We were sitting around in the city room chuckling over the many marriages of Evangeline. Every day, it seemed, someone unearthed another former husband of New York Gov. Hugh Carey's new bride.
We were taking bets on the grand total, shaking our heads about the naivete of a woman who thought she could get away with it. She'd verbally killed off one husband, "forgotten" to put another one down on the marriage license.
It was a comfortable gossip for a slow afternoon.
Then the news came in about Janet Cooke of The Washington Post. Suddenly it wasn't so funny anymore. Although we'd never met her, she was one of our own. A journalist had been caught lying, caught in the full limelight of the Pulitzer Prize with fake credentials and a fake story.
There had been no degree from Vassar. There had been no interview with an 8-year-old heroin addict. The Pulitzer was returned.
In my city room, and most others, reporters clustered around and shook their heads. We talked about nothing else all that day and the next. We talked about the psychology of lying, about the apparent scope and nerve of this embezzlement of trust about what it must feel like to get caught.
We felt sorry for her and sorry for us; we felt that it was a shame and shameful. We tried to figure out how an editor could have, should have, separated her fiction from fact. We talked about unnamed sources, and how this could have happened almost anywhere.
Frauds exist in other professions, and they exist in ours. But it's harder to report our own scams.
The medical reporter remembered the story he'd written about a "brilliant young researcher" who had made up the experiments. A doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, the cream of the cream had been caught fabricating a small detail. Slowly his whole research project unraveled. Janet Cooke had been caught fabricating her academic degrees, and slowly her story had unraveled.
It was so unnecessary. The doctor was brilliant. Janet Cooke was a fine writer. Now, he is running lab tests in a suburban hospital in Michigan, and she has resigned from The Washington Post.
The political reporter remembered a story he had written about a man appointed head of the Massachusetts department of elderly affairs. The first clue of fraud in his resume was that he had misspelled the name of his "alma mater," the University of Heidelberg.
There was other tales exchanged about the people we have covered, the lives we've watchdogged: Rosie Ruiz, who "won" the Boston marathon; Tamara Rand, who "psyched" the Reagan assassination attempt.
Then we talked about our own: about the Oregon reporter caught making up quotes from the governor, about The National Enquirer, about Janet Cooke.
Journalists are dogged soul-searchers. We ask more questions about ourselves than about others. We'll analyze how this story got into print, and how it got into the Pulitzer's winning circle. We'll write biographies of one young reporter. We'll investigate how a reporter can protect sources and a newspaper can still protect its reputation. We'll issue new directives on checking and editing.
But it's hard to explain what this means to those of us in the business who have only one credential: our credibility. This is a society running short on trust. Most journalists deal with this fact every day. We're assigned the role of public trustee. We're the ones who uncover Rosie, Tamara, the scientist, the politician.
So, we are all affected by an single reporter who fuels the public wonder. Is this true? Do I believe them? We are all affected by any lie that finds its way to print, let alone it prize. It makes our jobs harder, it makes our lives harder. We feel it.
Journalism will survive this one. The Washington Post will also survive.
We may even come out with tougher guidelines and, for better and worse, more internal skepticism.
But Janet Cooke has greased the chute of public disbelief. Frankly, it feels lousy.