Skip navigation.

Journalists as Hoaxers

The Wasington Post investigation
of the Jimmy's World hoax

THE REPORTER: When She Smiled, She Dazzled; When She Crashed . . .

On July 12, 1979, 11 days before her 25th birthday, Janet Cooke, a reporter on the Toledo Blade, wrote a letter to Ben Bradlee.It was the kind of letter Bradlee receives daily.

"Dear Mr. Bradlee:

"I have been a full time reporter for The Blade for slightly more than two years, and I believe I am now ready to tackle the challenge of working for a larger newspaper in a major city. . . ."

Attached to the letter was a resume and copies of six stories Cooke had written for The Toledo Blade. One thing caught Bradlee's eye: the resume said Cooke was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Vassar in 1976. Bradlee underlined those statements and sent the clippings and resume to Bob Woodward. On the letter, he scrawled to his secretary that he would see Cooke.

When Cooke visited The Post two weeks later, every interviewer was impressed. She was a striking, smartly dressed, articulate black woman, precisely the kind of applicant editors welcome, given the pressures to hire minorities and women.

And she could write.

As is the usual practice, she was interviewed around the newsroom, the city editor, the Style editor, the Metro editor.

The written summary of impressions, compiled by Tom Wilkinson, assistant managing editor for personnel, states:

"Janet Cooke came in and saw everyone and was pretty high on everyone's list. What impressed me is that she had pretty well created her own beat. She seems to be a pretty good self-starter. I found her to be very smart." So did others. Only city editor Herb Denton questioned whether she was tough enough. "There's a lot of Vassar still in her," Denton said.

Hiring is a group decision at The Post -- the editors call it collegial -- and it takes time. Sometime in the next couple of months, nobody remembers the exact date, a memo went to Wilkinson from Woodward. It said, "We're ready to offer her a job on the Weekly. Can we go ahead?"

They could, and Janet was employed as a reporter by The Post on Jan. 3, 1980. So impressed had the staff been with her and her writing that the usual check of references was done in a cursory manner. Wilkinson vaguely remembers talking with someone at The Blade. Others can't remember any checks.

She was assigned to the District Weekly, where a staff prepares one of the three local sections for zoned distribution every Thursday in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The editor, Stan Hinden, a veteran of 30 years in journalism, remembers: "Janet was much like many reporters we get from smaller papers. That is, she wrote and reported reasonably well. We tend to be detail-conscious, and she needed to know how to get more detail, but she was good and smart and better than most."

Cooke worked directly under Vivian Aplin-Brownlee, who had been a reporter, editorial writer and associate editor of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. After a year in San Diego, she joined The Post's staff in the same month that Cooke had written her letter to Bradlee, July, 1979.

"Janet was assigned to various types of stories," Aplin-Brownlee said, "to see how she would develop, to see if she would bring anything new to the story."

Two weeks after she was hired, Cooke's first byline appeared. It was a story about a black beauty contest. Other stories followed rapidly. On Jan. 31 there were four. She was winning the confidence of her editor.

Her first big article appeared on Feb. 21. It was a dramatic story of Washington's drug-infested riot corridor, years after the 1968 disorders, and an hour-by-hour account of a police patrol along 14th Street.

"It was a fine piece of journalism," Aplin-Borwnlee said. "Masterfully written."

The editor had worked with her reporter all week. "She was not really street-savvy," Aplin-Brownlee said. "She didn't know the kinds of people she was dealing with, but she was tenacious and talented."

Janet produced. Fifty-two of her stories appeared in The Post before the ill-fated account of the non-existent "Jimmy."

She was a conspicuous member of the newsroom staff. When she walked, she pranced. When she smiled, she dazzled. Her wardrobe seemed always new, impeccable and limitless. "She has a dramatic flair," Bradlee said.

But there was something else. "She was consumed by blind and raw ambition," Aplin-Borwnlee said. "It was obvious, but it doesn't deny the talent.

"She was Gucci and Cardin and Yves St. Laurent. She went out on that 14th Street story in designer jeans and came back to tell me that somebody asked, 'What kind of nigger are you?' She thought it was funny.

"She had to learn the street.She didn't know what was happening in the nitty-gritty. I was grooming her, training her. It was ironic that she became a reporter of the drug culture."

Cooke grew up in a middle-class home in Toledo, where her father, Stratman Cooke, worked for 35 years for Toledo Edison and is now secretary to the corporation. He remembers that he gave her her first typewriter when she was 5 and that a grade-school teacher said she couldn't believe the poetry Janet wrote. It was that good.

Janet learned quickly about life in an urban slum. Her 14th Street story drew compliments not only from her colleagues, but also Bradlee and Richard Harwood, deputy managing editor, congratulated her.

Janet's ambition was taking shape. She wanted to move to the daily Metro staff, which is responsible for seven-day coverage of local news. Storng, the Metro staff is a favorite of the publisher, Donald Graham.

Graham believes the quality of the Metro staff has improved enormously in the 10 years he has been with the paper. "The city staff particularly has begun to tell us things we didn't understand about this town," Graham said.

Bob Woodward, who is more famous as half of the Woodward and Bernstein reporting team that broke the Watergate story in 1972, has been assistant managing editor for metropolitan news -- the Metro editor -- since May 1, 1979. A tough, determined and persistent administrator, Woodward is frequently the first of The Post's top staff in the office in the morning and among the last to leave at night. He has put the local news section on a fast track, and presides over the largest of The Post's staffs.

Janet Cooke wanted to move quickly. She told Woodward so, and she frequently talked with Milton Coleman, who had succeeded Herb Denton as district editor for the daily staff. Aplin-Brownlee knew of the conversations.

Once when the "Jimmy" story was developing, Cooke told a friend, "This story is my ticket off the Weekly."

While she aspired to the Metro staff, she had bigger ambitions."She set enormous goals for herself," Karlyn Barker, a Metro reporter, said. "She wanted a Pulitzer Prize in three years, and she wanted to be on the national staff in three to five years," Barker said. "She had winner written all over her, although it was strange, every day she acted as though she was protecting her job. She was the last person who needed to do that."

Cooke lived alone in an apartment until December. Then she asked Elsa Walsh, another Weekly reporter, if they might share living quarters. Walsh agreed, but says it didn't work very well.

"Janet was hard to live with, very highstrung," Walsh recalled. "She bought clothes lavishly. Every day she talked about her ambitions. She had no sense of the past or even the present, except for its consequences for the future. She always looked to the future, and she didn't care about the people she left behind."

Cooke had money problems. The check for her deposit on the shared apartment bounced. So did others.

When Walsh asked Cooke about other reporters who doubted the veracity of the "Jimmy" story, she said Cooke replied: "They're just jealous. They are not going to get where I'm going."

Sometime in August of last year, Aplin-Brownlee heard talk of a new type of heroin on the streets of Washington. The drug was said, so she heard, to ulcerate the skin of its users. She asked Cooke to look into it.

During background interviews on the story, Cooke didn't find the new type of heroin, but she found out a lot about the use of heroin in Washington.

Interviewing social workers and drug rehabilitation experts, Cooke amassed extensive notes and taped interviews with intriguing leads. In all, there were two hours of tape-recorded interviews plus 145 pages of handwritten notes plus a collection of pamphlets and documents on drug abuse.

When Aplin-Brownlee saw what Cooke had collected, she immediately said, "This is a story for the daily."

"The daily" is Weekly jargon for the Metro section. Cooke took her notebooks and her ideas to Milton Coleman. Aplin-Brownlee was not to see the story again until it appeared on the front page of The Washington Post of Sept. 28 under the headline, "Jimmy's World."

Copyright The Washington Post. Posted with permission.