Recalling “Jimmy’s World” at the Washington Post

Remarkably, it’s been 40 years since fabulist Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a  story headlined “Jimmy’s World,” about an eight-year old heroin addict who did not exist. On April 15, it will also be 40 years since Cooke’s fictional story was exposed and the Post returned the Pulitzer, the lowest point for the newspaper – my newspaper – that had brought down a president over the Watergate scandal, and for the legendary Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, then the Assistant Managing Editor for Metropolitan News and my longtime colleague and friend. What follows is an excerpt from my memoir, a work in progress, about that terrible time.  

The fabulist who changed journalism - Columbia Journalism Review

“Jimmy’s World” appeared on the front page of the Washington Post on Sept. 28, 1980. It was a compelling but made up story about an eight-year old heroin addict in Southeast Washington.  Illustrating the story was a fetching sketch of the boy injecting it into his vein. The byline belonged to Janet Cooke, a beautiful Black reporter who could write like silk and lie just as smoothly.  Cooke had lied about her education, lied about her credentials, lied about her background. She was, in short, a serial liar.

The story was shepherded into print by District Editor Milton Coleman and blessed by Woodward, despite red flags and a warning from Courtland Milloy, a Metro columnist and an African American who found the story incredible. Nonetheless, the paper nominated “Jimmy’s World” and its author for a Pulitzer, the most prestigious prize in all of journalism.  At this critical juncture, Woodward is famously reported to have shrugged fatalistically, “Well, in for a dime, in for a dollar.”

Then the worst possible thing that could happen did.  On April 13, 1981, it was announced, “Jimmy’s World” won the Pulitzer Prize.  The next day the Post ran a full-page advertisement in the A section featuring a rooftop photo of Janet Cooke, her long tresses blowing in the breeze against the Washington skyline. In the newsroom, I overhead Sally Quinn, the famous Style writer and Ben Bradlee’s wife, coaching the new Pulitzer recipient on how to, well, be famous. She would soon, and ever after, be infamous.

In half a dozen years, newspaper reporters had gone from being the nation’s heroes in “All the President’s Men” to its villains in “Absence of Malice,” and now this. That this was a betrayal of trust by one reporter of an entire institution didn’t matter.  Janet Cooke’s lies tainted all of us scribes who honestly worked to ferret out the truth.

Woodward was wont to say, “Let silence suck out the truth.”  It sounded good, but it didn’t always work.  In this case, after Ben Bradlee met with her during the day at the Madison Hotel, grilling her in French, it would take the empathetic David Maraniss to coax a confession. It happened in a conference room at the newspaper. Present were Woodward, Bradlee, Tom Wilkinson, a senior newsroom editor, and Maraniss. One by one, they left, until it was just Janet and David.

It was now night time.  David pressed. She cried. Ultimately, she confessed. As the following morning dawned, so did perhaps the darkest day in Post history.  Bradlee announced to a stunned newsroom that the Post was returning the Pulitzer.

That day, April 15, 1981, was a day not unlike when John F. Kennedy was shot, the kind that you remember years later exactly when, where and how you heard the news.  For me, it was on a weekday morning in the Holiday Inn in Cumberland, Maryland.  It was also, it so happened, Tax Day, a day of reckoning. I felt angry, and betrayed.  How could anyone do this to my newspaper, to my profession?  A deep recession had brought me to The Queen City of the Alleghenies, economically stagnant in good times. The Reagan-era recession would be soon forgotten. But fallout from the Janet Cooke disaster would linger on, indeed would live in infamy.

I can only guess what Woodward felt that day, clearly the lowest point in his career.  For this Navy veteran, Janet Cooke had happened on his watch, and he had been forewarned.  In for a dime, in for a dollar, he’d said.  But the episode was far more costly to the Post in morale. The Metro staff was furious, with Woodward, and with District Editor Coleman.  Bob didn’t stonewall his staff. Instead, he called a meeting. It was held on a weeknight in the living room of his Victorian Georgetown townhouse. I recall Joe Picharello, a city staff reporter who would soon leave newspapers for Hollywood, railing against them. I remember also a reporter brand new to the newspaper walking around in a daze, as if to say, what have I walked into, what am I doing here?  Sara Rimer would work at the Post for a year or so, then move onto the New York Times as a news feature writer…

The Cooke disaster – there is no other way to describe it – would cost Woodward his job and stop his upward trajectory through the ranks of management.  But while he still held the title of AME/Metro, he asked me to have breakfast with him.  One breakfast grew into three, on consecutive mornings in the Madison Hotel coffee shop.  Over bacon and eggs and coffee and home fried potatoes, we shared a lot of things, although, to tell you the truth, I remember very little of what was said.  I had had this dream assignment on the Chesapeake Bay that had somehow gone awry.  Woodward had this powerful position where he could in the best of worlds nurture other great reporters. We felt each other’s pain, but the only specific detail I can recall is this.  I mentioned Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick.  Until the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopeckne in the car Teddy had been driving, everyone—the nation, his family—expected him to restore Camelot, to fill the presidential office once held by his slain brother. But after Chappaquiddick, Teddy Kennedy was freed from such expectations.  He could now become the senior senator from Massachusetts, maturing into a more fitting role as the old warhorse for liberal causes, known for his raging rhetoric, politics be damned.

The Janet Cooke affair may have done the same for Woodward, I told him.  Before, since Watergate, there had been the expectation that Bob would become Ben.  But now he no longer had to be Bradlee.  Instead, he could be simply Bob Woodward, the best damn investigative reporter of the century and beyond.  And so he was.

As for me, well, I went back to being the best damn reporter I could be.

 

© 2021 Eugene L. Meyer

 

5 Comments

  1. Eileen McGuckian on March 26, 2021 at 6:17 am

    Fascinating recount, Gene. I don’t recall where I was that day, but certainly do remember the situation. Thank you for providing so many inside details and pouring out a glass of lemonade at the end. You are still one of the best damn reporters I know.

  2. Emily Levenson on March 26, 2021 at 6:44 am

    Wonderful! Words make a difference, whether true or false, from journalists to ex president, they change the world.

  3. B. D. Colen on March 26, 2021 at 10:22 am

    I left the Post in May of 1980, and happened to be back in DC the Friday before the Pulitzer announcements the next year. Don Baker and I went to lunch at Duke Zeibert’s – dated much? – to catch up, and when I asked him what was going on at the Post he responded with a wry laugh and said, “Well, we’re going to win a Pulitzer we’re going to have to give back.” The disaster was that obvious ahead of time. Your retelling is every bit as insightful and nuanced as one would expect from you. But I would add one thing, and that is a response to those who today feel ‘poor Janet Cooke,’ who apparently has had nothing but menial jobs ever since betraying everyone who had ever believed in her, as well, of course, as The Washington Post, and the institution of journalism: She didn’t just make up one newspaper story; she made up her life. She at some point determined that lying was the way to get ahead. And so, as all of us were at some point told by our parents, you make your bed and you have to lie in it.

  4. Jimmy Aluisi on March 26, 2021 at 1:00 pm

    You’re a bit modest. Quite a few people that I knew considered you one of the best reporters around And more importantly a reporter they could trust to be accurate and fair. A considerable honor coming from members of the public safety community. Also thank you for your friendship and for having a young son who could “ hook up a V C R “.

  5. Andrew Tobias on March 27, 2021 at 10:53 am

    So proud to share some DNA with you.

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