Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Janet Cooke Speaks Out About Hoax

Combined Reports


WASHINGTON -- Sixteen years after Janet Cooke pulled off one of the most notorious hoaxes in American journalism, inventing a shocking story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that later won a Pulitzer Prize, the former Washington Post reporter is scraping by in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


Cooke has resurfaced this week to use one of her few remaining assets -- her famous name -- in an effort to revive her writing career.


Cooke won a 1981 Pulitzer Prize for a bogus story about an 8-year-old heroin addict named "Jimmy,'' then admitted after a lengthy interrogation that she had made it all up. Now 41 and divorced, she contacted a onetime boyfriend, former Post reporter Mike Sager, to tell her story, and is appearing on "Nightline'' tomorrow.


"What I did was wrong,'' Cooke told Sager for an article in the June issue of GQ magazine. "I regret that I did it. I was guilty. I did it, and I'm sorry that I did it. I'm ashamed that I did it.''


But, she said, "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.


"If only people understood why this really happened, maybe they'd have a different take on things. Maybe they'd think I wasn't so evil.''


A dazzling woman who seemed on top of the world at 26, Cooke's "pitiful tale,'' as she put it, unfolded outside the glare of publicity. She married an attorney after leaving The Post and moved to the Maryland suburbs, but her attempts to write for Cosmopolitan and Washingtonian didn't pan out.


The couple moved to Paris in 1985 but later divorced. Two years ago, with a plane ticket provided by her mother, Cooke returned to her native Toledo. She worked at the Limited Express for $4.85 an hour, walking miles home on some nights because she didn't own a car, the article says. Then she moved to Kalamazoo, where she works at the Liz Claiborne boutique in Hudson's department store.


In Cooke's view, she did not invent "Jimmy'' to win a Pulitzer or make a big splash; she was just desperate to get off The Post's Weekly staff.


After an employee at a Howard University drug program told her an 8-year-old was being treated there, Cooke mentioned it to then-city editor Milton Coleman, who declared it a front-page story and urged her to find the child. She could not.


"I kept hearing Milton telling me to offer total anonymity,'' Cooke recalled. "At some point, it dawned on me that I could simply make it all up. I just sat down and wrote it.'' Thus, in September 1980, was born the 2,200-word story of "a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.''


After she won the Pulitzer, Post editors learned of serious discrepancies in her resume. It took more than 11 hours of grilling by several editors for her to admit that "Jimmy'' was fiction.


The Post quickly returned the tarnished prize. An 18,000-word investigation by the ombudsman blamed several top editors, calling the episode "a complete systems failure.''


"She knows this is the only way she can get her life back,'' Sager said. "Yeah, she's destitute, and she doesn't like it. She folds sweaters. She sells retail. The bottom line is she's a writer, and she couldn't stand it anymore. ()