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Forty years ago this month, The Washington Post published “Jimmy’s World,” a vivid and heart-wrenching story about an eight-year-old heroin addict living in Southeast D.C.
The story and its unraveling rocked the Washington region and beyond, and to this day is studied in journalism school as an example of how even savvy editors can fail to protect their audience from bad reporting.
We revisit this difficult episode in Washington and journalism history with two prominent journalists.
What do you remember of the scandal?
Produced by Lauren Markoe
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Forty years ago this month, the Washington Post published "Jimmy's World," a jaw-dropping, front-page story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Written by an up-and-coming reporter named Janet Cooke, the piece rocked Washington and the nation. City officials began scouring Southeast for the boy, and the story won Cooke the highest honor in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize, but it was not true.
KOJO NNAMDICooke had fabricated Jimmy, his mother and her boyfriend, who had supposedly been shooting Jimmy up since he was five years old. After the story unraveled, Cooke resigned and returned the Pulitzer, but there were consequences, not only for Cooke and the Post, but for journalists and journalism. Today, we look back at one of the more notorious episodes in journalism history and see if it holds any lessons for us today.
KOJO NNAMDIAllow me to begin by reading the first few sentences of "Jimmy's World." Jimmy is eight years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin, brown arms. He nestles in a large beige reclining chair in the living room of his comfortably furnished home in Southeast Washington. There's an almost cherubic expression on his small, round face as he talks about life, clothes, money, the Baltimore Orioles and heroin.
KOJO NNAMDIHe has been an addict since the age of five. His hands are clasped behind his head, fancy running shoes adorn his feet, and the striped IZOD t-shirt hangs over his thin frame. “Bad, ain't it?” he boasts to a reporter, visiting recently. “I got me six of these.” Joining me now is Colbert King. He's a Pulitzer Price-winning Washington Post columnist and former director of the World Bank. Colby King, thank you for joining us.
COLBERT KINGGlad to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIColby, do you remember when "Jimmy's World" hit the newsstands and what you thought of the story when you first read it?
KINGI was at the World Bank at the time, but I recall the story. And while it read well, it didn't sit well. It was just a little too perfect. It read -- to me, at least -- like a novel. It was not sourced. There was no individual who could confirm any of what was in that story. And I came to this issue in 1980 with having been several years in the federal government with the State Department, where I conducted numerous investigations. I never would have reported a case without identifying my sources. And even if the sources were confidential, I still disclosed the identity to my editors. That was missing in Jimmy's story.
KINGI didn't know all of that at the time, but it just was one of those stories where you read it and you say, wow, this hits home. But then you stop to think about it. Could an eight-year-old kid sound like this? Are these the words of an eight-year-old? Having raised a bunch of eight-year-olds, I hadn't encountered anyone that used the language the way this kid did it at eight. But I was not in a position to do more than just read it and raise eyebrows, shake my head.
KINGI knew people at the Washington Post, having worked with a number of the reporters when I was on The Hill in the Senate District Committee. But I was not inside the Washington Post at the time. A lot of what I know now is in retrospect.
NNAMDIAlso joining us now is Michele Martin. She's the weekend host of NPR's All Things Considered. She's a former Washington Post reporter, former Wall Street Journal White House correspondent. Michele, thank you for joining us.
MICHEL MARTINWell, Kojo, it's always good to talk with you and Colby, but I will say that this is a rather painful topic.
NNAMDII can understand why. When "Jimmy's World" was published, Michel, where were you working, and do you remember what you thought about the story when it first came out?
MARTINOh, I absolutely remember. I had just finished my summer internship at the Washington Post, so I was a brand-new baby reporter, just a couple of months out of college. And a number of us were kept on. They had extended internship programs at the time. Most of us worked in those -- you know, the kinds of entry-level jobs, you know, that are so hard to come by and so cherished by people trying to break into the business.
MARTINAnd I was working at the D.C. Weekly, the zoned editions that the Post had at that time. They sort of switched them up subsequently, but each of the jurisdictions had their own Weekly, and they all had their own staff. And I was working on one of those staffs. I had just come off my summer internship where I was also doing one of those other kinds of entry-level jobs that people do, like working the overnight. You know, like working 11:00 to 8:00 a.m., working like 4:00 to midnight, like working those shifts.
MARTINSo, I absolutely remember and, as you know, kids who are just out of college, interns tend to hang out with other people who are similarly situated. So, I certainly knew Janet, and I had, you know, even, I think, visited -- she had a roommate at that time, who I won't name. She can speak for herself at some point, if she wants to.
MARTINAnd Janet was a person who was -- well, let me just say that -- let me just say that there was a lot of buzz in the newsroom about it, even then, because a number of African American reporters, people who had worked those shifts, you know, like I did, like worked the overnight, people who worked in the community, people who worked the police beat, say, had doubts.
MARTINAnd I understand that they had raised those doubts. I'm not -- I'm sure -- there was an extensive after-action report. I mean, the Post reported on this thoroughly, subsequently, on itself, thoroughly. And my recollection was, they did not hold anything back. But my recollection was that a number of the African American reporters who were familiar with this territory had doubts, because they just didn't believe that she would have what it takes to get that close to somebody in those circumstances. They just didn't buy it.
MARTINAnd it's my understanding that they had expressed those doubts, but they were dismissed as “You're just jealous of her because she's up-and-coming.” And, you know, for other reasons, because she -- I'm hesitant to get into some of these things, just because, you know, obviously with hindsight, you know, you want to – obviously, my thoughts about this have changed over time as I've gotten older myself, as I've gotten more experience in the world.
MARTINAnd right now, what I feel a lot of is, obviously, it was a terrible experience. It was bad for everybody, but, you know, I have some sympathy about it, because I feel like this is obviously a troubled young woman who obviously -- you know, to this day, she may not even know why she did this. She was a very gifted writer. She should've been writing fiction. I don't know why she wasn't. But, at the time, like I say, there was buzz in the newsroom in certain circles, and that buzz was dismissed at “You're just jealous of her because she's a rising star.”
NNAMDIAs a reporter, you were not assigned to follow the Janet Cooke story, but you say the story followed you. What do you mean by that?
MARTINOh, no doubt. I mean, think about it. I mean, she was a young African American woman, I was a very young African American woman reporter. And I remember specifically -- I have two enduring memories from that period. One was I remember the former executive editor, Ben Bradley, standing on a desk in the newsroom, and his voice was about to crack and his eyes were -- I could even see, even at that distance, it felt like his eyes were filling up with tears. And he said, “It kills me to tell you what you already know,” and that he announced that they were returning the Pulitzer, that the story was a fake. And so that's one enduring memory I have.
MARTINAnd I remember just being in shock, because, remember, I'm like three months into my career at this point, and I just don't know what I think. But also, as I mentioned earlier, remember, I had just finished my summer internship and I, along with a number of others, had been kept on. They had, at that time, kind of a reporter trainee program, and I was very grateful to have been selected by that along with a couple other interns who -- we had different assignments.
MARTINSo, because we were staying in town, went to go and find some more permanent housing. And another -- a colleague and I found a place on The Hill, a small townhouse that we could rent. And I remember, when I told the landlord that I worked at the Post, he didn't believe -- well, number one, he -- at that point, of course, I didn't have any credit. I had told him I had just graduated from Harvard. He didn't believe me and demanded to see my diploma.
MARTINAnd then -- but he didn't ask my white colleague for similar validation. He did not. So, that was the first pain point. And then, secondly, I will tell you that, you know, going out and people would harass you. They would -- when you would, you know, interview them on stories that were perhaps a little challenging, they would, you know, accuse you of making things up, and are you sure. Are you going to write what I really say, you know?
MARTINAnd so, yeah, it was -- and I'm sure that some of my more experienced colleagues who were engaging with perhaps government officials on more contentious work were probably similarly experiencing this. I will say, it's very interesting now to have this conversation, because it's a precursor of the kind of insults that are thrown at journalists -- mainstream journalists all the time by certain political figures now. But, back then, it was shocking. It was just not something that you would ever have thought -- you just wouldn't -- you would just never have thought it, you know.
NNAMDIElizabeth in Arlington seems to know a little bit of this history. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELIZABETHOh, hello. I have never told anybody this story, but I was a journalism student at Northwestern. And I had a summer internship at the Toledo Blade, where Janet Cooke had worked before going to the Washington Post. And, of course, she was very famous and then the scandal was very famous. And so, this was years later but, you know, she was the biggest thing, even with the scandal, ever to come out of the Toledo Blade, a fine little paper.
ELIZABETHSo, I went into the morgue, where they keep all the old clips, one night. And I just pulled her byline file to see what she had had done when she was there. And, like, again, like, not that I'm so smart or that, you know, in hindsight is easy to see, but she wrote these fantastical stories. I remember this one in particular about, like, a power outage or something, you know, in town. And she wrote it very gripping. And a man in the story sat right outside her window and whispered compliments to her about how attractive she was, you know, as recounting the story.
ELIZABETHAnd I just never, you know, forgotten that, because, like, these stories were -- you know, I was, like, 20 years old, you know, but they were weird even to read at the time.
NNAMDIWell, I guess the most important word you used was fantastical, because that seems to have been a trend in her writing. Colby King, before the story of the eight-year-old heroin addict was debunked, the story went national. There was a frenzied search for Jimmy, and many people wrote to the police and the Post pleading that they find this little boy. Then Mayor Marion Barry announced that Jimmy had been found and was under treatment, which was, of course, not the case. Colby, why did so many people believe this story? And does that say anything, A., about what was happening in the District at the time, and B., what people are willing to believe about black people?
KINGWell, the climate was ripe for that kind of story in a sense that we knew we had a tremendous drug problem in the city. And we knew that it extended, you know, below the age of 30, that there were people in their twenties and teens who were addicted. So, there was a -- in that sense, the story had some reception. The people were not blown out by the idea of heroin being used. The thing that probably caught everybody's eye was this eight-year-old kid.
KINGAnd the description of him getting shot up by his mother's boyfriend, that is the kind of thing that, you know, you hear with disbelief, but you're not sure it's not true, because so much is happening along those lines, that young people being addicted, young people using drugs. The climate was ripe for that kind of story.
KINGI just felt then, and I feel more strongly now, that it was just too perfect, too well-written. It was like reading a short story, a fiction. She's sitting there in this living room, not only watching this eight-year-old kid get shot up, she's watching people come to the place and buy drugs and use drugs, use heroin upstairs. She sees them coming and going. She's sitting there. Tell me how many heroin addicts would let a reporter see them shooting up, would let a reporter come into the home and watch trafficking, drug trafficking take place?
KINGYou know, when you stop and you sit back and think about that, you see how fanciful it is. But there was even, Kojo, as I might say, nobody in this story covered themselves in glory, particularly the Washington Post. And I was -- I've been with the Post since August, 1990. Many good friends there now. But from the get-go, the Post handled this thing badly. And when she walked in the door with that resume, Ben Bradley reportedly -- and it's been confirmed -- looked at that resume and he saw Vassar magna cum laude, membership in the National Association of Black Journalism and a master’s degree from the Toledo College. And that was enough.
KINGHe said, “Hire her before the New York Times gets her.” If somebody had just picked up that resume and made two phone calls, one to Vassar, one to the Toledo Blade, they would've learned immediately that the resume was fake. It was false. But they didn't do it.
KINGEven when -- and a lot of this is in retrospect -- even when there was a suspicious voice inside of the newspaper at the reporter’s level, and my good friend Courtland Malloy was one of the first who voiced a suspicion, because he actually went out with Janet Cooke to look for more kids like that, like Jimmy, and she didn't even know where she was. She didn't even know the neighborhood where it was supposed to have taken place. He came back and said, this is just not holding together.
KINGAnd he talked with Milton Coleman, who was a city editor, about it at the time. But he didn't get much above Milton Coleman. And why? When Janet Cooke told Milton Coleman about a conversation she had with a mental health unit at Howard University about this eight-year-old kid who was drug addicted, Milton said, that's a front-page story. Get it. And there you go. Front-page story. And that was the incentive just to go all out. No question about what sources, validity of the sources, getting records from the university, confirming the story with the university before going out and talking to other people. Just go after it.
KINGAnd then you get around to this other thing that happened, which is still a lesson to be learned in journalism, the reporter was told, look, you can write about these people anonymously. Well, that's all Janet Cooke needed to hear. Then she'd sit down and make up the story. They didn't even know the real names of the people -- who didn't exist, but she said, yes, that they existed. But they didn't even ask for the identity of these people, the real identities. They just accepted this report attributed -- with information attributed to individuals who were only known by their first names. They had no addresses, no addresses went in the report or in the file of the home that she visited.
KINGAs a matter of fact, when Milton Coleman, who was a city editor, went out with her after this story started to unravel, to find the location where her interviews took place, they couldn't find it, because it didn't exist. And that's when he came back to the Post and let the powers that be know that, look, this thing is not hanging together at all.
NNAMDIWell, indeed, Milton Coleman was her editor. Bob Woodward was one of her editors. Milton Coleman is a personal friend, and I do apologize for not having contacted him before we did this broadcast. I attempted to reach him, didn't have a phone number. Tried to send him a private message on Facebook, but he obviously hasn't seen it. But he and Bob Woodward continued to back her. And Michel mentioned earlier, and you just did, a lot of staffers, especially several black journalists, questioning the story. Michel, why do you think their voices were discounted for so long?
MARTINYou know, I think you should ask them. I mean, I think, you know, I think it would be helpful to -- you know, I'm asking you, why wouldn't you call some of the decisionmakers yourself and ask them why they didn't -- because I'd like to pivot in this conversation to what we can learn from this. And one of the things that I'd like to point out is just how depleted so much of local news is around the country.
MARTINI mean, the Washington area is very fortunate. The Washington Post -- this was a terrible mistake for the Washington Post. It should never have happened. The Post has the resources and the standing to do the kind of work and the kind of fact-checking that needs to be done. But I'd like to point out that, all over the country, local news is being devastated. And I think that's what we need to be focusing on.
MARTINBecause the reality of it is that when you don't have people who have ties to the community, who don't have an investment in the community, there is no one to hold power to account. And what I regret about this situation is that it really was the first -- it was the kind of thing that eats away at the trust that people should have a right to have in their local papers. Which the Post is, as well as being sort of an important national newspaper. It is also a local paper of record for the Washington, D.C. area. And there is no other of that -- of this comparable -- you know, there's another publication publishing in this area, but there's nothing at the same level.
MARTINAnd that's what I most regret about this incident, is that we need local news now more than ever. I think WAMU does a great job, but, you know, broadcasting can't do everything. Like you'll remember the -- what was it, Garrison Keillor speaking at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner some years ago. And he said that, you know, broadcasting is to newspapers -- newspapers are what you kind of read at your kitchen table, and broadcasting is what you say to your spouse over the table, holy cow, Martha, listen to this.
MARTINSo, I just don't think, you know, our outlets -- as strong as we try to make them, we can't possibly have the breadth and just the reach of papers, because there just isn't the space and time. And so I'm just -- that's what I regret.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, I'm glad you brought that up because Colby and I are both involved in an effort to try to bring more local investigative journalism here. But, Colby, the other issue is the issue of diversity. One of the reasons that Janet Cooke was so revered by the leaders at the Washington Post was because, frankly, she was -- or is a black woman. What is the state of diversity in newsrooms now, especially in local newsrooms, like at the Washington Post?
KINGWell, I think, at this point, there's a lot of steering around because of Floyd. There's not a newsroom that isn't -- or, as a matter of fact, the place of employment where you don't have the question of diversity front and center. But the Post went through this before, some years ago. As a matter of fact, you may recall this, too, Michel, that a number of Post employees literally challenged the leadership of the Post on, not only their hiring and promotion of African-Americans, but the placement in certain bureaus of the Post, where it was just a desert when it comes to African-Americans. There were places we just weren't being assigned.
KINGThat still is there, but I think now, you know, there's a much more concerted effort to change that. Every news outlet that I'm aware of is going through the same thing, but it gets me to another concern, if I may...
NNAMDIOnly have about a minute left, Colby.
KINGOkay. Well, I'll make it brief. We have -- we're putting out a whole lot of copy now, and we're not -- I'm afraid we're not fact-checking the way we should. And that's just because of the internet. We can get things up really fast, and I think there's a danger there.
NNAMDIIn the fact that so much of what is pushing the news media these days is the requirement of speed, getting things up as soon as possible. Obviously, this is the kind of conversation that we needed to carry on for much longer, but I'm afraid we're just about out of time. So, Michel Martin, thank you so much for joining us. Always a pleasure talking to you.
NNAMDIMichel Martin is the weekend host of NPR's All Things Considered. She's a former Washington Post reporter, formal Wall Street Journal White House correspondent. Colbert King is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist and former U.S. director at the World Bank. Colby, always a pleasure.
KINGSame here, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis segment on the anniversary of the publication of Janet Cooke's debunked blockbuster was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about 911 was produced by Ines Renique. Coming up Friday, on The Politics Hour, Maryland enters phase three of reopening as Montgomery County opts to wait. We'll talk with Maryland Delegate Marc Korman about the pandemic, students returning to school and the latest with Governor Hogan's plans to expand the Beltway.
NNAMDIAnd MPD Chief Peter Newsham addresses the police shooting of an 18-year-old man in Congress Heights yesterday. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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