A panel of newspaper executives agreed generally yesterday that the fradulent "Jimmy's World" story published by The Washington Post resulted from a series of failures by the newspaper's editors but they cautioned against allowing the hoax to undermine well-established principles and practices.
The discussion took plce before an audience of more than 500 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where The Post's publication of the story about a fictitious 8-year-old heroin addict continued to be a dominant topic. The story won a Pulitzer Price for feature writing for reporter Janet Cooke, who returned the prize and resigned from the newspaper last week after acknowledging that the story was a fabrication.
Criticism of The Post and its top editors was muted during the early-morning session, which originally was planned as a discussion of the role of ombudsmen at newspapers. Invited to respond from the audience, Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee said some new rules are likely to be formulated at The Post as a result.
But, Bradlee said, "One conclusion I've reached is that you cannot legislate, you cannot make a rule that is going to prevent, preserve you, save you from a pathological liar."
Bradlee also branded as "baloney" suggestions that the incident calls into question the value of affirmative action programs to hire more women and minorities at newspapers.
"There is a race dimension" to the case, he said, but it is the unfamiliarity and uncertainty with which white editors approach life in black areas such as the Southeast Washington neighborhood where Cooke said "Jimmy" lived.
"The face that Janet Cooke is black and her immediate editor was black probably made me trust them more, not less," Bradlee said.
The affirmative action issue was raised by a member of the panel, Tony Day, editor of the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, who warned that attempts to use Cooke's fabrication as an argument against affirmative action are "potentially the most serious consequence of al this."
"Editors didn't do the job they should have," Day said in his own analysis of the causes of the fabrication.
Sal Micciche, ombudsman at The Boston Globe, said he worries that in "collective grief" over the Cooke case the press might do more "to chill confidential news sources than any judge would."
Bill Green, The Post's ombudsman who was widely praised for his lengthy report on the fake story, said the incident also represented a failure of his own as the newspaper's internal "watchdog." Asked why he had not investigated early complaints by city officials that "Jimmy" did not exist, Green said, "I heard some of those doubts; I didn't believe them."
Lionel Barrow Jr., dean of communications at Howard University, said Green's report was inadequate. He called for an "independently mounted investigation" to determine how much of the story was written by Cooke and "how much by her editors" and "whether she is staying quiet by choice." Cooke has refused to discuss the case with Green and others writing about it.
Charles Seib, former ombudsman at The Post, said the central issue was the ethics of a newspaper's response when one of its reporters claims to have witnesses an 8-year-old being injected with heroin. "Do you wrap yourself in the First Amendment and your traditions and let the child die?" Seib said. "That was the issue and I don't think it was adequately faced by The Post."
The irony in this, Seib added, is that if Post editors had "realized that they were dealing with a life and not just a good front page story" and had sought to help the boy before the story was printed, they would have discovered Cooke's fabrication and spared themselves monumental embarassment.
Asked about this criticism, Bradlee conceded that "you've got your point." But he said, "I don't think of the journalist as cop" and said there is no clear role for newspapers in law enforcement.