• U.S.

Newswatch: The Pulitzer Hoax-Who Can Be Believed?

11 minute read
Thomas Griffith

The scandal simply would not go away. For days after it broke, the Washington Post harped on the shame it felt for having published the hoax that won a Pulitzer—the touching but phony story of an eight-year-old dope addict. The following Sunday the paper filled 3½ pages with a remarkably frank and thorough examination of how it happened, written by the newspaper’s ombudsman, Bill Green. One word among his 18,000 words said it all: “Inexcusable.” To publish Green’s findings without change did credit to an excellent newspaper, but the findings themselves gave plenty of evidence of the Post’s shortcomings. Such a self-examination comes close to self-flagellation, but this is a durable scandal that affects the credibility of all the press, and there is much to learn from it.

Journalists generally rank the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times as the three best papers in the country. The Post’s particular distinction is its pizazz. This is largely the doing of its celebrated executive editor, Ben Bradlee, aggressive, abrasive, amusing —the very model of Jason Robards in All the President’s Men. With Watergate to his credit, he glories in playing what he describes as journalistic “hardball.”He is a Harvardman who talks constantly in street profanity.

The Post has fine national and foreign reporting and a good editorial page, and another distinction: in a city that is 70% black, it now covers the black community with attention and understanding. It is among the leaders in American newspapers in hiring blacks (38 on a journalistic staff of 363).

Into this welcoming atmosphere 1½ years ago came Janet Cooke, black, attractive, ambitious and 25. Her academic credentials were impressive, though false; she dressed well and lived well (though later there was talk of checks bouncing). She also wrote well and got frequent bylines, culminating in her sensational dope addict story last September, “Jimmy’s World.”

Cooke’s city editor, Milton Coleman, also black, is conscientious, though new on the job. He did not demand—as most editors would have, and all should—to know the names of the anonymous child and his mother. He believed Cooke’s story that her own life was in danger. Bob Woodward, the metropolitan editor, believed the story too—which is surprising, since in the bestselling Watergate books that made millionaires of Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein, he made such a proud point of how every Watergate detail had to be doubly verified by a second source, often the still unidentified Deep Throat. (Since the scandal broke, the Post has gamely printed some tough critical mail, including: “Is it possible that little ‘Jimmy’ does, in fact, exist and is living on the very street with ‘Deep Throat’?”). After the hoax was discovered, Woodward said, “I’ve never felt as negligent.”

There were doubters from the beginning, particularly among the black journalists on the staff, many of whom now feel unfairly besmirched. Using Cooke to discredit other black journalists, says the Post’s publisher, Donald Graham, is “utterly outrageous.” Some of the Post’s black journalists doubted that a dope pusher would “shoot up” a child or himself in front of a reporter, particularly a reporter without street smarts who sashayed through the ghetto in designer jeans.

But, as the ombudsman’s report suggests, Bradlee has created competitive fiefs on the Post; some staff members don’t confide in others, and one who did voice doubts was regarded as “jealous.” Police vainly looked for “Jimmy” to give the child medical help. When Washington’s black mayor and black police chief concluded that “Jimmy” didn’t exist, the Post arrogantly stood by its story. “We went into our Watergate mode,” Woodward concedes. “Protect the source and back the reporter.”

With all the doubts, how could the Post submit the story for a Pulitzer Prize? “In for a dime, in for a dollar” was Woodward’s attitude. Coleman’s was: “If we did not nominate the story, there would have been questions asked.” Bradlee, who had ardently defended the story to all comers, insisted to the ombudsman that he had heard no reservations whatsoever about it from his staff. Howard Simons, the managing editor, said, “I had reason to doubt, but no reason to disbelieve. And Woodward supported the nomination thoroughly.”

The Post is one of a handful of newspapers that besiege the Pulitzer committee with many entries. Mindful of the promotional prestige of the prizes, some papers make such elaborately bound presentations that Richard T. Baker, secretary of the Pulitzer board, once hired football players to lift the entries from one juror to another. Cooke’s story was entered for local news reporting. In the features category, the Post recommended four others, including one by Sally Quinn (Mrs. Ben Bradlee), who only a little more than a year ago wrote a story so full of inaccurate sexual innuendoes about National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski that the Post had to apologize in print. Such are the rewards and risks of pizazz.

This year brought a record 1,237 Pulitzer entries in journalism. In an intensive three days and nights, members of the features jury read the equivalent in words of 30 novels—only to learn that Cooke’s story, which had never been submitted to them, had won in their category. An angry chairwoman, Critic Judith Crist, said she would have thrown out the story. But final decisions on Pulitzers reside with the powerful 17-man Advisory Board, a cozy fraternity of journalistic insiders.

Armed in advance only with summaries of the final entries, members of the Advisory Board arrive one morning, read the full submissions for the first time, reject some, shift others about, pick winners in twelve journalistic categories and seven others in the arts, and are on their way home after lunch. Thus was Cooke’s story chosen. The Pulitzer Prize remains the highest honor in newspaper journalism, but its selection process is badly in need of repair. One reform is suggested by Osborn Elliott, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism: Let no editor “get off the hook by oversubmitting” let editors narrow their own entries, “and face their own internal politics more directly.” For the Washington Post, Ombudsman Green had a harsher recommendation: “The scramble for journalistic prizes is poisonous . . .Maybe the Post should consider not entering contests.”

After the initial celebrations at the Post over its 17th Pulitzer came word of Cooke’s false academic credentials and the first real cross-examining of her. It got rough. Bradlee: “You’re like Richard Nixon—you’re trying to cover up.” Woodward: “It’s all over. You’ve got to come clean.” After hours of grilling in a conference room, she confided her guilt to one sympathetic editor, and the others were brought back in. As the ombudsman reported the scene, “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.” She wrote out her resignation and disappeared from the Post’s payroll but not from its history. In Green’s judgment, “the Post accelerated her success, and may have thereby hastened her failure.” If Janet Cooke, talented writer, skillful hoaxer, has any writing future at 26, it should be in fiction, not journalism.*

Hardballing it to the end, Ben Bradlee insisted that any fail-safe system could not protect against “a pathological liar.” On its editorial page, however, the Post concluded: “It seems to all of us around this newspaper that warning bells of some kind should have sounded.” Some did, and were not listened to.

To the acute embarrassment of the Post, the nation’s newspaper editors were gathered in convention in Washington last week. Bradlee got some hard questions. Charles Seib, an earlier ombudsman at the Post, said that had its editors “realized that they were dealing with a life and not just a good front-page story,” they would have sought medical attention for the boy before printing the story and in doing so discovered the fraud. Yet there was little gloating about the paper’s predicament; it seemed too close to home.

Certain aspects of the scandal are unique to the Washington Post, including its emphasis on pizazz. But, as Jane Perlez, media critic of the New York Daily News, wrote, “other fabrications, on a less spectacular scale, go by every day in news stories. Every day, reporters ’embellish’ quotes from an individual to make them ‘sound better’ or to fit the point of the story.” Some editors concede that the press generally overuses unidentified sources. Cooke has made them more aware that a paper’s reputation can be just as much at stake as the reporter’s. Unnamed sources are often justifiably used to get behind the sham of public statements but can become a lazy reporter’s invention to provide a false aura of insider’s knowledge.

A Louis Harris poll shows that those who express “a great deal of confidence” in the press have decreased over the past 15 years from 29% to 19%. Another hint of popular displeasure may be the outsize $1.6 million libel award a jury gave the entertainer Carol Burnett when she won her suit against the National Enquirer. Nobody rushes to defend the shoddy gossiping of the Enquirer—beyond its First Amendment “right” to print it. Even though gossip and personality stories have become a major journalistic trend, the Enquirer does it to excess. The press has other, permanently hostile critics always ready to decry bias in even the most honest reporting. The Janet Cooke case gave Richard Nixon the chance to cry “irresponsible” at the Post, and to add piously: “I hope they do better in the future.” Journalists often lament that the public fails to appreciate their role in protecting the public weal.

But there is a deeper discontent with the press that has other roots. Without intending to exonerate their own paper, two Pulitzer prizewinners on the Washington Post see a decline in journalistic standards all around them. “I am old enough,” wrote Meg Greenfield, the editorial page editor, “to remember contemporary journalistic life before the quotation mark was debauched . . . Nowadays you will read pages-long stretches of fictionalized dialogue in reputable books by former public officials and in magazines and newspapers, exchanges that no reporter or historian could conceivably have got straight as literal truths.” She also deplores “that dog’s breakfast of fact and fiction that television likes to call ‘DocuDrama.’ ”

To Reporter Haynes Johnson, “entertainment and gossip intrude into the news process, and sometimes overwhelm it.”He deplores the way “the mystique of ‘investigative reporting’ and its cloak of anonymous sources is becoming a license for distortion.” Along with many other reporters and editors, he condemns flashy New Journalists who are “eroding public trust in the reliability of reporting” by use of fictional “composites,” which they defend as “a way to a greater truth.”

With the glamour of the New Journalism came the star system. There is irony in the fact that the Pulitzer hoax happened to those Watergate participants whose legitimate achievements became overmythologized, and whose fabled reputations and rewards drew a whole new generation of journalists who had a different perspective about their craft. Cooke saw stars, and was in too big a hurry to join the constellation.

It is in television journalism that the dangers of the star system become most visible. Television frequently has trouble distinguishing between news and show biz. Last week a CBS station in Chicago got into an unseemly row by criticizing the ABC network’s 20/20 program and Reporter Geraldo Rivera’s use of the “ambush interview”—surprising a journalistic target on the street, with cameras turning. Even when a malefactor has it coming to him, a viewer is left with the impression of a defenseless person’s being taken advantage of by privileged characters with mikes and press badges.

Fred Friendly, once president of CBS News, regards the ambush technique as “probably the dirtiest-trick department of broadcast journalism.” He fears that abuses by television newsgatherers may bring on a new public attack comparable to the one spurred by television’s earlier quiz scandals.

From the ambush interviews to the garden variety of badgering that public officials frequently undergo is a long jump. Yet, political scientists argue that the perils of press exposure are cited by many good people for their refusal to get involved in public affairs.

The press argues that it needs untrammeled freedom to do its job, and that its watchdog reporting has often served the public well. But a public that has grown cynical about all institutions wants no element of society exempt from criticism or, as the Post did when Washington officials questioned whether “Jimmy” existed, complacently defending what cannot be defended. The press, builder and destroyer of the reputations of others, has its own reputation to look after.

* In today’s moral climate, however, book publishers will probably be pursuing her with fat contracts to write The Pulitzer Scam.

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