American editorial writers yesterday waded into the most far-ranging debate in a decade on how newspapers do their jobs following the withdrawal of The Washington Post's 1981 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
The Post's entry -- the saga of an 8-year-old heroin addict by reporter Janet Cooke -- was discovered to be a fabrication shortly after the award was announced.
The episode, unparalleled in modern journalistic history, has caused opinion makers at publications nationwide to ponder the standards under which journalists enter into confidential relationships with news sources, how reporters construct articles, how editors screen what reporters write and whether the bond of trust in a newsroom is enough to ensure the accuracy of the reporting.
In an editorial column in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, associate editor Thomas J. Bray asked why The Post would risk tarnishing the reputation of the Pulitzer Prize by nominating a story whose accuracy had been challenged by city, police and social service officials.
"What does it say about journalism and our society that we put so little trust in our elected officials [and] so much in our unelected elites?" he asked.
Under a headline of The Pulitzer Lie," The New York Times said editorially that "great publications magnify beyond measure the voice of any single writer. Thus when their editors and publishers want or need to know a source for what they print, they have to know it -- and be able to assure the community or the court that they do.
"Where it is not now the rule," the editorial continued, "let this sad affair at least have the good effect of making it the rule."
Post ombudsman Bill Green continued his investigation into the publication of the bogus story, entitled "Jimmy's World," which appeared on "The Post's front page last Sept. 28. Green has said that he will interview Post editors, reporters and people outside the newspaper who have knowledge of how the article was prepared and published. Green said his report will be published in a matter of days, perhaps as early as Sunday.
Cooke, who resigned from the newspaper early Wednesday, was still in seclusion yesterday with her parents.
"The Post has promised an internal investigation ," The Journal's Bray said. "Other newspapers will push hard, in the best Watergate tradition, to get the 'facts.' But will the questions be asked? Like any other institution, the press has its interests to protect."
Meanwhile, the story of the fabrication prompted some critics to link this incident and The Post's coverage of the collective scandals known as Watergate that drove President Nixon from office.
Reed Irvin, chairman of Accuracy in Media, suggested in a radio talk show Thursday that embarrassment over the "Jimmy" fabrication should prompt The Post to disclose the identity of "Deep Throat" the confidential source who guided reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their Watergate investigative work.
Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee told United Press International yesterday that Irvine's suggestion was "perfectly ridiculous."
"If my memory is right, damn near 20 people went to jail [during the Watergate era.]. There were trials and hearings and the president resigned," Bradlee said.
Following two days of intense news coverage, editorial writers yesterday fully engaged the issues raised by the fabrication. e
"The debris of journalistic credibility is scattered across every newsroom in America," said an editorial in The Quad City Times, a small daily in Davenport, Iowa.
"Even though the reporter held inquisitive editors at bay over the source of the story by claiming her confidential source had threatened her life if his identity were revealed, that still doesn't excuse The Post hierarchy from blame. A story carrying such obvious impact in drug-plagued Washington demanded thorough verification before publication."
The Cleveland Press said that had The Post "not placed sensation above good editorial judgment, it would not have found itself in such an agonizingly embarassing position to begin with." It added: " . . . The Watergate story was one of far greater magnitude, and The Post made sure of the facts before breaking it."
The Virginia-Pilot of Norfolk struck a similar tone: "Let there be no place in journalism for the likes of Janet Cooke. . . . [but] her story . . . came to Post editors loaded with red flags and they let it pass with flying colors."
Other newspapers emphasized the importance of confidential sources in the news-gathering process even as they found fault with The Post.
"There are good reasons for newspapers to insist that the confidentially with which reporters sometimes receive information be protected. . . . But when confidential sources are invested or the process of confidentiality is abused, we in journalism are all hurt . . . ," said the Detroit Free Press.
At the Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman, columnist Rowland Nethaway asked: "Could it happen here? If a trusted reporter was determined to misuse his position and convincingly lied to his editors, it could probably happen anywhere. . . ."
Seymour Hersh, an investigative reporter formerly with The New York Times, said the reaction to Cooke's story is "wildly out of focus."
"The White House can put out an absolutely fallacious statement and everybody says that's the way the world works, but we [the press] hold ourselves to incredible standards," he said.
Hersh faulted The Post for not "smelling a rat" after the story was published and city and police officials challenged its veracity. And, he said, the mistake was compounded when the story was submitted in the Pulitzer Prize competition.
William H. Jones, managing editor of The Chicago Tribune, summed up his reaction: ". . . What this one person did has a hell of a lot of potential to create problems for all of us when it comes to source information. I don't blame The Post. I blame one highly unethical person who never should have been in the business to begin with."