Story pick: Janet Cooke and "Jimmy's World"
September 28th marked the 30-year anniversary of The Post's publication of "Jimmy's World," a front page story about an 8-year-old boy with a heroin habit, who, it turned out, didn't exist.
The story catapulted its author, Janet Cooke, then 26, to renown, earning her a Pulitzer Prize, and shortly thereafter, to infamy. Her journalism career came to a crashing halt and The Post suffered a painful blow.
Technology has made it easy to look back at the scandal and contemporary coverage of its aftermath. The online archives chronicle her fall from grace and subsequent disappearance from public view. Her name occasionally resurfaces in stories about other fabulists masquerading as journalists, such as Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. Still the best telling of the tale is The Post's own encyclopedic dissection of what happened. The story itself has been immortalized on the Web with the following addendum:
Correction: The following article is not factually correct and is a fabrication by the author. For a detailed account of how it came to be published by The Washington Post, please see the article by Bill Green, then the newspaper's reader ombudsman, published in The Post on April 19, 1981.
I had never read the original story until now. Knowing that Jimmy is fabricated going into it made it nearly impossible for me to have a normal reaction, which I presume would have been shock. I still find Green's epic post mortem, most compelling for what it revealed not only about Cooke, but the culture of the newsroom at the time.
As for Cooke, the last time the public heard from her, 14 years ago, she was working in a department store for $6 an hour. That was also the first time she spoke publicly about the scandal, giving an interview to her former boyfriend, writer Mike Sager, who published it in GQ. In that piece, she tried to explain her lifelong compulsion to lie as a product of her upbringing at the hands of a stern father who kept such tight control of the family pursestrings that his wife and children would buy things behind his back. "The conclusion I've come to is that lying, from a very early age, was the best survival mechanism available," Cooke told Sager.
She also said what drove her to fabricate Jimmy was not some grand desire to win prizes, but a far more banal one. She wanted to get away from a boss she didn't like and hoped the story would be her ticket to another spot in the newsroom.
Richard Prince, who blogs for the Maynard Institute, recently got in touch with Sager, who told him that while he hadn't seen her since 1996, he was still in touch with Cooke and gets an email from her now and then. As for where she is and what she's going, Sager was mum, telling Prince, "I’m not at liberty to divulge her whereabouts."
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