April 19 1981 Sunday Final Edition
SECTION: First LENGTH: 13967 words
THE PLAYERS: It Wasn't a Game;
THE REPORTER: When She Smiled, She Dazzled; When She Crashed . .
The Story: First the Idea, and Finally the Presses Rolled;
THE PUBLICATION: 'Jimmy' Hit Washington Like a Grenade,
THE DOUBTS: From the Very First Moment, Some Suspected the Worst;
THE OMBUDSMAN: After the Agony, the Reappraisal;
The Prize: Of Fiefdoms and Their Knights and Ladies of Adventure;
THE CONFESSION: At the End, There Were the Questions,
Then the Tears;
THE PRESSURES: Heat and the Achievers
Both Have a Tendency to Rise;
THE CONCLUSIONS: Once Again, a Fail-Safe System
Proves the Exception
BYLINE: Bill Green, Washington Post Ombudsman
In alphabetical order, here are the editors and reporters referred to or quoted in these reports:
Vivian Aplin-Brownlee, 34, Editor of the District Weekly
Karlyn Barker, 34, Metropolitan Staff Reporter
Benjamin C. Bradlee, 59, Executive Editor
Milton Coleman, 34, City Editor
Janet Cooke, 26, Metropolitan Staff Reporter assigned first to the District Weekly and then to the City Staff
Herb Denton, 37, former City Editor, now National Staff Reporter
Donald Graham, 37, Publisher of The Washington Post
Blaine Harden, 29, former Metropolitan Staff Reporter, now assigned to the National Staff and The Washington Post Magazine
Neil Henry, 26, Metropolitan Staff Reporter assigned to the Maryland Staff
Stan Hinden, 54, Weekly Editor, in charge of the District, Maryland and Virginia Weeklies that appear in the Thursday Post
Bo Jones, 34, lawyer for The Washington Post
David Maraniss, 31, Deputy Metropolitan Editor and Maryland Editor
Courtland Milloy, 29, City Staff Reporter
Jonathan Neumann, 30, Metropolitan Staff Reporter
Joanne Omang, 38, National Staff Reporter
Donnie Radcliffe, 51, Reporter for the Style Section
Sandy Rovner, 52, Reporter for the Style Section
Howard Simons, 51, Managing Editor
Lewis Simons, 42, Metropolitan Staff Reporter assigned to the Regional Desk
Elsa Walsh, 23, Reporter for the Virginia Weekly
Tom Wilkinson, 44, Assistant Managing Editor for Personnel
Robert U. (Bob) Woodward, 38, Assistant Managing Editor-Metro
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."
The Story: First the Idea, and Finally the Presses Rolled
Milton Coleman is a rangy, tall man. His quietness is deceptive. He pursues news as though it's his quarry, and admiring colleagues regard him as highly competitive. When he sits, he sprawls. He likes to work in a vest. He is a relentless jogger, and finished last Sunday's Washington marathon in three hours and 25 minutes, 57 minutes behind the winner.
Coleman arrived at The Washington Post on May 12, 1976. He had been on The Minneapolis Star for two years after Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, a stint in radio news, a job as Washington correspndent for a black news service and three years with the Student Orgnaization for Black Unity. He majored in fine arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
At The Post he reported on Montgomery County and D.C. City Hall before he was named assistant city editor in March of last year. On May 26, 1980, he took over the city desk. He is among the most respected of The Post's editing staff.
When Janet Cooke brought her reporting notes on heroin to Coleman, stories of heroin use in the city were running regularly. Four appeared in August and three in September before "Jimmy's World" was published.
The stories reported on an increase in the crime rate, a drug dealer receiving a 40-year sentence, vast new drug traffic via Turkey, an indictment of a Northeast man on a drug count, hearings on heroin use by patients dying of cancer, a life sentence for a drug-related killing and 19 arrests in two major local drug rings.
"I talked over Janet's materials with her," Coleman said. "She talked about hundreds of people being hooked.And at one point she mentioned an 8-year-old-addict. I stopped her and said, 'That's the story. Go after it. It's a front page story.'
"It appeared that the kid was at RAP Inc., a service organization for drug addicts. I went to Managing Editor [Howard] Simons' office . . . and we talked it through. If RAP gave us permission to talk to the boy, could we reveal the name? We agreed that we would not under any circumstances. Would RAP let us talk with the parents? We didn't know. Janet went back out."
Two weeks passed. On a story of this nature, it is common practice at The Post to give a reporter all the time he or she needs.
Cooke retuned to Coleman and said she couldn't find the boy, but a week later she said she said she had found another young addict. He was 8 years old. "Jimmy's World" was born.
"She told me that she had gone out on the playgrounds, had asked around and had left her cards in a number of places. One of them had found its way to the boy's mother, who had called Janet in anger and asked, 'Why are you looking for my boy?'"
Cooke told Coleman she had talked with the mother again but had reached no agreement on an interview. In answer to her question, Coleman said she could promise the mother anonymity.
"I told her if the mother called again to keep her on the phone, keep talking, talk it through. Be persistant," Coleman said.
Coleman did not ask the mother's name or the family's street address. He had promised Cooke confidenitiality for her sources. The jugular of journalism lay exposed -- the faith an editor has to place in a reporter.
Simons says an editor can ask the name of a source and if a reporter refuses to reveal it the editor has the option to reject a story. He did not ask Cooke or Coleman to reveal any details on identity.
"Janet told me she had been back in touch with the mother and that the two of them were to have dinner at Eastover Shopping Center," Coleman said.
Later Cooke told him she had the dinner and that two days later she visited the mother's house, the same imaginary house she was to describe in great detail as "Jimmy's World."
There were no further interviews with "Jimmy" or his family, she told
Coleman. But she said she was worried. "Ron," the invented mother's invented lover, had threatened Cooke, the reporter told her editor. All during the interview, she said, Ron had paced the room with a knife in his hand, and once had said to her, "If I see any police, Miss Lady, or if any police come to see me, we [he glances again at the knife] will be around to see you."
The threat was taken so seriously by Coleman and others at The Post that when Richard Cohen wrote a column after "Jimmy's World" appeared, Coleman insisted that Cohen's reference to the knife be deleted. It was. Simons, whose concern for the staff is nearly parental, wouldn't let Cooke go home for two nights after her story was published. He arranged for her to stay with another Post employee.
When Coleman heard her description of her "interview," he asked her to do a memo on it. On this kind of story, Coleman wants the reporter to write the story roughly but soon after the event, while details are fresh in the reporter's mind.
Cooke's memo, her first draft on the subject, is 13 1/2 pages long, double spaced on letter-sized paper. It contains exhausting detail. "Jimmy" wears a blue and green Izod T-shirt -- "bad, ain't it. I got six of these." There was an eight-foot plaid sofa against one living-room wall, a matching love seat against the other. Both were covered in plastic. There was a color television set in the room, along with a lot of Panasonic stereo eqipment, "receiver, tape deck." There was a rubber tree plant, fake bamboo blinds, a brown shag rug, two lamps, a chrome and glass coffee table and a chrome and glass end table.
At this point, Coleman saw the name "Tyrone" on the memo, and determined that this was the fictitious child's "real" first name. He was also told the elementary school "Tyrone" attended and the general neighborhood where he supposedly lived. This was reassuring at the time, and later translated into general newsroom gossip that Coleman knew who the child was.
Other editors did not ask, then or later. Managing editor Simons had earlier given Cooke assurances that she could keep the family anonymous, according to Coleman, who said, "Howard said she should deal with me and tell me the child's identity. 'I don't want to know,' he said, somewhat jokingly."
"None of them asked me for the name," Coleman remembers. "I may have been asked, do you believe it?"
Cooke's descriptive language was convincing to Coleman, but Woodward was to say later that if he had seen the first draft he might have asked questions about the long and seemingly perfect quotations. Woodward never looked at the first rough draft until Cooke's Pulitzer was in question.
Coleman, who knows the streets better than Woodward, said he found no reason to question the quotes. "Ron" is quoted as saying, for example, "He'd be bugging me all the time about what the shots were, what people was doin' and one day he said, 'When can I get off.' I said well s---, you can have some now. I let him snort a little and damn, it was wild. The little dude really did get off."
Coleman read it over, made suggestions on reworking it, suggested how to write the "lead," the opening, how to rearrange the material.
"I wanted it to read like John Coltrane's music, strong. It was a great story, and it never occurred to me that she could make it up. There was too much distance between Janet and the streets," Coleman said.
When the second draft came in, Coleman called in Bob Barkin, The Post's art director, to illustrate the story. Obviously there would be no photographs. It was Friday, Sept. 19, nine days before the story was to be published.
Barkin selected illustrator Michael Gnatek Jr. for the drawing. Bradlee was later to find the full illustration so powerful in its horror that he insisted it run inside the paper. "People are eating breakfast while they read the paper, you know," he said.
The full drawing ran on page A9, only a smaller drawing of "Jimmy" ran on the front page. It shows a young man, his face twisted in a half-smile, huge eyes watching, his slender arm gripped by a huge fist as a needle is injected.
Coleman did some checking of his own. He found someone who knew, and asked if Janet's description of "shooting up" is the way it's done. He wanted to know if, as the story said, liquid ebbs out of the syringe, and is replaced by red blood, which is then reinjected. He was satisfied with how the answers agreed with Janet's account.
Bo Jones is The Post's counsel. He and his associate, Carol Weisman, are frequently called in to "lawyer" a story, particularly those dealing with subjects that might have legal implications.
Jones suggested some changes. "Ron" was said to be from Atlanta. Jones suggested making it "from the South," because "Ron" might be traceable in Atlanta, and the promise of anonymity was absolute. Jones also suggested striking out "public housing." That, also, could be traced, he said.
Woodward saw the story for the first time. He divides stories into two categories: possible libel or criminal charges and all others. "Jimmy" fell into Woodward's category two. It could not libel because its subjects were anonymous.
"Janet had written a great piece," Woodward says. "In a way, both she and the story were almost too good to be true. I had seen her go out on a complicated story and an hour later turn in a beautifully written piece. This story was so well-written and tied together so well that my alarm bells simply didn't go off. My skepticism left me. I was personally negligent."
Woodward called in Cooke and asked her to tell him about it. He simply wanted to hear her story. "She was a terrific actress, terrific," he said. She related it all in the most disarming way. It was so personal, so dramatic, so hard in her tummy."
None of the Post's senior editors subjected Cooke's story to close questioning. Simons was on vacation in Florida the week before it appeared. Deputy managing editor Richard Harwood had no role in its preparation. Ben Bradlee read the story that week and thought it was "a helluva job."
Are they satisfied with the preliminary screening on "Jimmy's World"?
Simons answered: "Yes, there was no reason to disbelieve the story."
Bradlee said: "I am not satisfied now -- but I was then."
Coleman, who was editing Cooke's copy, reflects on this: "Much of my attention was concentrated on the story and formulating it. Subconsciously, I think I firmly believed that the extra eyes of the backup system would catch anything that I missed."
Now Coleman believes other editors were relying on him. "We never really debated whether or not it was true," he said. "I think -- if I can gore my own ox -- they kind of took it for granted that Coleman should know."
Art and story were complete. Bradlee had the weekend duty. He said again that it was a front page story. He thought it was terrific. The story, colors flying, had passed its last and most powerful filter.
Janet Cooke had one last chance to change her mind. On Friday night, before the story was to run on Sunday, Coleman called her in. Simons had gone out of town, but before he left, he insisted that Coleman have a talk with the reporter.
"I told her what Simons told me to say. He's almost romantic about this kind of thing," Coleman said. "I said she had written a story that is certain to be controversial. You have seen a crime and you may be subpoenaed. We don't think so, but you can.You should know that The Post will stand behind you 100 percent. If you are subpoenaed, and you refuse to reveal your sources, you may be found in contempt of court and have to spend time in jail. Before the story goes, if you don't want to face that, we won't run it. Think it over, tell me in the morning."
Saturday morning Cooke told Coleman to let it go.
The article had been held for Sunday publication. There is more space for long stories -- "Jimmy's World" ran 2,256 words -- and there are more readers -- 892,220 copies of the paper ran on Sunday, Sept. 28. "Jimmy's World" was on the front page. The presses started running at 9:54 p.m.
THE PUBLICATION: 'Jimmy' Hit Washington Like a Grenade,
Jimmy's story struck at Washington's heart. The paper had no sooner reached the streets than The Washington Post's telephone switchboard lit up like a space launch control room.
Readers were outraged. The story was described as racist and criminal. The concern was for Jimmy. "What about the boy?" was the central question. It was repeated for the next four days in as many versions as the human mind can invent.
By Monday, Washington Police Chief Burtell Jefferson had launched a mammoth citywide search. He had called on his youth division to get to work Sunday. Mayor Marion Barry was incensed. All schools, social services and police contacts were to be asked for "Jimmy's" whereabouts. The word went out on the streets that big reward money was available. Last week Assistant Chief Maurice Turner said the police had been prepared to offer up to $10,000.
The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service moved the story out to 300 clients. "Jimmy" was national, then international.
Much later, after Ronald Reagan was elected president, Donnie Radcliffe of The Post's Style staff sent a copy of the story to the nation's first-lady-to-be. Radcliffe thought it would be useful information as the Reagans prepared to come to Washington.
Nancy Reagan wrote back " . . . How terribly sad to read it and to know there are so many others like him out there. I hope with all my heart I can do something to help them. Surely there must be a way . . ."
It would be difficult to overestimate Washington's compassion for "Jimmy" or its anger when The Post refused to reveal his identity or address.
Police were receiving letters from all over the country, including one signed by 30 students in a Richmond school, pleading that they find "Jimmy."
At one point, as Milton Coleman and Howard Simons had predicted, police threatened to subpoena Janet Cooke in an effort to force her to reveal names and addresses.
At The Post, Simons sent out instructions that if the police got a search warrant no member of the staff was to resist. Cooke, while not staying at her apartment, was to be at work, on the newsroom floor, and out on some part of the follow-up story.
Coleman established an 11-member reporting team for the follow-up. Five of them were assigned to the breaking story. With these five, the other six men were given a different assignment. They were to search for another "Jimmy," on the theory that if there is one, there must be others.
Cooke and fellow Metro reporter Courtland Milloy were one of the teams searching for the second young addict.
The Post's telephones never stopped ringing. Between 50 and 60 letters to the editor arrived.
At first the mayor announced that the city knew "Jimmy" and his family and that he was under medical treatment, which he had been receiving for some time. Later that statement proved premature.
By the following weekend, Coleman was uneasy. It was a slight feeling, but it was real. "I thought the police would have found him in three days at the outside. I'm not one of those people who believe the police can't do anything right. They could find him. I knew it."
Courtland Milloy was also worried. He and Cooke had gone out to find the second "Jimmy."
"We were supposed to be finding another kid," Milloy said. "But I'll tell you the truth, I wanted to find Jimmy. Hell, that kid needed help. So as we drove around I circled through Condon Terrace, the general area where
Janet said he lived.
"It didn't take long to see that she didn't know the area. It's one of the toughest sections in town. I know it well. She said she didn't see the house. I asked her if it was to the right of us, the left of us, or had we passed it. She didn't know.
"We went to other areas where you can find dealers on the street, and I wanted to go back to Condon Terrace but Janet's life had been threatened. I didn't want to take any chances."
Milloy's serious doubts about the story began there.When he and Cooke had looked for seven hours they returned to the office. Milloy went to Coleman and said, "I think you ought to buy me a drink."
The next day, Coleman did, and Milloy told him about his growing disbelief in Cooke's story.
Milloy went further. "I wanted to find 'Jimmy.' I mean, does The Post sanction a reporter watching a kid getting shot up? Even the Condon Terrace people were calling offering to help.
"I got a call from the 'Queen of the Underworld' [about whom Milloy had written on the same Sunday Cooke's story ran], and she asked if she could help. She wanted to find that kid, man."
Coleman listened respectfully, but was "leery" of Milloy's conclusions. "I thought part of his doubting might be jealousy," he said. "But also I got the distinct impression from him and from Jan that he was concerned with our making sure that the child was identified and turned over to authorities. My concern at that time [was] for protecting the reporter on this story . . ."
Coleman does remember relaying Milloy's doubts to the metropolitan editor and the managing editor.
Four days after the story ran, the telephone calls to The Post changed. They were now asking, in great numbers, what the police were doing. Why weren't they finding Jimmy, and what were they doing about the drug traffic?
The intense police search continued for 17 days. The city had been finely combed. Nothing.
On Oct. 15, Mayor Barry said, "We're kind of giving up on that." It remained an open case. "I've been told the story is part myth, part reality," Barry said. "We all have agreed that we don't believe that the mother or the pusher would allow a reporter to see them shoot up."
Were Bradlee and Simons worried by City Hall's claim that the story was untrue? Both said they felt the weight of criticism, but were reassured by the fact that at one point the mayor had said city officials had found such a child.
Bradlee says he remembers going to either Woodward or Coleman and asking if there was anything that should be rechecked, and being reassured by the answers he got.
The Post stuck by its story and what it described as its First Amendment rights to protect its sources.
"At any rate," Coleman recalls, "I voiced my concerns to Howard [Simons], and he said in so many words that they were legitimate. But he urged me to find the most creative way to examine them, stressing that I more than anyone else had to stand by my reporter. At the point that I even began to hint to her that I thought she had not been truthful, her trust in me could be destroyed."
Simons says, "I have no memory of either Coleman or Woodward discussing Milloy's disbelief with me at that point."
In the paper's newsroom, where doubts about the story were beginning to thump faintly, there were congratulations and commendations for Cooke.
Publisher Don Graham wrote her a note on Oct. 7: "With all the turmoil of the last week, it's important that one say the basic thing: not only was that a very fine story in Sunday's paper a week ago, it was only one of many you've done in the last year.
"The Post has no more important and tougher job than explaining life in the black community in Washington. A special burden gets put on black reporters doing that job, and a double-special burden on black reporters who try to see life through their own eyes instead of seeing it the way they're told they should. The Post seems to have many such reporters. You belong very high up among them.
"If there's any long-term justification for what we do, it's that people will act a bit differently and think a bit differently if we help them understand the world even slightly better. Much of what we write fails that first test because we don't understand what we're writing about ourselves.
"You seem to have much more than the common measure of understanding and the ability to explain what you see. It's a great gift.
"And you went through your tests of last week with what seemed to me world-class composure. Sincerely, Don."
On Monday morning after "Jimmy's World" appeared, Woodward walked over to Vivian Aplin-Brownlee's desk and said Janet Cooke was now a member of the Metro daily staff. Aplin-Brownlee was furious. She had lost her most experienced reporter.
THE DOUBTS: From the Very First Moment, Some Suspected the Worst
From the day "Jimmy's" story appeared there were doubts about it.
Milton Coleman felt misgivings first when the police couldn't find the boy,
Courtland Milloy when he accompanied Janet Cooke on a trip through the area where the youngster was supposed to live.
There were others. Mayor Marion Barry was one. Dr. Alyce Gullattee, director of Howard University's Institute for Substance Abuse and Addiction, was another. She was one of the people Cooke interviewed when she was gathering her original material.
In a telephone call with Pat Tyler, then of The Washington Post's metro staff, Gullattee said the story had caused a panic in the community to the extent that addicts were hunkered down, afraid to go out to seek treatment out of fear that they will run afoul of swarms of police looking for the 8-year-old.
Gullattee also said she didn't believe any of those people "fired up" in front of Cooke. Junkies, she said, just don't trust reporters like that.
Elsa Walsh, Cooke's roommate, doubted. She had gone through Cooke's notes once and found nothing on "Jimmy."
But there was more. "She's the kind of person who has fears for her own safety," Walsh said. "My own instincts told me it was wrong. She would have real trouble going into the 'Jimmy' setting. And then, when I tried to put what I know of Janet together with the story itself, they wouldn't fit."
She did not express these misgivings to any editors.
Among the strongest doubters was Vivian Aplin-Brownlee of the District Weekly, who was Janet's first editor at The Post. She had not been in touch with the story since it was turned over to the Metro staff.
"I had been tough on Janet. She knew it and I knew it," Aplin-Brownlee said. "But when I first read the story I was astonished. I thought it was going to be about the use of heroin that causes skin ulcers. That's what it started out to be.
"I never believed it, and I told Milton that. I knew her so well and the depth of her. In her eagerness to make a name she would write farther than the truth would allow.
"When challenged on facts on other stories, Janet would reverse herself, but without dismay or consternation with herself.
"I knew she would be tremendously out of place in a 'shooting gallery.' I didn't believe she could get access. No pusher would shoot up a child in her presence.
"Some of the language didn't ring true. What 8-year-old in 'Jimmy's' circumstances would make a connection between math and drugs?" (As the story claimed.)
On the day Cooke's Pulitzer Prize was announced, Aplin-Brownlee went to Coleman and said, "I hope she has committed the perfect crime."
When the hoax became known, Coleman went back to Aplin-Brownlee and said, "It wasn't the perfect crime after all."
In mid-November, Cooke was working on another sensational story, promising to produce the story of a 14-year-old prostitute, and when Alpin-Brownlee heard about it, she told Coleman, "She's about to do it to you again. Why would a 14-year-old hooker and her 20-year-old pimp sit down with Janet at a restaurant in Georgetown?"
Still, after she first expressed her incredulity to Coleman, she didn't go back to him. Relations between the two were strained.
"He said he believed the story," Aplin-Browlee recalls now. "I didn't have to ask why. He believed it because he wanted to."
Aplin-Brownlee said she felt that Coleman had raided her District Weekly staff when Cooke was assigned to Metro after the "Jimmy" story. It was what Woodward called a battlefield promotion.
Skepticism from people like Milloy and Aplin-Brownlee triggered newsroom rumors about "Jimmy" that wouldn't go away. Woodward didn't doubt the story, although he and Coleman talked about those who did. "I was blown away by the story," Woodward said. "Milt seemed satisfied that by now he had a name. I was also reassured by a letter to the editor The Post published" (on Nov. 10.).
Dr. William Hamlin of Washington had written, ". . . The Washington metropolitan area, as well as hundreds of other large metropolitan areas around the country, are full of Jimmys. I know. I work with them. . . ."
"Milt did think that failed trip Janet had with Courtland was bizarre," Woodward said. "That thought should have set off alarms for me. It didn't. I told Milt I believed the story."
Woodward was inclined to dismiss the doubters, attributing their skepticism to "professional jealousy."
Still, the two editors did take some precautions. As Cooke pursued the "hooker" story, they insisted that Coleman meet with the subject of the story, mainly to protect Cooke from more staff jealousies and to establish once and for all the soundness of her reporting. Cooke kept arranging times and places for such a meeting, but they were all canceled.
"I attached no particular significance to this," Woodward said, "but it was mildly troubling."
Meanwhile, something else was filtering into The Post's reaction. It felt it was under attack. Angry words from the mayor and the police chief were reaching the staff's pride. Charges of irresponsibility from the public were tough to take. Woodward said it best, "We went into our Watergate mode: protect the source and back the reporter."
When the threat of legal action by the police department came up, publisher Dan Graham went by Coleman's desk one day and asked, "Is there anything we should check out?"
Neither of them quite remembers Coleman's reply, but, in part, Coleman remembers describing Cooke's gripping account of her visit to "Jimmy's" home. Graham went away satisfied.
About three weeks after the story appeared, Simons called Coleman and said, "That kid is still out there and nobody's looking for him. Let's find him. Take Janet with you."
Coleman told Cooke about the plan, but they didn't get to it right away. A day later, Cooke went to Coleman and said she had gone to the house and found it vacant. The family had moved to Baltimore, she said, and there was no reason for the two of them to make a trip to "Jimmy's" house.
While Coleman had been troubled that the police were unable to find the boy, Woodward found that unremarkable. "It seemed logical," he said, "that his mother would take him away to Baltimore or wherever."
But Coleman was infuriated. He went to managing editor Simons and spilled out his anger. For the first time, Simons felt misgivings about the story. "But all I had was a hunch and the fact that she had ducked the visit. How do you prove a negative?" he said.
The faith of an editor in his reporter that is a principal connector in all the events of the episode was upheld. Skepticism was put aside.
Bradlee says that throughout he was unaware of the skepticism. "Nobody ever came in this room and said, "I have doubts about the story' -- before or after publication -- and nobody said someone else had misgivings about the story," Bradlee said.
One editor who had early misgivings was deputy metro editor David Maraniss, who also serves as Maryland editor. He read the story on vacation and didn't feel it quite added up. Since it was not his territory and criticism might be viewed as poaching, Maraniss did not take his questions to Woodward until much later.
Uncertainties and misgivings among the newsroom staff persisted. Some of them found their way to Coleman, Woodward or Simons, but apparently made no strong impression. Looking back on it with reporters now, they seem to agree that they didn't have enough to go on. They felt they couldn't press the case without evidence, and none was available. As late as February, Metro reporters were still going to editors with their concerns, and were told that Coleman knew who "Jimmy" was.
When the hoax was exposed, their doubts about the story and their frustration with management burst out in a meeting of the Metro staff at Woodward's house last Thursday night. Coleman says now:
". . . There was undoubtedly also some degree of pride -- we had published the story in the first place and stood by it. We probably put too much faith in the hope that maybe things were not the way so many indicators suggested they might be."
Bob Woodward, likewise, feels negligent. "Questions were clearly out there," he said. "Maraniss and Coleman were my channels of information. I should have sat them down together and reviewed everything and then taken it to Simons and Bradlee. Though I had a vague idea that Coleman and Simons had talked about the questions, I never recall talking with Simons about it. I don't think I ever once took the matter up with Bradlee, who was apparently left in ignorance about the doubts swirling around."
Meanwhile, Aplin-Brownlee says that Cooke was having migraine headaches and stayed out of the office more than usual.
THE OMBUDSMAN: After the Agony, the Reappraisal
I wrote this story of "Jimmy World" after being invited to do so by The Washington Post's executive editor, Ben Bradlee. It is important to understand the verb, "invited," because if I had been assigned to do it, that would have violated the relationship The Post has maintained with its ombudsmen for over a decade.
The central idea is autonomy for the person who sits in this chair. Without it, the ombudsman would be a fake, like "Jimmy." With it, The Post takes its chances, as it should. I have been filling this role at The Post since September, and will return in August to my regular work in the administration of Duke University.
All of which is to say that this piece is my own. Twenty Post reporters discussed the one-man undertaking Wednesday afternoon and didn't like it. They wanted the story staffed, as The Wall Street Journal did with its account of "Jimmy" that appeared Friday. I turned the reporters away, although it would have been great to have them share the work. But I am grateful that they volunteered.
There are omissions in this article, perhaps some errors too. The most glaring omission is the absence of an interview with Janet Cooke.She refused to see me. I don't think she was trying to be evasive. I think she simply didn't want to go over it again with a stranger now. The pain has simply been too great. Where Cooke is quoted directly in this account, the words are attributed to the editors or reporters who were in conversation with her.
I regret her decision because her version of the whole episode should be here. No doubt, it would differ in some respects from this account.
After the agony of this week, deputy met metropolitan editor David Maraniss, who has grown close to Cooke and feels protective of her, reports that she is doing better, seems to understand what she has done, and is feeling remorseful. "By Friday," he said, "she was beautiful again."
Four Post employees were involved in producing this story, all of them at my request. Noel Epstein, assistant editor of Outlook, and Ron Shaffer of the Metro staff did some research, none of the writing. William Greider, assistant managing editor for national news, edited it. He changed nothing without my approval. Robin Gradison, a news aide, supplied research and good cheer and coffee for four days. She was terrific.
The Post's attitude toward this project was summarized in the catch phrase, "full disclosure." That word went out to the staff from Bradlee and publisher Donald Graham.
The result was that every question I asked about The Post's handling of "Jimmy" got an answer. Maraniss declined to relate his off-the-reocrd conversations with Cooke. Other than that, no one refused to answer my questions.
The most impressive reaction was from the news staff members who filed in and out of my office offering help. I am willing to lay odds that no sentence in this piece was written without interruption except those that were typed between midnight Friday and 8 a.m. yesterday.
The Prize: Of Fiefdoms and Their Knights and Ladies of Adventure
The Washington Post has 493 employees on its news staff. At the top of the pyramid is the executive editor, Ben Bradlee. His second-in-command and alter ego is the managing editor, Howard Simons. Third in line is the deputy managing editor, Richard Harwood.
They constitute the presiding troika, and they split the duties of top news administration, rotating, for example, weekend duties. They are the last port of call for news decisions. Normally, Bradlee and Simons preside over daily 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. story conferences. Harwood is responsible for the Sunday interpretative section, "Outlook," and The Washington Post Magazine, among other duties.
Bradlee is luminescent, Simons and Harwood, philosophical. All three are former reporters, a characteristic of most Post editors.
Below them are the archdukes and duchesses of the newsroom, the assistant managing editors, 12 of them, nine with news staffs. The other three are responsible for personnel, administration and special projects. All are called AMEs.
Below them on the organization chart are various levels of other editors: earls, counts, countesses, viscounts, barons.
Then there are the reporters, the knight adventurers or lady adventurers. They write the copy.
So prestigious is The Post among journalists and would-be journalists in this country and abroad that one could feel comfortable betting that the entire staff could be replaced, at least numerically, once a month by the applications the paper receives.
The Post calls its news administration a federal system. That is intended to indicate, and does, the enormous latitude and authority that is given to the assistant managing editors, the archdukes.
They pull together budgets and administer them, decide on stories, hire and fire (but only with the agreement from the troika), reward and punish, and -- importantly -- congregate every day for the story conferences. When Bradlee or Simons wants to issue instructions, the assistant managing editors get the word and pass it along.
The archduke of the Metro section is Bob Woodward. He presides over 108 employees, a quarter of the entire news staff. He has been in the job for just short of two years, having assumed it after completing the most recent of his three best-selling books, The Brethren, an account of the decision-making process of the Supremne Court that he co-authored with Post national reporter Scott Armstrong.
Woodward's name has been synonymous with investigative reporting since Watergate. "Jimmy" was created, lived and vanished in Woodward's shop.
Among the rewards in which AMEs play a key role are nominations for the prizes of journalism. On Nov. 17, 1980, the AME for administration, Elsie Caper, set out a memo asking for nominations. Her list contained 73 award possibilities. Leading the list, as always were the Pulitzer Prizes, which are awarded in 12 categories. Winners become the nobility of American journalism. The Post has won Pulitzers 16 times.
On Woodward's Metro staff, there was competition for Pulitzer nominations. It is not uncommon at The Post. David Maraniss, the Maryland editor, was pushing hard for a series by the of his Maryland reporters, Neil Henry, as an entry in the feature category.
He was so depressed when he found that Henry would be nominated in another category that he seriously considered resigning. The Post's feature nominations were to go to Sally Quinn (Ben Bradlee' wife), Myra McPherson and Henry Mitchell of the Style section, where most Post features appear, and Tom Boswell of the sports staff.
Meanwhile, Milton Coleman, Woodward's city editor, was pushing Janet Cooke's "Jimmy's World." In a memo to Woodward on Dec. 10 he also suggested that the story be nominated for the Sigma Delta Chi award, the Heywood Brown award, the Ellis Willis Scipps award and as one of a package submission for the Robert F. Kennedy award.
Coleman's memo described "Jimmy's World" as readable, accurate and complete. "I can't think of another story that shows more enterprise and resourcefulness on the part of a reporter in overcoming obstacles."
There was already strain between Coleman and Maraniss. Coleman thought Maraniss encroached on his territory by giving directions to the city staff. Maraniss disagreed.
"Jimmy's World" was The Post's sole entry for local news reporting.
Maraniss' entry was one of two nominations in the category for Local Investigative Reporting and Other Specialized Reporting," It didn't win.
"Jimmy's World" was also entered for a prize from the Maryland-D.C. Press Association. It won second prize.
Before the entries were sent off, indeed while the nominations were being considered, doubts among the staff about Cook's story rose to new intensity.
This time, even Maraniss was involved. After a dinner with investigative reporter Jonathan Naumann, Maraniss re-read the story, and this time it didn't ring true. He found he couldn't believe it. He said that to Woodward, and suggested that Woodward re-read the story before it was nominated. In hindsight he said he thinks he didn't put it as strongly as he might have. He didn't want to appear to be knocking down a story Coleman liked so much.
Neumann, who had won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was a principal in discussions among other reporters. "A number of people felt strongly that it should not be nominated because it could disgrace us," he said. "A couple of dozen people talked abut it but we didn't go to top editors. I think we felt it wouldn't be fair to put her on the carpet when we couldn't prove anything."
With all the doubts about the "Jimmy" story, how could it have been submitted, with The Post's full backing, to the Pulitzer committee?
Woodward, who accepted Coleman's urgings and strongly supported the story to Bradlee, Simons and Harwood, says it most tellingly: "I have used the phrases 'in for a dime, in for a dollar' to describe my overall conclusion about submitting the Cooke story for a Pulitzer or any other prize.
"I believed it, we published it. Official questions had been raised, but we stood by the story and her. Internal questions had been raised, but none about her other work. The reports were about the story not sounding right, being based on anonymous sources, and primarily about purported lies [about] her personal life -- [told by men reporters], two she had dated and one who felt in close competition with her.
"I think that the decision to nominate the story for a Pulitzer is of minimal consequence. I also think that it won is of little consequence. It is a brilliant story -- fake and fraud that it is.
"It would be absurd for me or any other editor to review the authenticity or accuracy of stories that are nominated for prizes.
"If so, our posture would be as follows: we published the story and said it was true, but now we are going to nominate it for a Pulitzer -- now that's serious business."
Bradlee, Simons and Harwood made the final decisions on Pulitzer nominations in early January. Did Bradlee, Simons or Harwood know of any of this skepticism about Cooke's reporting?
"No, I knew of none," Bradlee said.
Harwood said he didn't know of any, either.
"I didn't know of any staff doubts," said Simmons, who had been told months earlier of some criticism, "but I had some of my own. I had reason to disbelieve. And Woodward supported the nomination strongly."
All 12 categories were entered. The paper was to win one.
When the prize of "Jimmy's World" was announced, all of the top editors, Woodward and Coleman were jubilant. So were the undoubters among the news staff.
Publisher Donald Graham wrote his second note to Cooke:
"Hooray. I've never heard a prize announcement make people so happy. People here like you. They think you're the kind of journalist The Post needs for its future because you understand people and you get a part of their nature into your stories. And all thinking readers of the page know that the city coverage has been getting much, much better for five years. This flash of recognition for you (and Woodward, Miklton, Stan, Vivian and all others involved in your career here) feels mightily like vindication. Milton and the entire staff have taken so much abuse (you as much as anyone) for trying to do the job professionally. Your prize seems to me to say that we're on the right track in writing about this city and it's strong encouragement to do even better.
THE CONFESSION: At the End, There Were the Questions,
Then the Tears
Pulitzer Prize decisions were made on April 3. Formal announcement was scheduled 10 days later, but two members of the advisory board called Ben Bradlee within hours after the decisions were final. He was elated, and called both Bob Woodward and Milton Coleman.
Janet Cooke was in New Haven working on the Reagan shooting story, and John W. Hinckley Jr. Woodward and Coleman reached her by telephone.
Later, she told an interviewer, laughing, "It was right on deadline when they called. I thought they were calling because I hadn't filed the story yet, and all I could think of was, 'Oh, God, is it possible to get fired from 600 miles away?'"
Executive editor Bradlee got on the telephone and repeated the message. "Even then, I wasn't convinced," she said.
Finally persuaded, she faced an evening alone. She said she bought a bottle of champaign, called her mother and watched "Dallas" in her motel room.
The public announcement of the awards was on April 13. At The Toledo Blade that day, in the words of executive news editor Joe O'Conor, "We have an edition that goes to press shortly after 8 a.m. In it, we had a sidebar on Miss Cooke and her Toledo background.
"Sometime later that day, one of the editors showed me a copy of the AP's biographical sketches on Pulitzer winners. The information in it did not jibe with our information, so we did what we would normally do: we pointed out to AP that our information and theirs didn't mesh."
At the Associated Press the story moved to Louis D. Boccardi, vice president and executive editor in New York. He said:
"Tuesday morning, The Toledo Blade pointed out to our correspondent in Toledo that there were discrepancies between our account of Miss Cooke's educational background and what they knew to be the truth.
"More specifically, the background we carried, which was given by The Post to the Pulitzer committee, said that she had a master's degree from the University of Toledo, an undergraduate degree from Vassar, and had studied at the Sorbonne."
Michael Holmes, the AP's correspondent in Toledo, started his own checking, and confirmed the Blades's facts. He reported to his New York office. From there a message went to Paris to check the Sorbonne connection, and a call was made to Cooke at The Post.
"Miss Cooke said, essentially, that the information in her official biography was correct. At this point, it was quite clear that something was wrong, and so we pressed our efforts on the story," Boccardi said.
The "official" biography released by the Pulitzer committee and carried on the AP wire came from a standard Post biographical form that had been attached to her nomination for the prize.
Cooke filled it out. Nobody on The Post checked it, yet it differed significantly from the resume she had filed for the Post when she applied for a job.
The new resume claimed that she spoke or read French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. Her original resume claimed only French and Spanish. The new form claimed she had won six awards from the Ohio Newspaper Women's Association and another from the Ohio AP. Her first resume claimed only a single award from the Ohio Newspaper Women's Association. The new form also showed that she graduated magna cum laude from Vassar in 1976, attended the Sorbonne in 1975 and received a master's degree from the University of Toledo in 1977. The original made no reference to the Sorbonne.
Vassar records show that she attended classes there for one year. She was graduated from the University of Toledo, but received no master's degree.
Between 3 and 3:30 Tuesday afternoon telephones in managing editor Howard Simons' and Bradlee's office rang simultaneously. Boccardi was calling Simons, and Dixie Sheridan, assistant to the president of Vassar, was calling Bradlee. Sheridan's call was prompted by the AP queries she had received.
The callers asked Bradlee and Simons the same questions: what did they know about the records discrepancies? Neither of the editors had an answer.
Simons summoned Woodward, Coleman and Tom Wilkinson to Bradlee's office. Wilkinson, The Post's assistant managing editor for personnel, brought Janet's personnel folder and the Pulitzer biography.
"When we saw the papers, we knew we had a problem," Simons said. He and Bradlee decided that the first thing to go after was the Vassar records discrepancies.
To do that, they dispatched Coleman to take Cooke for a walk around the block and talk to her.
"Take her to the woodshed," Bradlee said, borrowing a phrase Lyndon B. Johnson once used on Hubert H. Humphrey. He meant: ask her every question, get it right.
Coleman and Cooke walked across L Street to the Capitol Hilton Hotel. In the bar they ordered two ginger ales, and Coleman questioned her persistently on her background. Why was Vassar saying she only attended classes there one year when Cooke was saying she had been graduated?
Cooke said she didn't know.
"Okay, let's call Vassar," Coleman suggested at one point. It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and he was afraid the college's registrar's office might close.
"I don't see why it is so important," Cooke said. "The Vassar records are just me. The 'Jimmy' story is something I did."
Coleman, after Cooke told him where Vassar is located, reached Judy Blom, a clerk in the registrar's office. She informed Coleman that Cooke was never graduated from the school. Coleman asked to speak to her supervisor, and was transferred to Margaret Battistoni, administrative assistant to the registrar. She confirmed the clerk's response.
Coleman looked at Cooke, who said she had records to prove her claim, that her mother had the papers.
"Let's call Toledo," Coleman said, meaning the University. But Cooke wanted to talk to her mother, and did, for 15 or 20 minutes, while Coleman stood by.
After that conversation Cooke said, "Let's talk." They returned to the bar and ordered two more ginger ales.
Cooke told Coleman that Vassar was right, that she had gone there but had run into emotional problems and returned home the following year to enter the University of Toledo, where she had been graduated.
"Then that part of your resume is wrong," Coleman said.
"What about languages? Do you speak four languages?"
"And the Sorbonne, were you there?"
"And the 'Jimmy' story?"
When Coleman went to the telephone to call Woodward, a member of the city school board happened to be at the next pay phone, and Coleman told Woodward he would have to speak in code.
"Vassar?" Woodward asked.
"Not true," Coleman answered.
"She says it's true."
At the Post, Bradlee suggested that Coleman be asked to bring Cooke back into The Post at the L Street entrance to avoid being conspicuous and to take her to the vacant eighth-floor office of The Post's corporate president. Bradlee and Woodward joined Cooke and Coleman there. Simons stayed in the fifth floor newsroom to conduct the daily 6:30 story conference.
When Bradlee and Woodward arrived, Cooke was seated on a sofa, crying and saying, "You get caught at the stupidest things."
Bradlee shook her hand, then came on strong. He, Simons and Woodward had decided while Coleman and Cooke were out that the record's discrepancies cast serious doubts on her honesty and that her honesty, or lack of it, was the only thing that held the "Jimmy" story together.
Janet was crying harder, and Bradlee began to check off her language proficiency. "Say two words to me in Portuguese," he said. She said she couldn't.
"Do you have any Italian?" Bradlee asked.
Cooke said no.
Bradlee, fluent in French, asked her questions in the language. Her answers were stumbling. Bradlee said later that it sounded as if she had once some high school instruction.
Bradlee made an accusing comparison with Richard M. Nixon: "You're like Richard Nixon -- you're trying to cover up." Later, the executive editor said it was one of the most unpleasant conversations he'd ever had. He asked about the six Ohio journalism awards, and Cooke's answers were inconclusive.
Bradlee asked about Jimmy's identity. Tuesday was the first time Post editors had been told his full name, "Tyrone Davis." His mother and her boyfriend, they were told, were named Candi Davis and Robert Jackson Anderson, and they lived on Xenia Street. This was the first time any of them had been told where "Jimmy" supposedly lived.
"You've got 24 hours to prove the 'Jimmy' story is true," Bradley said.
Now it was Woodward's turn to get tough. "I don't believe you on the 'Jimmy' story," he said.
"You don't believe me," Cooke replied.
"No, I don't, and I'm going to prove it if it's the last thing I do."
It was the first time Woodward had said that even to himself.
Bradlee and Woodward left the room, and decided the next best step was to send Coleman and Cooke to Xenia Street in an effort to establish whether she did know the precise location where the "Jimmy" story had its origins. Once again, Coleman and Cooke left, this time driving.
Bradlee, Simons, publisher Donald Graham and Woodward reassembled in Bradlee's office. Graham asked if it was really safe to send Coleman and Cooke to Xenia Street, and was told that it had to be done.
David Maraniss, deputy Metro editor and one of those who had earlier doubted the story, joined the group. Maraniss had known Cooke since shortly after she arrived at The Post, although he was never her editor. Genial and respected as an editor, Maraniss develops close relationships with his staff. He and Cooke had had lunch several times, and he had gone over her stories informally at times. His friendship was to prove crucial during the evening.
Bradlee and Graham went to dinner at Mel Krupin's restaurant as Cooke's notes and tapes for the Jimmy story arrived at The Post. The documents had been held in safekeeping in the law offices of Williams & Connolly since shortly after the story was published.
Woodward, Maraniss and Wilkinson began the laborious job of going over 145 pages of hand-written notes and listening to her tape-recorded interviews. It was the background for the "Jimmy" story, but this was the first time that any editor at The Post had inspected her materials. Woodward said later that he saw "echoes" of the published story all through her notes, but no indication that she had actually interviewed a child using heroin.
While the three editors were poring over the tapes and notes, Coleman called. He said they couldn't find "Jimmy's" house, and Coleman later said that when Cooke failed to identify a house, that fact convinced him the story was a fake. Now, everbody dealing with Cooke believed she was lying. But she stuck with her story.
The editors called Elsa Walsh, Cooke's roommate since mid-December, who was covering a city council meeting in Alexandria for the Virginia Weekly. She drove to The Post and told an editor, for the first time, that she had never believed the "Jimmy" story. Once, she said, she had looked through Cooke's "Jimmy" notes and found none about the boy. She also recalled that Cooke had once told her that she was valedictorian at Vassar. Walsh had not gone to an editor with her doubts.
While Coleman and Cooke drove back to the office, Bradlee and Simons went home. It was 11:30 p.m. Both left instructions to be notified if anything developed.
Coleman and Cooke joined Woodward, Maraniss and Wilkinson in The Post's fifth floor conference room, and the questioning continued.
"Janet looked awful," Maraniss said. "Her eyes were glassy, her face contorted, and she seemed not to know what word would come out before she said it."
Woodward led the questioning. "It's all over," he said to Cooke.
"You've got to come clean.The notes show us the story is wrong. We know it. We can show you point by point how you concocted it."
"I was tough," Woodward said later, "but I was convinced we had to finish it up with Janet."
Wilkinson told Cooke he was concerned for her. Woodward continued to say that he knew she had faked the story, even though she had done it brilliantly.
"This is getting too cruel," Cooke said. "All I have left is my story."
But Maraniss was comforting. "Give up the Pulitzer," he said to her, "and you can have yourself back."
The editors say she continued to deny that "Jimmy" didn't exist, repeated it 15 or 20 times, and then a subtle change crept into her answers.
"I have to believe the story.
"What am I going to do?"
Coleman remained silent. Woodward tried one last time. "If a just God were looking down, what would he say is the truth?"
"I don't know what you mean," Cooke said.
Coleman paced the floor. Maraniss sat at the table across from Cooke.
Woodward proposed a compromise. Would she sign a statement saying she didn't deserve a Pulitzer Prize because she couldn't prove it? Cooke replied that she didn't know why she should say that although she understood it was necessary.
Woodward and Wilkinson left the room, and Coleman soon joined them.
Maraniss sat alone with Cooke. Both were weeping. He held her hand.
"I was afraid I was going to be left alone with you," Cooke said."The first time I saw you today I thought, 'Oh boy, he knows, and I'm going to have to tell him.' I couldn't lie to you. I couldn't tell them. I never would tell Woodward. The more he yelled, the more stubborn I was. Wilkinson represents the corporation. It means so much to Milton. You guys are smart, Woodward for the mind, you for the heart. Why were you smiling?"
"Because," said Maraniss, "I had a tremendous surge of empathy for you, refusing to submit to the institution in an absurd situation. You were so strong not to give in. The institution will survive."
"Oh, David, what am I going to do?" Cooke asked.
They talked for an hour, reviewing their childhoods. Each time another editor opened the conference room door, Maraniss waved him away.
They talked about the horror and the fear she had gone through, especially when she was nominated for a Pulitzer.
She said she was rooting for a series by Neil Henry, a Metro reporter whose articles were considered for a Post Pulitzer nomination in another category.
"I didn't think I had a chance," she said. "There were so many other great stories."
"You can recover and you will," Maraniss told her.
"The only thing I can do is write," Cooke said.
"That's not true," Maraniss replied.
Then he said, "You don't have to say anything to the others, I'll do it for you. What do I tell them?"
"There is no Jimmy and no family," she said. "It was a fabrication. I did so much work on it, but it's a composite. I want to give the prize back."
Woodward and Wilkinson had left the room to discuss the feasibility of putting Cooke on indefinite leave. They called Bradlee, and he decided against it. Bradlee said call off the questioning, it was beginning to sound like a "third degree."
But when Woodward, Wilkinson and Coleman went back into the conference room, Maraniss looked up and announced: "You can go home now, Jimmy is a composite."
Each editor hugged and kissed her.
"I'm sorry I was such a son-of-a-bitch," Woodward said.
"I deserved it," Cooke answered.
"Yes, you did," Woodward said.
Woodward and Wilkinson called Bradlee, and Coleman called Cooke's parents and said he would meet Mrs. Cooke when she flew in the next day.
Cooke had confessed the fraud, and now, emotionally spent, she talked freely with Maraniss. She was embarrassed and humiliated, and didn't want anyone to see her.
She had questions:
"What will happen to me? Will I be able to write again?"
Maraniss told her he would do everything he could to help her, including trying to get her another job, and he promised to stand by her as long as she needed him.
When the conversation drifted to why she had done it, Cooke said she felt she knew enough to bring it off by the time she concocted the story. She had thought about it for two days before writing the original draft she submitted to Coleman.
"I hope," she said, "that Milton doesn't get in trouble over this. He is a good man who cares about his people."
She said she hated Ben Bradlee because he had compared her with Richard Nixon and that she never would have told Woodward.
There were other reasons for her confidence:
1) The cops couldn't find the boy because he didn't exist.
2) She wouldn't be afraid of the city officials.
3) Before the story was published, Simons had said that he wasn't going to ask her the name of the boy or his mother, nor was he going to ask for the street address. (He did direct her to tell Coleman the names, according to others' recollections.) Cooke added, with a smile, that she might have told a psychologist she had called, but the psychologist's calendar had been filled and she couldn't get an appointment.
"You must have been in a panic for a year," Maraniss said, "after you lied on your resume. How did you feel the night you won the Pulitzer?"
"Awful," she said. "I prayed I wouldn't get it, but I never told anybody that."
Maraniss drove her to the Ontario apartments, where she stayed up all night, talking with friends.
At 7 o'clock Wednesday morning, Bradlee broke the news to Graham, who was, as usual, in his office by 6:30. Bradlee invited Graham to his house for breakfast, and they talked about want to do next.
After two hours of sleep at Woodward's house, Maraniss returned to the Ontario, where he and Cooke talked for two hours. Then he called Bradlee, who asked Maraniss to get Cooke's resignation and a written statement.
In longhand, she wrote: "'Jimmy's World' was in essence a fabrication. I never encountered or interviewed an 8-year-old heroin addict. The September 28, 1980, article in The Washington Post was a serious misrepresentation which I deeply regret. I apologize to my newspaper, my profession, the Pulitzer board and all seekers of the truth. Today, in facing up to the truth, I have submitted my resignation. Janet Cooke."
Cooke's mother arrived from Toledo Wednesday, and her father flew to Washington on Friday. While Janet Cooke was being grilled by Washington Post editors, her father had spend the night of April 14 filing out his income tax returns.
"What did I do that went wrong?" Stratman Cooke asked. "I know I was away from home a lot, had to travel a lot. But I couldn't have it both ways
. . . . She was extremely ambitious, eager to prove herself. I encouraged that."
THE PRESSURES: Heat and the Achievers Both Have a Tendancy to Rise
There is no question about the pressures and competition in The Washington Post's newsroom. They are powerful. Some people flourish, others get crushed. It is major-league journalism. "Hardball," as Ben Bradlee describes it.
The troubling question is whether pressure on the staff distorts the news published in the paper. There is another question: did pressure to excel, to overreach, drive Janet Cooke to fake a story that won a Pulitzer Prize?
Jonathan Neumann, who doubted the "Jimmy" story from the first time he saw it, believes not.
"It was not pressure that did Janet in," he said. "No pressure can do that. That had to come from within her. She wanted page one."
Page one. The showpiece of the paper. The prestige place to appear. The prize. It is the principal topic of conversation among the assistant managing editors and Bradlee or Simons at the twice-daily story conference. Everybody on the news staff knows that. Every AME looks for stories that he can use to compete for page one space, and every reporter knows that.
The competition to get on page one is so strong that it effects probably cannot be understood even by the top editors. It is one source, if not the central source, of newsroom pressures. To have a story selected for page one is good strokes, an ego trip.
Not many make it. The front page is dominated by national news, mostly about politics, and that is written by the national staff, whose members are generally older and more experienced than those on the Metro staff, or sports, Style and financial staffs. The only regular competitor to national news is foreign news. To get a Metro story on the front page requires an exceptional subject, exceptionally written.
Even some national writers have a problem. Joanne Omang of the national staff says, "Getting on the front page is the route to advancement and favor. The editors fighting for Bradlee's smile get there by having a hot team, and they prod us for stories they can sell for the page. Openly.
"There is little interest in yeoman labor covering a subject that only affects people's lives; what counts in the glory department is page one, and everyone is supposed to 'write it out' onto the front, no matter how mundane the topic. This is part of the creative tension business.
"The sad part is that it often works -- with everyone busting elbows, the paper is full of terrific stories. But the temptation to hype has to be resisted all the time. I often have the feeling when I'm taking an editor off a hyped angle, saying, 'well, no, that's not the story, it didn't happen like that,' that editor is disappointed in me personally, that it's my fault the event isn't page one. This has got to be part of what happened to Janet."
Making the front page is not the only source of pressure. Sandy Rovner of Style puts it this way: "Whatever we do is perceived automatically only in terms of what is seen as our particular self-interest. A lot of us feel intensely loyal to The Post, but management seems not to be able even to see the possibility of our loyalty."
Lewis Simons of Metro says: "Pressures are so great to produce, to go beyond excellence to the 'holy s---' story. Everyone knows that's what the editors want. The pressure is to get the incredible story, the extraordinary story.
"When you put that up against a fragile and vulnerable personality like Janet's, you produce the worst case."
Bradlee, around whom the newsroom revolves, sees it differently. He believes his system includes great delegation of authority and "encouragement, support, prodding, teasing."
"People want to succeed. They bust their ass to succeed here. There's only a couple of places you want to work in this business, and when you get here you don't blow it. Of course, there's drive by the AME's, because that's the way to get your story to the decision-making process.
"It can result in overselling a story, but a story that looks good at 2:30 may disappear by 6:30. You make 150 decisions on stories every day, and if you start second-guessing them you'll never get the paper out.
"It means you have to have intelligent people you can trust tell you about the best they have to offer and you have to make up your mind.
"The AMEs are very strong. We demand from them.We trust them. We back them. And we don't spend time second-guessing them.
"There is no system to protect you from a pathological liar, and if you constructed it that way you'd never make a deadline."
On the evening of April 6, two days after Cooke's story fell apart, about 30 to 35 members of the Metro staff attended an informal staff meeting at Bob Woodward's home. Others were invited but couldn't make it.
The talk was about two subjects: pressure and "Jimmy's World."
Woodward and Milton Coleman went through Cooke story chronologically. Those who had doubted the story had their say.
When the discussion turned to management and pressure, some reporters said they felt strongly that the "system" at The Post has editors making demands on reporters that cannot be met. That reporters are made to feel they are failures when they cannot meet those demands. That there seems to be insufficient guidance and comfort for new reporters. And that the system seems to pit reporters against each other. All this, some reporters felt, helped bring about the "Jimmy" story.
Blaine Harden, a former Metro reporter now with The Washington Post Magazine, urges more attention to younger reporters. "Reporters who come to The Post are usually over-achievers from other newspapers, where their identity and sense of value was intimately tied to their notoriety and success as a writer. Upon taking a job at The Post, however, reporters are stripped of their identity and forced to re-create themselves for a new set of editors and readers. In this painful growth period, new reporters have little to emulate except the big-splash success of a very few colleagues . . . .
"Serious, conscientous, committed reporters should be loudly praised by editors, given raises, given prestige assignments. This happens now, of course.
Yet every reporter who's been at The Post for a while knows, for instance, that flashy writing about quirky suburban housewives grab a lot more attention from editors than does highly informed, analytical coverage of county government."
Out of the crosscurrents of complaint, suggestion, concern and disgrace, what changes are likely? It's too soon to make final judgments.
Donald Graham says, "Everybody is going to have to ask questions of himself. This fraudulent story is very serious business, but it doesn't cast in doubt the basic values of the paper. They remain unchanged.
"As our editorial said Thursday, it's sort of like an embezzlement from a bank:
"We will never arrive at a point when mistakes don't happen, but our basic reliability is tested every day.
"We can't deny the obvious. We printed a false story. We ought to ask ourselves what changes to make and make those changes. The process is complex, and will take some time.
"We do take what's happened very seriously, but no fair-minded person could conclude that the integrity of any other story is called into question.
"We're looking at the process, but not at our basic job in this complicated world and this complicated city."
Bradlee says, "We've got to be sure that our trust in reporters is not betrayed again and in five days, I'm not sure how to do that. She was a one-in-a-million liar."
THE CONCLUSIONS: Once Again, a Fail-Safe System
Proves the Exception
So why did it all happen? And how? Milton Coleman and Bob Woodard try to take the blame, and well they should. They had primary responsibility. But to place all the burden on them is a huge mistake. There's enough blame to go around.
Ben Bradlee, the Executive Director, was wrong, and Howard Simons, the Managing Editor, was wrong. Beginning, of course, with Janet Cooke, everybody who touched this journalistic felony -- or who should have touched it and didn't – was wrong. It was a complete systems failure, and there's no excuse for it. These are brilliant people. The Post newsroom runs over with high-caliber talent and skills that weren't employed.
1) The system failed because it wasn't used, not because it is faulty. Bradlee and Simons should have asked tough questions, so should Woodward and Coleman and others. And every staffer who had a serious doubt about "Jimmy" had an unavoidable responsibility to pursue it, hard.
2) This business of trusting reporters absolutely goes too far. Clearly it did in this case. There is a point when total reliance on this kind of trust allows the editor to duck his own responsibility. Editors have to insist on knowing and verifying. That's one of the big reasons they hold their jobs.
3) There's a mythology hanging in the air or the newsroom. Sometimes it acts like a disease. Young reporters come onto the staff expecting to find another Watergate under every third rock they kick over. That is naive. Blockbusters are not everyday occurrences. Editors are somewhat infected too, but not to the degree that some of the reporters say they believe. Editors have to get all there is in a news story.
4) The Post did not invent Janet Cooke. That is a ridiculous idea. Given its competitive nature, it may very well have unwittingly encouraged her success and thereby hastened her failure. Here was an aberration that grew in fertile ground, according to one reporter. That's close to the mark.
5) While editors repeatedly talked about their trust in reporters, the trust apparently only applies to written stories, not to reporters' opinions.
Otherwise, somebody with authority would have learned something about those persistent doubts on the Cooke story and would have investigated.
6) The front page syndrome is a problem, and it may be insoluble. Page one is the prestige position in the paper, and until the stories it is to carry have been selected, the rest of the paper can't take shape. And Bradlee is right. The paper has to get out, on schedule, every day. Some of the pressures reporters talk about come with the news business.
7) No reporter or other staff member should be employed without a thorough check of his or her credentials.
8) The scramble for journalistic prizes is poisonous. The obligation is to inform readers, not to collect frameable certificates, however prestigious. Maybe The Post should consider not entering contests.
9) News executives have a responsibility to resolve personnel hassles quickly. Among the what-ifs: had Coleman and Vivian Aplin-Brownlee been on better terms, he might have asked her to look over the Cooke story before it ran, and she, given her instant disbelief of the story, might have challenged it effectively. And that Coleman-Maraniss disagreement should have been attended to promptly.
10) Young reporters are impatient. Even the best of them, among whose ranks Janet Cooke appeared to be, profit by seasoning. To push them too fast is a high-risk undertaking.
11) Did race have anything to do with Cooke's ascendancy? Did she get choice assignments and move up because she was handsome and black? Was she employed for the same reason?
There's some yes and some I-don't-know in any honest answer. If there's an employer who says he wouldn't have hired her, he hasn't seen Cooke either in person or at work. There are white editors on this paper who want to report news on the black community but who know they can't get at some of it in the same way blacks can.
Milton Coleman, as good as guy as any at The Post and Cooke's last editor, is black. So are two of her strongest critics, Vivian Aplin-Brownlee, who was her first editor, and Courtland Milloy, who was among the first and most persistent doubters.
Race may have played some role, but professional pride and human decency were deeply involved in this story and that has not a diddle to do with race.
12) To believe that this mistake, big as it was, challenges the honesty of any other story in The Post or any other newspaper, is overreaching. It won't wash. There is no evidence whatsoever that this kind of thing is tolerated at this paper. To over-reach the other way, if this experience tightens discipline in the news process, it may have done some good.
13) When confidentiality is granted to a news source, by a reporter, that promise cannot commit the supervising editor. If the reporter can't support the integrity of his or her story by revealing the name to his or her editor, the story shouldn't be published. And if that safeguard prevents some news stories from appearing, so be it.
14) To give the impression that The Post is staffed by disgruntled people is nonsense. For every reporter or editor with a complaint, however legitimate, there is at least one other who is on a personal high because he or she works for the newspaper. Staff loyalty to The Post is so powerful that it borders on the absurd.
15) The Post is one of the very few great enterprises in journalism, and everybody associated with it ought to be proud of it.