Thirty years ago today, the story hit with a thud.
It was the morning of Sept. 29, 1980, that The Washington Post published “Jimmy’s World,” the gripping profile of an 8-year-old heroin addict. The chilling portrait of drug addiction encapsulated in a boy living in one of America’s roughest urban areas sparked a citywide search by police, worldwide attention and journalistic acclaim.
After months of speculation about a boy who was never found, all it took was was a circumspect Toledo Blade editor for the truth to come out: The story and the boy were fabricated.
Two days after reporter Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, she gave it back and resigned from the Post. She fabricated the story and kept the lie alive for months. But for years after the revelation, editors lamented the failed trust between the reporter and her editors.
“I believed it, we published it. … Internal questions had been raised,” Donald Graham, then-Washington Post publisher, said. “It is a brilliant story — fake and fraud that it is.”
Through all the layers of editing at the time — without a doubt more than you’d find at the Post and other major newspapers today — the thought of such a catastrophic failure of the system should send shivers down the spine of any serious copy editor.
And as Bill Connolly has told countless attendees of the national conference, it was preventable.
In his presentation, Connolly, the retired New York Times editor and longtime ACES leader, describes line by line the red flags that were ignored. His dissection isn’t an admonishment of the Post but a clarion call to editors everywhere — truth should always trump a “great” story.
Read “Jimmy’s World” and ask yourself what you’d do if this came across your screen.
It couldn’t happen again, right?
All one has to do is remember Jayson Blair, a different case but one where not enough questions were asked. What was similar was the harm it inflicted on all journalists.
Or remember the copy editor at the Duluth News-Tribune who questioned a Mitch Albom column about two ex-players who (didn’t) attend an NCAA Final Four game. Nikki Overfelt exposed a lie in the work of arguably one of the greatest sportswriters of our time. It was the catch heard around the world.
Catches like that don’t happen everyday, but they do happen. And where there are copy editors there is the opportunity for a lie, even the smallest, to be caught.
Three decades later, journalism has changed. Some will argue that the Internet, bloggers, YouTube, cameraphones and the public’s ability to see news in real time can prevent another “Jimmy’s World.”
But in an age where facts are boiled down to bullet points and the obstacles to reaching an audience are merely speed bumps, let us remember that the only thing that can get in the way of a good story is the truth. That, and a copy editor.
If you haven’t attended Connolly’s session, I suggest you make note of it while planning your trip to the 2011 conference in Phoenix. It’s a lesson that relevant to us all, 30 years later.