JANET COOKE is a brilliant, cunning mastermind and she happens to be black.
She committed the perfect crime. It was too perfect, in fact.
She concocted a story that fooled almost all of the people, a tale that was so compelling that it spun this community on its ear as has no local story that I can remember and shone light on a serious problem. It catapulted her journalistic career toward the stars. That height -- the Pulitzer Prize -- eventually was her downfall. If she had not won the prize, for years to come Washingtonians -- the believers and the scoffers -- would have talked about "Jimmy's World" -- and Janet Cooke.
All the television networks carried the story about The Washington Post reporter, aged 26, who concocted the tale of the 8-year-old heroin addict, a yarn of such magnitude, done with such brilliance that it rivals the imagination of Clifford Irving. That is why her hoax and its repercussions were the topic of the half-hour MacNeil-Lehrer Report two nights ago, why it was called simply, "The Janet Cooke Episode."
The Cooke Episode demonstrates that among black people there are those who are intelligent, devious, high-achieving, ambitious, of high and of low esteem. Miss Cooke's demonic brilliance underscores that blacks do not fit niches easily, that there are the smart and the dumb, the coy and the cunning. It seems so obvious as to be inane to have to say that Janet Cooke reminds one that blacks are individuals; they are a human race of people.
Some say that because Cooke was black she reflects on the talents, contributions, competence and credibility of other black journalists, that she reflects on black women.
There is a certain coded message that is creeping into the Cooke accounts that implies that blacks are brought into journalism unchecked because newspapers are feeling such pressure to hire and promote blacks. This is just plain bad history. The journalistic gates swung open widest for blacks at newspapers in 1968, but in recent years the competition has been extremely tough and newspapers are very selective because they can afford to be.
Most of the blacks who get hired at newspapers like The Washington Post are SuperBlacks, which is why Janet Cooke fabricated her resume to make herself one, saying that she was a magna cum laude graduate of Vassar, had studied at the Sorbonne and spoke several languages fluently. Of course, she was none of that. But no black from Podunk University has much of a chance of getting hired at a big-city newspaper today.
It is ludicrous that anyone would say that Cooke's arrogant hoax reflects badly on the image of black journalists. It is preposterous that anyone would call forth the Cooke Affair to suggest that the legitimate pressure on daily papers to recruit and promote minorities to help tell the story of America is at fault -- or at stake.
Let's face it. We're talking about a proven mastermind.
The coded messages have also implied that Cooke's stunning looks have helped to pave her path in journalism. This is a reflection on black women who've long fought against the image of "being loose."
The fact is that Janet Cooke is a talented, imaginative writer who wrote a marvelous story -- with flagrant disregard for the facts.
It probably was no coincidence that the nonexistent subject of "Jimmy's World" turned out to be a streetwise black kid who had been a heroin addict since he was 5. Jimmy's World is real -- as drugs have permeated every part of our society and culture, they have been permitted to flood the poorest ghettos.The drug subculture has touched the very young. It's also true that a poor kid in the projects is hard to trace, that the editors seemed willing to suspend disbelief that blacks feel hurt and used by the whole Cooke affair.
So it is in the broadest sense that we journalists have been tainted, all of us, as Cooke put it in her apology, who are "seekers of the truth." The taint is one of having been duped by a young woman who fabricated not only the story of a kid-addict, but the story of her life. The taint is all inclusive for all journalists, not just black journalists.
Yes, Janet Cooke was a brilliant, cunning mastermind.
And she just happens to be black.