By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007
Vivian Aplin-Brownlee, 61, a former Washington Post editor who had raised an early alarm about what became the paper's most notorious scandal, died Oct. 20 of complications from leukemia at her home in Washington.
Ms. Aplin-Brownlee, an experienced newswoman who edited The Post's District Weekly section, sent a tenacious and ambitious reporter, Janet Cooke, to check out a report about a new type of heroin on Washington's streets. Cooke returned with notes that eventually became "Jimmy's World," a tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict. The story won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1981, but it was all made up. The paper returned the award and fired Cooke, and the incident is considered a landmark case in journalism ethics.
Ms. Aplin-Brownlee doubted the reporting from the start. When Cooke returned from her initial investigation with what seemed to be a huge story, Aplin-Brownlee sent Cooke to Milton Coleman, who was the District editor at the time. Out of town on vacation while the story developed, Ms. Aplin-Brownlee returned to find the story on the front page of the edition of Sunday, Sept. 28, 1980.
"She looked at the story on Page 1, turned to me and said, 'I don't believe a word of this,' " said her husband of 32 years, Dennis Brownlee. She tried several times to alert higher-level editors that the story didn't sound right and that Cooke was not capable of doing the reporting she said she had done. But the other editors dismissed her concerns, and Bob Woodward, the Metro section's assistant managing editor at the time, promoted Cooke to the city staff.
The day Cooke's Pulitzer Prize was announced, Ms. Aplin-Brownlee went to Coleman and said, "I hope she has committed the perfect crime," according to a 14,000-word investigation of the scandal, written by ombudsman Bill Green and published in The Post.
Ms. Aplin-Brownlee was among the first group of black women to be hired and promoted in major newsrooms. She was the first black assignment editor on the national desk at The Post. Before that, she was the first black female reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she later joined the editorial section, another first for an African American woman.
She was born in Haines City, Fla., and grew up in Steubenville, Ohio. She graduated from Ohio University and worked first for the Cleveland Call & Post, a local black newspaper, until she landed a job at the Plain Dealer, the major local daily. She covered the 1975 trial against state officials in the deaths of students at Kent State University five years earlier and became an assistant editor on the city desk and an editorial writer. She also hosted a local television talk show.
She was recruited by the San Diego Union in 1978 to be an assistant editor. A year later, editor and columnist Dorothy Gilliam recruited her to The Post.
"She was just extremely impressive," said Gilliam, who runs a training program for young journalists at George Washington University. "She had the wit and the eye of a good reporter, yet she also had the ability to see the big picture, which is absolutely essential for a good editor. I thought she was a real find for The Post."
As the editor of the section devoted to the District, Ms. Aplin-Brownlee expanded its coverage of cultural and social scenes. She oversaw new and inexperienced reporters, including Cooke.
When Cooke reported that she had seen an 8-year-old addict shooting up heroin in the presence of a drug dealer, the scene did not ring true to Ms. Aplin-Brownlee. Cooke, she knew, was a middle-class woman who was a "masterful" writer, "consumed by blind and raw ambition," but she also needed the aid of a streetwise photographer to get an earlier story on 14th Street.
"I never believed it, and I told Milton that. I knew her so well and the depth of her. In her eagerness to make a name she would write farther than the truth would allow. When challenged on facts on other stories, Janet would reverse herself, but without dismay or consternation with herself," Ms. Aplin-Brownlee told Green.
She wasn't the only Post journalist to question Cooke's work. But as her editor, and because both women were African American, Ms. Aplin-Brownlee was pursued for years by reporters who wanted more details about the incident. She refused to make further public statements. In 2003, an off-Broadway play "The Story" told the slightly disguised tale, and Phylicia Rashad played Ms. Aplin-Brownlee.
Ms. Aplin-Brownlee later was a reporter for four years at The Post, writing 40 bylined stories, mostly about computers and education. She joined the national section, where she worked until retiring in 1985 to become a full-time mother and homemaker. She volunteered at Sidwell Friends School, where her daughter is a teacher and administrator.
A voracious reader, Ms. Aplin-Brownlee kept up with newspapers and magazines.
After a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2000, she underwent chemotherapy, received an autologous stem cell transplant in 2003 and had more chemotherapy. A tumor returned in 2004, and she had additional radiation therapy. As a result of the therapies, she developed a pre-leukemia condition that became acute myeloid leukemia. She twice volunteered to be an experimental subject in new treatment protocols. A research fund in her name was established at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University.
In addition to her husband, survivors include two children, Lauren Brownlee of Washington and Stephen Brownlee of St. Louis.