Janet Cooke, in her first public statement since resigning from The Washington Post last year, said she was wrong to fabricate a Pulitzer Prize-winning story but was driven to create the account by a fear of failure and a desire to produce a front-page story.
"I simply wanted to write a story that I had been working on so that I would not have to go back and say I cannot do it -- I did not want to fail," Cooke, 27, told Phil Donahue in an interview to be broadcast next Monday and Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show.
"I spent two months looking for it and if I did not produce a story then how was I to justify my time?" she said.
Cooke confessed last April 15 to having made up the story about a youthful Southeast Washington addict named "Jimmy" who had been introduced to heroin by his mother's live-in boyfriend. The Washington Post immediately notified the Pulitzer Prize Committee to withdraw its feature-writing prize for the story, which was published by The Post on Sept. 28, 1980.
Although most reporters "take that whole notion of the public's trust quite seriously," Cooke said, her case was not an isolated one. "I would have to say that it does go on," she said, although she cited no specific instances of fabrication.
The revelation of Cooke's hoax, which drew national attention, raised the issue of press credibility and caused journalists around the country to reassess editing procedures and the use of anonymous sources.
In her interview with Donahue, Cooke said her editors never pressured her to divulge to them the true identity of "Jimmy" or his mother. "As a matter of fact, at one point I was told that they would rather not know, that the fewer people who knew, the better," she said.
Cooke admitted that she made up the "Jimmy" story based on a composite of information about heroin addiction in Washington gleaned from various social workers and other sources. She said she received a tip that there actually was an 8-year-old drug addict, but never was able to locate him. She said she had "terrible conscience problems" after fabricating the story, but suggested that she had been influenced by the environment at The Post.
"Certainly there is an undercurrent of this kind of competitiveness and of the need to be first, be flashiest, be sensational," she said. "And I think that there is more of it in a place like The Post."
Cooke said she realized her fraud would be uncovered the moment she received advance word that she had won a Pulitzer. "I remember sitting there and thinking my life is over -- what am I going to do."
Cooke has not been employed since resigning from The Post, although she said she has been approached with book and movie contract offers.
Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Post, yesterday declined to comment on Cooke's remarks.