Journalists as Hoaxers
Post Reporter's Pulitzer Prize Is Withdrawn
Pulitzer Board Withdraws Post Reporter's Prize
The Washington Post
April 16, 1981
By David A. Maraniss
The Pulitzer Prize Committee withdrew its feature-writing prize from Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke yesterday after she admitted that her award-winning story was a fabrication.
Cooke's story, "Jimmy's World," was about an alleged 8-year-old heroin addict in the District of Columbia. It was said to be based on interviews with the boy, his mother and his mother's boyfriend. Cooke now acknowledges that she never met or interviewed any of those people and that she made up the story of Jimmy based on a composite of information about heroin addiction in Washington gleaned from various social workers and other sources.
Her admission followed revelations that certain statements she had made in an autobiographical report to the Pulitzer authorities also were false. Cooke had said that she was a magna cum laude graduate of Vassar College and held a master's degree from the University of Toledo. In fact, she attended Vassar for her freshman year and received a bachelor of arts from the University of Toledo. Cooke resigned from The Washington Post yesterday.
"It is tragedy that someone as talented and promising as Janet Cooke, with everything going for her, felt that she had to falsify the facts," said Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post. "The credibility of a newspaper is its most precious asset, and it depends almost entirely on the integrity of its reporters. When that integrity is questioned and found wanting, the wounds are grievous, and there is nothing to do but come clean with our readers, apologize to the Advisory Board of the Pulitzer Prizes, and begin immediately on the uphill task of regaining our credibility. This we are doing."
Osborne Elliott, dean of the Columbia School of journalism, which oversees the Pulitzer awards process, said yesterday afternoon that the Pulitzer board, after being polled by telephone, withdrew Cooke's prize and awarded it to the runner-up, Teresa Carpenter of The Village Voice. "I just think it's a very unfortunate situation to which The Washington Post has responded appropriately," Elliott said. "I feel very sad that the talented young woman's promising career has been damaged so needlessly, and I hope not irrevocably."
In a statement yesterday, Cooke, 26, said: "The [article] was a serious misrepresentation which I deeply regret. I apologize to my newspaper, my profession, the Pulitzer board and all seekers of the truth."
Cooke's story, published Sept. 28, told of the life and views of an 8-year-old identified as Jimmy. The story said he had been addicted to heroin since the age of 5, when his mother's live-in boyfriend first allowed the child to sniff some heroin. It said the boyfriend was a heroin dealer, and that Jimmy's mother and grandmother also were heroin addicts.
The story quoted Jimmy as saying he went to school only to learn math so he could be a better drug dealer when he grew older. In the story, Jimmy compared life under the influence of heroin to going on every ride in an amusement park on a single day. The end of the article described a scene in which the boyfriend injected Jimmy with heroin. "Pretty soon, man," the boyfriend was quoted as saying, "you got to learn to do this for yourself."
Cooke told her editors before publication of the article that she got to see Jimmy and his mother because she promised them anonymity. Cooke also told the editors that the mother's boyfriend had threatened her life if any authorities or police discovered Jimmy's whereabouts.
Upon publication, the Jimmy article prompted a strong and immediate response in the city. Mayor Marion Barry and Chief of Police Burtell Jefferson assigned a task force of police and social workers to locate the 8-year-old cited in the city and to obtain medical treatment for him. When the child could not be located, Barry and Jefferson voiced deep skepticism about the validity of the story. Barry said he believed "Jimmy" did not exist, or was a composite of several different youngsters.
Barry and Jefferson were informed of the true circumstances of the story early yesterday afternoon by Bradlee, who apologized to both men.
"This is really in line with what I said the first time," Barry told reporters at the District Building. "I didn't believe [the story] in the first place."
In a statement issued by his press office, Barry said: "I am concerned and will continue to be concerned about the accuracy of information disseminated to our residents from the news media. Our residents deserve the most accurate and truthful accounting possible of both the activities of government and of events, trends and changes taking place in our community. I believe that all responsible news media managers, as well as reporters, support the viewpoint and that none of the media would condone misrepresentation, even in the name of dramatizing a problem in the community."
The Post learned that irregularities might exist in Cooke's autobiographical submission to the Pulitzer board early Tuesday afternoon, when officials at Vassar College called Bradlee and told him that Cooke had not graduated magna cum laude, but in fact had only attended the school for her freshman year. At the same time, the Associated Press called Post Managing Editor Howard Simons to report the AP staffers in Ohio were being told that Cooke had not received a master's degree from the University of Toledo.
As soon as they received these reports, Bradlee, Simons and editors on the Post's metropolitan staff began a series of intensive interviews with Cooke. At first, she insisted that her Pulitzer autobiography was accurate. Slowly, one item at a time, she confessed to the untruths on the autobiography. These confessions prompted the editors to question the validity of the story for which she had been awarded the Pulitzer.
For several hours, Cooke insisted that the story was true, that Jimmy existed. At a meeting early in the evening, Bradlee and Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward told Cooke that they had serious doubts about the story. Bradlee told Cooke she had to prove Jimmy's existence as soon as possible, or admit that the story was a fabrication. Cooke said she would attempt to prove Jimmy's existence.
She and City Editor Milton Coleman drove to the neighborhood in Southeast Washington where Cooke had maintained that Jimmy lived. Cooke was unable to find Jimmy's house. Back at The Post, several editors examined the file of notes Cooke took when reporting the story and listened to several tape-recorded interviews she had done with drug experts. There were no notes of Cooke's first supposed encounters with Jimmy and his family. But some of the notes and the tape-recorded interviews indicated that "Jimmy's World" could have been a composite of the lives Cooke heard about from the experts and social workers.
When Cooke and Coleman returned to The Post, unable to find Jimmy's house, they met with Woodward and two other editors. At that point Coleman said he had become convinced that the Jimmy story was untrue. The meeting lasted several hours, with Cooke insisting that she would stand by her story. Finally, early Wednesday morning, she confessed that Jimmy did not exist, that he was a composite of several young drug users.
William Green, The Post's ombudsman, who handles readers' complaints as well as internal problems, has undertaken an investigation of the entire incident. Bradlee has directed that all Post staff members disclose all information relevant to the incident to Green, and Bradlee said Green's findings will be published when they are completed.
Post Publisher Donald Graham said yesterday, "Everybody here takes it to be our first obligation to find out everything we can about why we went wrong on this story."
Speaking of Cooke, Graham said, "Many of us at the paper have been in touch with members of her family, and we will do what we can to help her."
Copyright The Washington Post. Posted with permission.