Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee's One Big Mistake Was Our Gain

The Post's 1981 Pulitzer, lost to fraud, ultimately went to the Voice.
The Post's 1981 Pulitzer, lost to fraud, ultimately went to the Voice.

In 1980, a Washington Post writer named Janet Cooke wrote a heart-wrenching story about an eight-year-old heroin addict in Washington, D.C. "Jimmy's World" was a heroic piece of journalism, shedding light on an often unseen world of addiction and poverty and misery.

Here's the gut-punch lede:

Jimmy is 8 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.

Coming right at the moment when heroin was having a moment of glory -- or, rather, infamy -- the story made waves, all the more for its having been written by a cub reporter, on staff for less than a year.

"Jimmy's World" made such an impact that Cooke went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1981 for the story, an incredible start to a young journalist's career.

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The problem was that "Jimmy's World" was a complete fabrication. There was no eight-year-old heroin addict. As a young woman in a fiercely competitive newsroom -- and one of the few black writers on staff -- Cooke had made the whole thing up, partly in a bid to move out of the Post's "Weeklies" section, a backwater and training ground where many of the Post's minority and female writers seemed to land.

When Ben Bradlee, the Post's longtime editor, a towering figure in every sense of the word, died this week, the Cooke debacle was the most prominent stain on an otherwise legendary career. Aside from greatly expanding the paper's scope and remaking its reputation, he also shepherded the Post through publication of the Pentagon Papers and its Watergate coverage, two stories that changed American journalism forever. There are some excellent remembrances of Bradlee here and especially here.

Bradlee handled the Pulitzer crisis with admirable transparency; Cooke had confessed two days after the prize was announced, and Bradlee immediately fired her and returned the award. Cooke, for her part, left journalism after the incident, and spent years as a cautionary tale and a target of journalistic scorn. When she finally spoke out about her past in detail, in a GQ article published in 1996, the author, Mike Sager -- also a former colleague and boyfriend -- characterized her this way:

Since then Janet Cooke has become one of the most infamous figures in journalism. Databases list thousands of entries under her name; her case has come to symbolize such diverse issues as plagiarism and fabrication, anonymity and unnamed sources, minority recruitment, newsroom ethics, résumé fraud, the precarious practice of New Journalism. Universally vilified from the moment her transgression was revealed, constantly dogged by the press, Janet has spent her life on the run: first as the wife of an American diplomat in Paris, more recently as a divorced, nearly destitute part-time retail clerk in Toledo; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Kalamazoo.

After the fabrication was revealed, the Pulitzer committee awarded the prize to another young female reporter: Teresa Carpenter at the Village Voice.

The award Carpenter earned was the first in the Voice's history (there have been two more since), and today Carpenter is still a successful author, having racked up a number of other awards through the years. If there was one happy facet of the Cooke affair, it was that the mistake of one young reporter cleared the way for the success of another.

The story that ultimately won the prize, "Death of a Playmate," about the murder of Playboy model Dorothy Stratten, is reprinted on the next page.

 

Death of a Playmate


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