It was 30 years ago this week that the Washington Post published Janet Cooke’s fantastical “Jimmy’s World. ” Cooke was hired by the Washington Post to improve its coverage of the African American community. She was a young African American woman who claimed to have a degree from Vassar, and she was a excellent writer. On Sunday, September 28, 1980, Cooke delivered just the kind of story she had been hired to write—a compelling account of an eight-year-old boy named Jimmy who was a heroin addict being shot up by his mother’s boyfriend. Although the story was compelling, it wasn’t true—something that was not discovered until the story was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Days after Cooke won the award, reporters learned that her college credentials had been fabricated, and soon she confessed that Jimmy’s story had been made up as well.
Cooke obviously had not behaved ethically in fabricating the story and her credentials. But Bob Woodward, who was one of Cooke’s editors, also accepts responsibility for printing the story. Woodward explains the journalistic and moral lapse in an interview with Ken Adelman in the August 1994 Washingtonian magazine:
When we found [the story] was a fraud, we exposed it ourselves, putting all the information, very painfully, in the paper. We acknowledged a lapse of journalism.
It took me a while to understand the moral lapse, which was the more unforgivable one. I should have tried to save the kid and then do the story. . . . If it happened now, I’d say, “Okay, where’s this kid who’s being tortured to death?”
My journalistic failure was immense, but the moral failure was worse. And if I had worried about the kid, I would have learned that the story was a fraud. There would have been no journalistic failure.
Interestingly, because the kid didn’t exist, I’m taken off the moral hook. There’s no gravestone in Northeast Washington with, “Jimmy, age 8, died of a heroin overdose because Washington Post editor Bob Woodward lacked courage or conscience.
Fourteen years after Cooke’s story was written, retired Post editor Ben Bradlee was still haunted by the story and by the blow it delivered to the paper’s credibility. He told American Journalism Review back in 1995: “That was a terrible blot on our reputation. I’d give anything to wipe that one off.”