Janet Cooke’s Hoax Still Resonates After 30 Years

This week marked the 30th anniversary of Cooke's story "Jimmy's World," which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize that The Washington Post was forced to return because it was all a fabrication.

Tuesday marked the 30th anniversary of the day these words appeared on the front page of the Sunday Washington Post:

“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.

“He nestles in a large, beige reclining chair in the living room of his comfortably furnished home in Southeast Washington. There is an almost cherubic expression on his small, round face as he talks about life — clothes, money, the Baltimore Orioles and heroin. He has been an addict since the age of 5.

“His hands are clasped behind his head, fancy running shoes adorn his feet, and a 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.'”

It was an anniversary most would like to forget. “Jimmy’s World” was all a fabrication, created by reporter Janet Cooke, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize that the Post was forced to return.

Thirty years later, Cooke’s name is synonymous with the hoax she perpetrated. Her story is taught in journalism schools, and some say a portion of the damage she wreaked on the credibility of the news media remains.

“How could she do it? I still don’t understand that,” Benjamin C. Bradlee, the Post‘s executive editor at the time, told Journal-isms on Wednesday. “She was just one in a million.” He noted that the Post has had no similar incidents since, and that while today’s news industry has its woes, cases like Cooke’s are thankfully not among them.

Still, asked whether the Cooke affair and its aftermath continue to resonate, Bradlee confessed, “They do in my soul.”

Cooke’s hoax cost other black journalists credibility in the minds of some editors. The fear of guilt-by-common-blackness was foremost in many black journalists’ minds when Jayson Blair confessed to fabricating stories at The New York Times in 2003.