘you got to learn how to do this for yourself.’ ”

For the Post, the Cooke debacle “was a tremendous jolt to the whole place,” says former publisher Graham. “We, the Post collectively, didn’t at first know how to respond. It seemed to me at the time that the best answer was first and foremost changing the way we hired people so that we were much more careful about reviewing what they said in their résumé.”

 

All over the country, reporters were busy ferreting out corruption of all kinds. Now, suddenly, with Cooke, the press had fallen from grace.

 

For the late Ben Bradlee, says his biographer, Jeff Himmelman, “there was some real anguish about it. He felt like he had let the Grahams down, who had shown so much faith in him through Watergate. It was their paper and he didn’t catch this, and he knew he didn’t catch it, and there were a lot of other people who should have caught it, too, but it was his name at the top. . . . By far this was the big black eye of his career.”

In a larger way, Graham says delicately, after the Cooke affair, something very fundamental began to shift in the Post’s and other newsrooms. Previously, there was “a tendency to trust your reporters,” Graham says.

The audacity of Cooke’s fabrication broke this bond of trust, both with editors and with readers. Suddenly, the institution known for bringing down liars and shining light on injustice was itself revealed to be a transgressor against the truth. As a reporter at the time, at the Post or anywhere else, you could feel the door slam. Before Cooke, we journalists wore the capes of crusaders who could do no wrong.

Today we face a different public perception. The line from Watergate, in 1972, to Cooke in 1980, to the vehicular death of the UK’s Princess Diana in 1997—for which journalists were blamed—stretches a mere 25 years. Today, in the minds of many, the word “journalist” connotes invasive tabloid headlines and paparazzi.

Probably the biggest change wrought by the Cooke affair was the way reporters were allowed to use and manage unnamed sources. Prior to Cooke, reporters were trusted, the way Woodward was with Deep Throat—nobody asked for his identity. In the months following the Cooke affair, however, that practice began to change, recalls Jim Romenesko, a longtime observer of journalism. In the years to come, Romenesko posted on his site a number of memos from newspapers, including USA Today, declaring a new policy in which reporters were required to share the identities of unnamed sources with an editor. This practice remains an industry standard.

In a larger sense, there was a fundamental change in newsrooms. Before Cooke, newsrooms were more like the movies, peopled by a collection of committed, rogue oddballs. Since then, journalism has become more homogenized and standardized, more corporate, more rule-driven, though this has been due in part to economics. In sum: After Cooke, it was still cool to be a reporter, but it was also a little tainted. One of us had flown too close to the sun. All had been burned.

 

“What more is there for anyone to write?” she said in response to my email about this story. And then she added, in her typical droll fashion, “Essentially, I’ve spent the last 30 years waiting to die.” Knowing her as I do, she was only half kidding.

 

Harrington also points out that after Cooke, newspapers worked harder to be open with readers. For investigative series, literary recreations, or controversial stories, more column inches were devoted to source citations and explanatory editors’ notes.

Another result, says Romenesko, was the rise of the era of the ombudsman at newspapers. The Post’s own Bill Green, with his evenhanded account of the Post’s failings in the Cooke affair, helped spark the trend. With the dual missions of advocating for the community of readers and functioning as a newspaper’s internal moral compass, ombudsmen served to ease the trust issues that the Cooke affair literally and symbolically raised with the public. Even without ombudsmen, newspapers today put an ever greater emphasis on community relations, some of which can be traced to the post-Cooke efforts to quell community outrage.

For African-American journalists, say some, there was yet another layer of damage done. In a way, elements of Cooke’s story are similar to the stories of many others. There is no better way to say it: Efforts at leveling the playing field are appreciated by those served. But the navigation is both tricky and somewhat embarrassing for the beneficiaries, many of whom are highly accomplished—if not, they wouldn’t have come to anyone’s attention in the first place.

“For all the glamour and prestige that Janet supposedly brought in with her to the Post, they put her straight into the Ghetto,” says Courtland Milloy, a columnist for the Post and the only pre-Cooke-era staffer still working at the paper. “With all her credentials, Janet still went straight to the Weekly. That was just very telling to me.”

“What happened with Cooke was a disappointment to African-American journalists,” says Julianne Malveaux, a political commentator and past president of Bennett College, a historically black liberal arts college for women. “It was a hit. We all took it on the chin.

“People were excited when she got a Pulitzer and then [when it was returned], people were like, someone had pulled a rug out from under you,” Malveaux says. “It basically eroded the integrity of a cadre of African-American journalists who do street reporting. It made people look at people of color, and African Americans in particular, with more scrutiny. Janet Cooke gave white folks permission to be skeptical about black people in the newsroom.”

Malveaux notes the perception that “anytime an African American screws up, especially in the area of integrity, it essentially slimes all African Americans. When a white guy screws up, like Stephen Glass, it doesn’t slime on white people. They just say, okay, he was a jerk, and people move on.”

For this reason, Malveaux says, she tries to remember that there was a troubled black woman at the center of the storm.

“In the end, I’m still concerned for Cooke. She made a major journalistic mistake, but she’s a human being and deserves to be seen through that prism. She had great writing chops but she used them the wrong way.”

Regardless of Cooke’s personal story or actual intentions, her transgressions signaled the beginning of a radical change in the role of the media in American life. We live now in an age when no one fully trusts the media.

“One reason we’re even still talking about what happened in 1981,” Kurtz says, “is because Janet Cooke was to the news business what Vietnam and Watergate were to political establishments.”

Cooke returning the Pulitzer, he adds, “was the moment that public trust gave way to cynicism. . . . Each subsequent episode tarnishes us all.”

 

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JIMMY’S WORLD

by Janet Cooke

September 28, 1980

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.”

Jimmy’s is a world of hard drugs, fast money and the good life he believes both can bring. Every day, junkies casually buy heroin from Ron, his mother’s live-in-lover, in the dining room of Jimmy’s home. They “cook” it in the kitchen and “fire up” in the bedrooms. And every day, Ron or someone else fires up Jimmy, plunging a needle into his bony arm, sending the fourth grader into a hypnotic nod.

Jimmy prefers this atmosphere to school, where only one subject seems relevant to fulfilling his dreams. “I want to have me a bad car and dress good and also have me a good place to live,” he says. “So, I pretty much pay attention to math because I know I got to keep up when I finally get me something to sell.”

Jimmy wants to sell drugs, maybe even on the District’s meanest street, Condon Terrace SE, and some day deal heroin, he says, “just like my man Ron.”

Ron, 27, and recently up from the South, was the one who first turned Jimmy on.”He’d be buggin’ me all the time about what the shots were and what people was doin’ and one day he said, ‘When can I get off?’” Ron says, leaning against a wall in a narcotic haze, his eyes half closed, yet piercing. “I said, ‘Well, s—, you can have some now.’ I let him snort a little and, damn, the little dude really did get off.”

Six months later, Jimmy was hooked. “I felt like I was part of what was goin’ down,” he says. “I can’t really tell you how it feel. You never done any? Sort of like them rides at King’s Dominion . . . like if you was to go on all of them in one day.

“It be real different from herb (marijuana). That’s baby s—. Don’t nobody here hardly ever smoke no herb. You can’t hardly get none right now anyway.”

Jimmy’s mother Andrea accepts her son’s habit as a fact of life, although she will not inject the child herself and does not like to see others do it.

“I don’t really like to see him fire up,” she says. “But, you know, I think he would have got into it one day, anyway. Everybody does. When you live in the ghetto, it’s all a matter of survival. If he wants to get away from it when he’s older, then that’s his thing. But right now, things are better for us than they’ve ever been. . . . Drugs and black folk been together for a very long time.”

 

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Mike Sager was working the night shift as a cops reporter when Janet Cooke was hired at The Washington Post. He would wander the newsroom waiting for a suitable crime to occur and Cooke would often stay late struggling with a particular story. Before long, Sager was invited to sit down at Cooke’s keyboard to offer some writing advice. Thus began Sager’s romance with a young woman who would spark the most tumultuous event in Pulitzer history. Cooke was desperate to escape the second-tier Weekly staff and thought her path off might be a story she was working on about a new type of heroin roiling the city. One outreach worker told Cooke that an 8-year-old boy was being treated, jolting Cooke into a desperate hunt for him. The search went on for weeks as Cooke grew frantic, panicked, and scared. At one point an editor told her she didn’t have to use the child’s name, which eventually led her to a fateful thought: She could simply make the whole thing up. It was midnight on one of Sager’s nights off when he was awakened by a call from Cooke. “I found the kid,” she told him. “His name is Tyrone.”

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Mike Sager is a bestselling author and accomplished magazine writer. A former Washington Post staff writer and Rolling Stone contributing editor, he has been an Esquire writer-at-large for 19 years. He is the founder of TheSagerGroup, a boutique publishing house.