All Apologies | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

All Apologies 

It's been 15 years since Janet Cooke faked her Pulitzer-winning story. Now she says she's sorry, but maybe sorry just isn't good enough.

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Journalists are, by their very nature, con artists of a sort. When an interviewer nods in acceptance as his or her subject blathers on and on, more ridiculously by the moment, then reports the entire conversation in all its embarrassing detail, that is a small betrayal. When Lloyd Grove profiled Sharon Stone for Vanity Fair, he didn't have to mention the actress's opinion that the Welshman Dylan Thomas is her favorite "Irish" writer, or describe in detail how (in his presence) she flattered and bullied a hapless retailer into giving her needlepoint runners at half price. But he's a journalist, and that's the sort of thing journalists do.

Journalism is made up of many such moments of bad faith. "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible," Janet Malcolm asserts in The Journalist and the Murderer, a book reviled by many journalists (I think) for its excess of honesty. "He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

But Malcolm is wrong to describe this as indefensible, morally or otherwise. What most subjects want, after all, is to tell their story in their own way--to be allowed the luxury of giving the facts whatever spin they want. And they have no right to expect this: journalists have an obligation to tell the story as they see fit--their loyalty is to the reader, and to the unvarnished and sometimes uncomfortable facts of the case, and not to the person or persons they have happened to interview. You don't have to be a nice person to be a journalist; in many ways, it's better if you aren't.

If this kind of personal betrayal is the bread and butter of the journalist's trade, there is another kind of betrayal that is--by any standard, and particularly by the standards of journalists--morally indefensible: the betrayal of the reader. You can report on the events of the day from whatever angle you wish, so long as you can support your assertions with unambiguous facts; you can't simply make the facts up.

When journalist Janet Cooke--after some 11 hours of relentless questioning by Washington Post editors--admitted that her Pulitzer Prize-winning story "Jimmy's World" was a work of fiction, not fact, she had admitted to the biggest journalistic crime of all: she had betrayed her editors--and her readers--in order to advance her career.

It's been 15 years since "Jimmy's World," Cooke's fabricated account of the life of an eight-year-old heroin addict, first rocked the city of Washington--then (after it was revealed to be a hoax) the world of journalism. And now, the notorious journalistic fabricator (who, having left journalism was until recently a $6-an-hour department store clerk) has decided to seek forgiveness not only from the public but from other journalists as well.

Cooke has chosen to confess, as it were, by proxy: her apology, such as it is, comes in an article in GQ detailing her difficult life both before and after "Jimmy's World." The piece is not written by her but by GQ writer Mike Sager, a former colleague of hers at the Post--and her former lover.

By purely pecuniary standards, Cooke's "confession" has been a tremendous success. Her story attracted media attention long before the story had even hit the stands, with Cooke appearing on Nightline and Today in early May to explain and apologize for her wrongs. Less than a week later, after a fierce bidding war among a number of movie studios, TriStar Pictures offered $1.6 million for the movie rights to the GQ article--with Cooke herself (a "consultant" on the project) sharing more than half the purse. (The two have been paid $750,000 up front; the rest will come if and when the film gets made.)

The Hollywood interest is not that surprising: the Cooke story pushes more hot buttons than a week's worth of daytime TV. Aside from the grand narrative of Cooke's rise and fall, there's the racial angle: Cooke was a young black woman in a largely white, and largely male, profession--but was also a woman who'd never dated a black man or had any black female friends. And there's her rough childhood: Cooke learned her deceptive ways (she says) as a kind of survival skill, living in a household dominated by a tough and controlling father. With Sager in the picture, there's also a romance--given Cooke's abilities at self-dramatization, a pretty stormy one at that.

"I was fascinated by the relationship between a young editorial puppy and a temptress finding her way in a really sexy world," TriStar production chief Stacey Snider told the Los Angeles Times--the puppy being Sager, presumably, and the temptress being you-know-who. "Cooke's character is fascinating, charming, tragic--all that good stuff."

Of course, Hollywood interest is hardly a sign that Cooke's apology has been accepted by the world at large--just a sign that the movie studios regard pathos as particularly marketable these days. I'm not sure this kind of acceptance will lead to Cooke's eventual reacceptance as a journalist. And, quite frankly, I don't think it should.

Indeed, Cooke's GQ "confession" troubled me deeply, and I have spent a good deal of time trying to figure out why. The article itself is a mess--a melodramatic, desperately overwritten, and not always fully believable account of Cooke's exceedingly strange story. It's an article, in many ways, that duplicates in print some of Cooke's own worst tendencies.

On the surface, Cooke's apology seems sincere. "What I did was wrong," Cooke told her old friend. "I regret that I did it. I was guilty. I did it, and I'm sorry that I did it....What I did was horrible....But I don't think that in this particular case the punishment has fit the crime. I've lost my voice. I've lost half of my life. I'm in a situation where cereal has become a viable dinner choice."

Let's grant Cooke her slight exaggeration--she's "lost" considerably less than half her life, closer to a third. Her tale, we have to admit, has all the trappings of a great redemption narrative: a flawed heroine with a bad case of hubris, a crime revealed, a dramatic fall from grace. It could make a fabulous movie-of the-week.

Americans love a repentant sinner, after all, and Cooke seems to have managed the correct mixture of contrition and pathos. As Sager himself notes, the media have in recent years taken on a kind of "Father Confessor" role. "People today know well that the surest route back to grace is a massive public appeal," Sager writes. "You transgress; you confess; you are forgiven."

That's a pretty glib way to explain it, but it's more or less true. Turn on your TV in the middle of any day, and you'll see the whole process in action: tearful celebrities blurting out stories of their terrible childhoods, talk show guests revealing shameful secrets. Honey, I had an affair with your best friend, your mom, your dad, the baby-sitter.

Indeed, in a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine, critic James Atlas suggested that Christopher Lasch's "culture of narcissism" had given way to a "culture of confession." "It's a phenomenon that transcends high and low," Atlas wrote. "Celebrity bios revel in the sexual peccadilloes of magnates and movie stars; John Updike, in 'Self-Consciousness,' recounts the time he brought a woman to orgasm in the back seat of a car while his unsuspecting wife sat in the front....There's no rule--not even an ethical one--to prevent the poet and former Princeton professor Michael Ryan, in 'Secret Life,' from revealing that he had sex with his dog." (Some secret lives, one begins to think, might be best kept secret.)

Of course, this culture of confession is not exactly new, nor is it confined to celebrity memoirs and daytime television. Indeed, many of our society's central institutions, religious and secular, are devoted to the proposition that confession is good for the soul--or (at least) the psyche. Catholics bring their confessions to the local priest; evangelical Christians are always ready to forgive a repentant sinner. Alcoholics Anonymous demands that its members publicly admit their "problem" before they begin the journey to recovery. Psychotherapy begins and ends with the brutal honesty of personal revelations.

And there is something healthy about the process. Though at times the tawdry exhibitionist excess of the "culture of confession" can make one cringe, there is still some real therapeutic value in such full disclosure.

Yet there is something undeniably unsettling about Sager's account. Partly, the problem is that Cooke's "confession" is less than thorough--she hasn't admitted anything that wasn't already known, and (judging from the number of issues Sager has had to sidestep in the story itself) she seems unwilling to clear the air about certain other incidents of possible truth-stretching.

For example, she won't say (or Sager somehow forgot to ask) whether or not in the wake of her initial success with "Jimmy" she was attempting to fabricate yet another dramatic story, this time about a 14-year-old prostitute. (Editors grew suspicious when she was never able to arrange for her subject to meet with anyone other than her.)

But the problem is not simply that Cooke's tell-all is really a tell-a-little. It's that she and Sager both seem to regard her "confession" as little more than a burdensome necessity, something to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible--rather than as an opportunity for some honest soul-searching.

"You know darned well that you're not going to get back in the business at least until you get this sort of cursory apology out of the way," Ted Koppel pointed out during her Nightline appearance. "Is it really just enough to come on TV and say, 'Sorry, folks, I made a mistake'?"

"I'm not sure what enough would be," Cooke said--though she evidently has decided now that whatever "enough" is, she's certainly done her share.

Sager, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, compared Cooke's plight to that of Hugh Grant, who after his own transgression "winked and bowed, said three Hail Marys, hit three stations of the media cross, and was back on the set." Of course, the two situations aren't even remotely comparable. For one thing, Grant didn't betray the public at large--he betrayed one particular woman. And his penchant for commercial sex had no bearing on his performance as an actor--whereas Cooke's lies do bear on her credibility as a journalist.

Cooke's "explanation" for her actions is equally glib. It's little more than an attempt to invoke a journalistic version of the notorious "abuse excuse"--the notion, as they put it in West Side Story, that one is depraved on account of being deprived.

You see, Cooke grew up in what the talkshow therapists would call a deeply dysfunctional home. Her father, a lawyer and corporate secretary at Toledo Edison who worked his way up in the ranks, was (she says) a demanding, tyranically controlling man who would fly into a rage if he discovered anything in the household even the slightest bit out of order. He forbade her to play with the other black children in the neighborhood, forbade her to play at all outside their own backyard. And so, Cooke explained to Sager, she learned to survive by telling her father what he wanted to hear. "The conclusion I've come to is that lying, from a very early age, was the best survival mechanism available," she said. "It was like, do you unleash the wrath of Dad's temper, or do you tell something that is not exactly true and be done with it?"

Reading Sager's account, though, one comes to realize that "lying" isn't the central issue here--manipulation is. Cooke became very good at telling people what they wanted to hear--whether or not it was true.

She realized early in her journalism career that a woman with her credentials--a graduate of the University of Toledo working at the Toledo Blade--would have no chance of getting in the door at a paper like the Washington Post. So she helped herself to the credentials she needed--claiming to have graduated with honors from Vassar, to have a master's degree in literature, and to speak two foreign languages. The editors at the Post ate it up.

And when she realized the potential public impact of a sensationalistic story about an eight-year-old addict, she invented him out of whole cloth as well--in the process seeming to confirm every middle-class prejudice about life in the ghetto.

Cooke, in other words, has spent her whole life playing to the fantasies of others. And she's still doing it. She thinks we want apologies, so she offers them up to us. (During her appearance on Nightline she compared her actions to someone "being invited to dinner and leaving with the silverware.") She thinks we want pathos, so she serves it up in buckets.

Yet at the same time she continues to insist on her essential innocence. She didn't realize, she says, that "Jimmy's World" would get the attention it did. "I was astonished by the attention I got," she told Sager. "It just hadn't occurred to me that I'd make such big waves."

Sager himself seems to buy this explanation. "She wasn't trying to pull off a massive hoax that would bring her fame," Sager writes. "She was desperate, and she was damaged." Under pressure to deliver a sensational story, "she did what she knew how to do"--that is, she lied.

But what reporter hasn't been under pressure to come up with a page one scoop? And, having concocted one to beat them all, how can Cooke now insist she didn't mean to "make waves"? What serious journalist wouldn't realize that the story of an eight-year-old heroin addict would cause a stir?

What's even stranger is Cooke's continued attempt to blame her fall from grace--her "punishment"--on an unforgiving public. If, as she's said, she's "lost her voice" and "half her life," she has only herself to blame. Though she has plenty of enemies in journalism, she was hardly run out of the writing profession in the first place.

Indeed, as far as one can make out from Sager's evasive history of Cooke, she was offered a kind of forgiveness after the debacle of "Jimmy's World." "It was...reported that a publishing house had advanced her $50,000 to try her hand at fiction," Sager writes, "but no contract was ever signed. She wrote a few stories for Cosmopolitan, but none ran." She was never completely forgiven, that's true--but she also never came completely clean about her deceptive ways. And she still hasn't.

I can't help thinking that Cooke could learn a little about the culture of confession by watching a daytime talk show or two. As she'd quickly realize, very few of the lurid confessions unleashed upon such shows are enough to buy the confessor a ticket to a new life.

The audience almost always wants more: not just a confession, but honest remorse. Not just remorse, but responsibility. Yes, yes, Jerry Springer will tell his guests, we all feel bad that you were abused or neglected or cheated on or dumped--but you can't change the past; don't you think it's time you forgave and forgot and moved on with your life? Do you really think your hard life gives you permission to steal, or cheat, or lie, or whatever it is that you do?

These are, I think, reasonable questions. Under the glare of the lights (and the glares of angry audience members), some guests will reluctantly "accept responsibility" for what they did, and will offer vague apologies for past hurts. But if these acts of contrition seem disingenuous the audience will pounce upon them once again with hoots and jeers. I wonder how long Cooke would last in such a setting.

Today, Sager implies, Cooke has put her past life (and her past lies) behind her: "At last, she has...told the truth. It is a beginning."

If it is, it's not much of one. Though Sager insists Cooke has changed, the woman who appears in the pages of his article seems as manipulative as ever: a woman who uses her considerable powers of deceit (and her sexual appeal) to get what she wants--and who reverts to a who-me? innocence whenever things don't go her way. (The photographs accompanying the article certainly don't help her case: they show Cooke posing coquettishly in an elegant, fashionable coat--at once seductress and little girl. )

With her movie deal, Cooke has managed to transform her notoriety into a considerable pile of cash. Will she be able to rejoin the world of journalism as well? If so, she certainly isn't intending to go back into the trenches: she expects to skip easily to the higher echelons of the profession.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Cooke is "a few pages into a story titled 'What I've Learned,' which she'd like to sell to the New Yorker, GQ, or Vanity Fair." Five years from now, she envisions herself "sitting at a keyboard . . . in Paris," writing for Ms. or Vogue.

"I needed to face up to what I did in order to put it to rest," she told the Times, immediately after sketching out her less-than-humble aspirations. "I was looking for closure--and I think I've found that."

I'm not so sure she has. She must realize that her perfunctory apology is not going to win her forgiveness from very many journalists. Indeed, it's not even clear if she wants such forgiveness: she seems quite wedded to her sense of grievance. If the world doesn't accept her halfhearted apology, she can always sink back into her own private world--a little older (but not wiser) and more than a little richer. And she can pretend, once again, that others (always others) are to blame for what she's brought upon herself.

She may have learned one thing from her experience, though: pathos pays pretty well these days.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Kurt Mitchell.

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