Journalists around the country reacted with a mixture of outrage and sadness yesterday over the circumstances that caused the Pulitzer Prize Committee to withdraw its feature-writing prize from Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke after learning that her winning story was a fabrication.
Editors for major publications and wire services, meanwhile, assigned dozens of reporters to find out how the fictitious story of an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy passed through the hands of a series of editors, onto the paper's front page and eventually to the prize nominations without detection.
"In this case, The Post editors were not alert enough," said the editorial page of the St. Lewis Post Dispatch, whose publisher, Joseph Pulitzer Jr., sits on the board of the prize committee founded by his father, former New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer. ". . . Even though they [Post Editors] did not discover the hoax before the article was printed, should they not have been induced to conduct a thorough internal investigation when the Washington police department, after an exhaustive inquiry, reported its conclusion that the child was fictgitious?" the editorial, printed in today's editions, asked.
Cooke, 26, acknowledged to Post editors early Wednesday morning that she had fabricated the story of "Jimmy's World," which was published last Sept. 28. She said the child in her story was a composite of children she had been told about, that quotes attributed to him were false, and that scenes she described in the story and claimed to have witnessed never took place. Cooke's resignation has been accepted by The Post, and she remained in seclusion yesterday with her mother.
At the time of its publication, the story stirred considerable controversy in Washington, and yesterday callers to radio and television talk shows sharply criticized The Post for misleading the city. At the same time, some expressed concern that the new storm of controversy over the hoax would detract attention from the problem of juvenile drug abuse in the city.
The Post was also the subject of editorial cartoons in some newspapers. For example, cartoonist Paul Conrad of The Los Angeles Times recreated the Pulitzer Prize scroll in a signed drawing and proclaimed The Post and its reporter, Cooke, as winners of the prize for "Fiction."
The Post's internal press critic, Bill Green, said yesterday that he had completely nearly a dozen hours of interviewing reporters and editors who handle the story.
Green is operating under a mandate from Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee to find out how the hoax occured. Green said he will publish the results of his investigation within a week, perhaps as early as Sunday.
Green said he did not want to discuss what avenues he will pursue in the inquiry. He said persons inside and outside of the newspaper who had knowledge or information about the story's origination and reporting -- including Cooke -- would be interviewed.
Attention also focused yesterday on the 17-member advisory committee of the Pulitzer Foundation at Columbia University, where questions were raised by journalists who had participated in selecting the prizes this year.
Cooke's article had been entered in the local reporting category, but has moved to the feature writing category by the foundation's advisory committee. "We had never seen the Cooke article," said film critic Judith Crist, chairwoman of the panel of journalist "jurors" who judged dozens of feature writing entries before making recommendations to the foundation's executive committee.
Crist said that once she saw a copy of Cooke's story, "I was horrified. It had anonymous characters. I don't call it the New Journalism, I call it the New Fiction."
However, other officials associated with the prize competition defended the switch in categories as routine.
Richard T. Baker, associate dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a Pulitzer board official, said he learned Wednesday that "there was considerable doubt" about Cooke's story inside The Post.
"Why didn't they [post editors] tell us?" he asked.
"I think we look pretty dumb," said Eugene C. Patterson, another Pulitzer board member and editor of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. In the columns of his own newspaper yesterday, Patterson said the argued against awarding the prize to Cooke.
I expressed my opinion that I would not have assigned a reporter to cover a life-and-death story with the pre-condition [Cooke] accepted -- namely to refuse to give information that might save the life of the child."
At the Wall Street Journal, managing editor Laurence O'Donnel assigne a squad of reporters to examine how the Jimmy story got through the multilevel editing process at The Post.
"I think the interest in the story is how just such a thing was printed," O'Donnell said. "My suspicion is that Jan Cooke is not going to be remembered, specifically, for this by many people who will remember that a great newspaper in America printed a blockbuster story that won a Pulitzer Prize and the next day found out the story wasn't true."
O'Donnell said the word of the fabrication "caused a great deal of sadness" in the Journal newsroom in New York. "People were really thunderstruck."
He said that the news media must fully examine this incident "because the public is deeply interested in the inner working of the press.
"People feel the press plays a very large role in shaping society," O'Donnell said. "They feel sometimes the press takes very heavy-handed positions toward the rest of us mere mortals, telling them how to think and making sweeping judgment calls on what is right and what's wrong."
In the District, Rudolph Brewington of radio station WOL said that callers to his early morning show were "shocked, dismayed and angered by the fact that a lie was hoisted in the press; that the story was not checked sufficiently; that it has caused undue political stress on the mayor and the police chief to find a 'Jimmy' that didn't exist."
Donald Williams of RAP Inc., a service organization for drug addicts, said that when Cooke's article ran in The Post, "We had to laugh at the mayor and the police chief -- Hell, we could have delivered dozens of 12-year-old addicts to their doorsteps."
Roger Wilkins, associate editor of The Washington Star and a member of the committee that chose Pulitzer Prize winners, was the strongest advocate on the panel for awarding a prize to Cooke. He refused to comment yesterday.
Meanwhile, an editorial in The Star said, "The Post, as all news organizations, depends finally on the integrity of its staff. It was an aberration, but one that may occur in journalism -- or indeed in any field where people work daily under intense pressure."
The chief editorial writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, William F. Woo, said, "How the story slipped through the system, that's what concerns us professionally." He said he was reminded of a quotation from an admiral presiding over the inquest of a ship sinking. After the admiral determined that the captain of the ship had been culpable, he announced to those assembled that, "There are many reasons for this accident, but no excuses for it."