One of the principal figures in the Janet Cooke Pulitzer Prize scandal died late last month. William Greene was ombudsman for the Washington Post when the newspaper discovered that its young black reporter Janet Cooke had fabricated the now infamous “Jimmy’s World.”
The Post won the Pulitzer Prize for the 1981 story only to return the prestigious award after the paper learned that Cooke’s article was untrue.
Green was on leave from Duke University serving as the newspaper’s ombudsman when “Jimmy’s World” began to crumble leaving Cooke and the Washington Post’s reputation in the rubble. Cooke was forced to resign and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee offered to quit but was retained by the Publisher Donald Graham.
Asked to find out how this scandal occurred, Green investigated and penned a strong denunciation of the various journalistic lapses and missteps that contributed to the fraudulent story. Entitled “THE PLAYERS: It Wasn’t a Game,” Green absolved no one in the newsroom in his catalogue of serious mistakes and oversights surrounding Cooke and her bogus report.
Saving Janet Cooke
I often wonder whether Janet Cooke could have been rescued somehow. Certainly other writers have rebounded from their literary indiscretions.
Novelist Charles Van Doren survived the television quiz show Twenty One” scandal to have a successful literary career.
More contemporary authors such as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, novelist Stephen Ambrose and journalist Fareed Zakaria likewise escaped their plagiarism purgatory and continue to prosper. Why not Janet Cooke?
I see other writers who escape serious punishment. I see politicians and sports figures whose sexual misconduct is outrageous still enjoying fame and fortune. I see many miscreants of all stripes who deserve banishment but aren’t.
What was different
Why was Janet Cooke’s unable to climb back? Was she too young? Was she too black? Was her resume filled with too many lies? Was our tolerance for ethical and moral weakness less forgiving in the 1980s than in 2016? Was her Pulitzer Prize scandal too egregious and her fall too far even given similar lapses by others?
Yes, Cooke resigned in disgrace. But where is she today?
A gifted writer, she could have continued to publish in any number of genres. So many other disgraced celebrities have returned or reinvented themselves.
But Janet Cooke has disappeared. Just like her fabricated Jimmy, she could not be saved.