L'Affaire Pre-Blair

August 1, 2003

 

L’Affaire Blair”—as The New Yorker literarily labeled the misconduct of reporter Jayson Blair—produced a media self-feeding frenzy. How could the world’s journalistic gold standard, The New York Times, allow itself to be tarnished by a series of ethical and editorial lapses? Some history-sensitive observers (The New Yorker included) pointed out that this news wasn’t entirely new. A similar episode unfolded more than two decades ago. And its culminating chapter came right out of the Duke community.

In the spring of 1981, Bill Green was on leave from his job as vice president for university relations at Duke. He had agreed to serve as ombudsman for The Washington Post. As it happened, Green’s stint coincided with a major journalistic embarrassment: Post reporter Janet Cooke had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “Jimmy’s World,” about an alleged eight-year-old heroin addict in a down-and-out neighborhood. Cooke was initially challenged on misstatements in the autobiography she supplied to Pulitzer officials; eventually, under repeated questioning from Post editors, she admitted that the character of Jimmy was invented. She was fired from her job, and the prize was returned.

Today, Green isn’t caught up in learning about journalistic malfeasance but rather in the Duke Institute for Learning in Retirement, of which he is president. His gray beard is one feature of his own retirement; his gentle manner and stretched-out Southern syllables are familiar to those who’ve known him since his early Duke days. “When I discussed taking this job with The Post, I asked what the point of an ombudsman was. They said it was the reader’s representative. And they put no constraints on it.”

With the murky mess cooked up by Cooke, it became clear that the newspaper had become a news subject. A group of reporters went to executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee and said, “We should be doing this story,” Green recalls. “And Bradlee turned them away. He said, ‘It’s Bill Green’s job; it’s his assignment, and so we go with him.’ ”

Green was promised unlimited access to Post staffers and no editorial changes without his approval. (Cooke herself refused to be interviewed.) His 14,000-word piece was an example of dramatic storytelling that contrasts with The Times’ tedious, team-written, and, ultimately, unrevealing response to the Blair flare-up. “Here was an opportunity,” Green says, “in the heart of a highly respected newspaper, to receive an assignment where the stakes were very high, time was short, and only you could do it.” As The Post’s current ombudsman, Michael Getler, noted in an article, The Times’ account, “as good as it was, still amounted to The Times investigating itself, something it would object to if industry or government were under the gun.”

Green’s story started with Cooke’s application for a job at the paper (an application with a fabricated educational pedigree); produced memorable details in capturing his protagonist’s uninhibited ambitiousness (“When she walked, she pranced. When she smiled, she dazzled. Her wardrobe seemed always new, impeccable, and limitless.”); drew the supporting characters in equally vivid terms (about city editor Milton Coleman, for example: “His quietness is deceptive. He pursues news as though it’s his quarry.”); offered dramatic turning points (Coleman on Cooke: “She talked about hundreds of people being hooked. And at one point she mentioned an eight-year-old addict. I stopped her and said, ‘That’s the story. Go after it. It’s a front-page story.’”); and illuminated journalistic practice (“Coleman did not ask the mother’s name or the family’s street address. He had promised Cooke confidentiality for her sources.”)

Green says he wasn’t aiming to make this an especially evocative read. Still, it had gripping narrative elements, tracing as it did rising and falling fortunes: In a (Greek) word, hubris. “The story was dramatic. It was even melodramatic.” But he also was concerned about making an appropriate impact as ombudsman. “I think newsrooms, to readers, are mysteries—how they appoint someone, why they make the judgments they do, what kind of standards they apply, what the relationships are between various departments.” He portrayed The Post as a feudal hierarchy: Assistant managing editors were “the archdukes and duchesses of the newsroom.” Reporters were “the knight adventurers and lady adventurers.” And as in any kingdom, the atmosphere could be oppressive. “There is no question about the pressures and competition in The Washington Post’s newsroom. They are powerful. Some people flourish, others get crushed.”

On the face of it, Cooke’s invented events seem bizarre: an eight-year-old addict who relishes his daily drug dose; the mother’s boyfriend, who shoots the boy full of heroin; a reporter who is enthusiastically invited to witness the spectacle. Yet not many people at The Post asked questions. When confronted by skeptical city officials, the editors, as Bob Woodward (then assistant managing editor over the Metro section) told Green, “went into our Watergate mode: Protect the source and back the reporters.”

“ There was editorial failure at every level,” Green says. “The quality-control system of the newsroom, the editorial chain, broke down. It was a dazzling story. It was persuasively written, and it had enough detail in it to be convincing—the color of the sofa, the little boy’s pained expression. The editors were excited about the story. But it’s not their job to be excited about the story. Their job is to make editorial judgments.”

As Green’s story was about to hit the Sunday edition, Bradlee made an unusual Saturday visit to the newsroom. “He sat in his office and read this story on the screen, and he came charging out when it was over,” Green recalls. “And he said—in that marvelous hoarse voice of his, loud enough so that the entire newsroom could hear it—‘Bill Green, you ungrateful sonofabitch, I salute you.’ That was a high compliment, obviously.”

Just as obviously, Green uncovered a systemic failing that defied easy correction. Newspapers might do better at vetting potential employees on their backgrounds and quizzing reporters on their sources. Still, he says, “If you have a liar, a clever liar, it’s very hard to defend against that.”

If anything has changed in those two decades, it’s the extent of a celebrity-embracing culture. Janet Cooke has been working in obscurity, reportedly as a department-store clerk. Jayson Blair is entertaining a book deal.