MY LATEST FAVORITE word is "context." I use it in the sense that more and more people don't have any. They come at you brand new, on their own, creating themselves as they go along, sometimes lying, sometimes just hiding the truth, but always giving the version of themselves that they want. The Washington Post knows now what I mean.
The post is the latest victim of a person who comes with no context, so she created one. I am referring now to Janet Cooke, the reporter who admitted fabricating the story about the eight-year-old heroin addict. She wrote the story, The Post printed it, submitted it for the Pulitzer Prize, and it won. Most people believed the story. The editors believed the story. The Pulitzer committee believed the story and lots of readers believed the story. We were all fooled.
But we live in a world where you have to accept people for what they say they are. Janet Cooke, for instance, said she graduated from Vassar College. She did not. She said she had an M.A. She did not. She said she spoke Portuguese. She did not. She said she saw a drug dealer shoot up an eight-year-old kid. She did not.
The Washington Post is not the only one in this boat. I submit as evidence Hugh Carey, the governor of the great state of New York.
At the age of 62, Carey, a widower, decided to get married. He was in love. He quickly married a woman named Evangeline Gouletas, and since then her ex-husbands have been popping up all over the place. One that was supposed to be dead, is not. He can prove it. There is one more ex-husband than there is supposed to be, and an arranged marriage turns out to have not been arranged at all. Hugh Carey is a man who has learned the hard way about context.
The concept of context is the premise of many Westerns -- the stranger who comes to town. It is an American theme and it has to do with starting over. We believe in that. It is what the frontier and the West were supposed to be about. It is what movement and the open road are all about and it is, in the end, a source of greatness for the country. We offer people more than one chance at bat.
But there is a downside, too, and it is apparent in what happened to The Washington Post. With The Post, a person with no context won a place on the staff. There were none of her old friends around to indicate she had lied on her application. There were no relatives in the neighborhod who would talk about her in a way that might make you suspicious. There was no one who knew her at all, and she was, until someone checked, exactly who she said she was.
And when she wrote a story, a wonderful, powerful story that made you livid and furious and sick all at the same time, a story that glued you to the page and took you into the life of an eight-year-old junkie, there was no way to know she had lied. She had never lied before, we believed. In fact, there had never been a before. Context once again was missing.
These lies work because people want to believe them. If you believe the stranger is a rainmaker, it's your fault. You fall in love and find out your wife has had 17 husbands, it's your fault. You want too much to believe.
This is what happened to The Post. It needs black journalists and here was one who was both black and a woman -- a recruiter's dream. Not only that, she spoke French and graduated from Vassar and had attended the Sorbonne. That she was not also an airplane pilot was, I'm sure, a mere oversight.
And then she wrote this story. It was such a good story, the editors wanted to get it into the paper. They wanted this so badly, they waived the rules about names and places, overlooked the warning signs, and the story went into the paper. And when it was printed, it created such a fuss that a columnist like myself, wondering why a pusher would talk to a reporter, and wondering even more why he would shoot up some kid for free, wrote about it anyway. It was such a good issue, such a wonderful controversy. I, too, wanted to believe, and this desire to believe, to overlook all the red flags and the warning signs, extended to submitting the story for the Pulitzer Prize.
So now we come back to this matter of context. This newspaper has one. It has been in this community a long time, served it well, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes poorly, but always, to the best of our ability, honestly. This is true even today. After all, we might have fooled the reader -- but not until we fooled ourselves.