I SPEND MY DAYS lately muttering at people commenting on the Janet Cooke affair, and I find that I am a rather even-handed mutterer. I mutter at crusty old white journalists who think the "Jimmy's World" hoax reflects poorly on affirmative action efforts, and I also mutter at fellow blacks who call in to soul radio stations to cheer this young black woman for hustling The Washington Post and the Pulitzer Prize board.
Mostly, I mutter at the very idea that these kinds of racial interpretations have much meaning, though I must confess that a small, fiendish part of me enjoys the irony of people concentrating on Janet Cooke's race. Probably few things could cause more squirming by this woman who spent so much time denying that there was any significance to the fact that her skin was black, who in fact often avoided other blacks.
That's one element that seems to have eluded both blacks and whites. Mel Elfin, the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, for example, wondered on Agronsky and Co. recently whether Cooke's invention of an 8-year-old black heroin addict got by Post editors because the setting was the "terra incognita" -- the unknown world -- of black Washington and the reporter herself was black. One of Elfin's cohorts piped up from off-camera that Cooke's editor was black, too. If the article had been about a child in Georgetown, Elfin said, white editors would have been able to call up friends and check out the story.
Speak for yourself, Elfin. Don't slur us black reporters with Cooke or slight white reporters like Lew Simons, John Saar, Loretta Tofani and Ron Shaffer, among others at this paper, who have walked the projects and darker streets of the city to come back with sensitive and authoritative stories of life in black Washington. You don't have to be black to report about blacks, and you don't have to be white to know that there are whites -- and interesting stories about them -- in places other than Georgetown.
I know, the mythology that many black journalists created in the Sixties had it that only black reporters could really understand and have access to the ghetto. But that notion long ago went the way of the dashiki for all but a lingering fringe of blacks in this business. Today the reason for having black writers like a Juan Williams, Courtland Milloy, Neil Henry or Milton Coleman is simply because they're first-rate journalists, regardless of what they cover.
A more insidious interpretation of the Cooke affair appeared a week ago in The Wall Street Journal, in a front-page article that asked, rhetorically: "To what extent do the pressues facing big-city papers to recruit and promote promising minorities cloud the initial hiring procedures -- as well as the decisions as to which of their stories should be published?" Very subtle, but it doesn't fly. Janet Cooke tells us about as much about affirmative action as John Warnock Hinckley's shooting of President Reagan tells us about wealthy, white, politically conservative oil families in the West or Southwest. Can you imagine the bogus sociology that would have filled the air had Hinckley been black and from Anacostia?
Besides, Elgin and Wall Street Journal, Cooke is not as much my disaster as she is yours. Janet Cooke took her cues from the style of flashy white journalists -- there are only one or two similar black ones I know -- who yearn above all for the tinsel. But what she didn't see was the often painstaking work required to get it. She simply bought into the illusion of Washington as Hollywood-on-the-Potomac. Like more than a few others in this town, she gave parties and invited glittery people she didn't even know. She learned the lesson of Perle Mesta -- that you can hang a lamb chop in the window and always draw a crowd in the capital. Few of the people Janet invited, of course, were black, just as few of the people she associated with in The Post newsroom were black. That was okay with me. She wanted to be somebody else, Elfin.She wanted to be Georgetown.
Now for my black brothers and sisters who are expressing such joy on soul radio over Cooke's briefly successful hustle of the White Establishment.
Bernie McCain, a radio talk show host for WOL, which has ridden the Cooke affair for all it is worth and then some, said sadly last week, "We love a hustler. It's terrible when a community becomes so deprived that the notorious become famous. We have a Superfly and now a Janet Cooke. Black people are calling in here every day and saying I'm so proud of her."
Even my friend Jim Hudson, a sharp and canny lawyer, beams with a certain misplaced racial pride when he talks about the incident. What a coup. A super-con. Not just the hard-boiled editors at The Washington Post were taken in, but the board awarding journalism's most prestigious prize.Some lady.
Earl Hoes, a cabdriver, told me a few days later that he probably would have condemned Cooke for her hoax if she had been white, but he felt differently because she was black. He's a Cooke rooter now. "Because she's another black who's struggling," he said. He is hoping she'll write a book, go to Hollywood, make a fortune.
"My God, she can create her own job," he said. "It's a shame that we had to hear about her through a misfortune. I didn't know who Janet Cooke was. I come to find out that it was this black chick. Great looking."
I can understand some of this reaction. I can understand the busdriver who called WOL to report that, like Cooke, he too,, had lied about his education on his resume. He had pretended that he had a high school diploma, he said, so he could get the job with Metro. I don't condone lying. I don't think that's the example we want to hold up for our children. I surely don't think we ought to elevate the lady hustler to the status of Black Heroine.
Sure, I can sympathize with the busdriver who felt he had to lie to earn a modest livelihood. But don't confuse that with Janet Cooke, who didn't have to lie to get a much better job. She had a college education. She had newspaper experience. She had talent. She certainly didn't have to invent "Jimmy." She could have made a large contribution to this newspaper. But that's not what she was after. She wanted a short-cut to stardom, and she clearly didn't care what price she paid or think much about those she might hurt in the process.
From everything I know about her, about the last thing Cooke wanted was to be embraced by those callers into the radio talk shows, or, for that matter, by the rest of the black community. A few weeks back, in one of our few conversations, I remember her lowering her eyelids and shaking that long hair of hers as she said that race accounted for only about 5 per cent of what she considered important about a person. She did not say what the other 95 per cent was, but few blacks at The Post seemed to meet her test.
In the same way, when she and reporter Courtland Milloy were out in Southeast Washington -- where some of those radio callers live -- she screamed about her desire to get "off these damn streets."
Don't get this one wrong. I don't believe that all young black reporters have to love covering the ghetto. Nor do I believe that they have to hang out with other blacks or subscribe to some black code of conduct in their personal or professional lives. But there's a large difference between that and someone who seeks most of the time to escape from who she really is.
So all you radio show callers can stop squandering your praise on Janet Cooke. She probably wouldn't want it. Anyway, she is not the kind of hustler you think. The person she really hustled was herself.