Once upon a time, a Washington Post reporter came upon secret information that endangered an innocent person’s life. That journalist chose to keep the facts confidential, partly to maintain access to key sources and partly so when the scoop was ultimately published it would have the greatest impact possible. In fact, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
To be precise, these events took place in the fall of 1980, when a Post reporter named Janet Cooke published her article “Jimmy’s World,” the harrowing portrait of an 8-year-old child kept addicted to heroin by his mother and her drug-dealing boyfriend. Despite not identifying any of her subjects by their real names, Cooke collected her Pulitzer in April 1981.
If you know anything about Janet Cooke and “Jimmy’s World,” it is probably that within weeks of the Pulitzer announcement, the article was exposed as a fabrication and the prize retracted.
The moral of the disgraced story, for many readers who justifiably seethed at having been deceived, was to become much warier of articles entirely based on unnamed or renamed sources, articles thus impossible to credibly fact-check.
But Mike Royko, then a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, found a very different lesson in Cooke and the Post. It was a lesson about a journalist’s need to be a human being before being an ambitious careerist. And it was a lesson, he pointed out, that would have totally applied even if “Jimmy’s World” had been truthful.
Royko’s words, in a column headlined “Come clean, Post,” and published on April 26, 1981, are worth quoting at length:
“Now, I’ll tell you what I would have done if I had been an editor and a young reporter came to me with that same story. I would have said something like this:
“‘I want the name of that kid now. I want the name of the mother. I want the name of the guy giving the kid heroin.’
“‘We’re going to call the cops right now and we’re going to have that sonofabitch in jail, and we’re going to save that kid’s life.
“‘After we do that, then we’ll have a story.’”
What occasions my trip down this particularly disturbing stretch of Memory Lane is the publication of Bob Woodward’s book “Rage.” As many Americans have learned from it, in early February President Trump was confiding in taped conversations with Woodward that he knew the COVID-19 virus was airborne, that it was far more dangerous than flu, that it was “deadly stuff.”
Meanwhile, and for months thereafter, as more than 180,000 Americans died in the pandemic, Trump predicted the virus would magically disappear and promoted quack treatments ranging from a malaria drug to Lysol and bleach. He turned the commonsense precaution of wearing a mask into the latest battlefront of the culture wars.
So the huge question remains as to why Woodward, knowing what he knew when he knew it, kept quiet with information that conceivably could have helped save tens of thousands of lives. His self-defense, that he needed time to verify Trump’s statements to him, simply does not suffice. And it brought back to mind the inconvenient detail that Woodward was one of the editors who oversaw Cooke’s article and nominated it for a Pulitzer.
For me, this issue is no delicious bit of “gotcha.” It gives me no pleasure to criticize a legendary journalist whose investigation of Watergate with Carl Bernstein inspired many of my generation to become reporters. For 25 years and four books, I shared the same editor (Alice Mayhew of Simon & Schuster) with Woodward. His daughter was a cherished colleague of mine at Columbia Journalism School.
But, as Royko told us nearly 40 years ago, a journalist has to be a human being first.
Woodward could have published his scoop about Trump’s true attitude toward COVID-19 back in February. Or he could have done it in March or April, when cases began surging in New York and California. He could have done it any time before the well-planned roll-out for his book.
Yet he held back. And, as a book author, I can intuit why: all the buzz about Trump’s COVID-19 quotes, backed up by the release of the tapes, would help “Rage” sell a huge number of copies, even by Woodward’s best-selling standards. That decision is morally repugnant.
It is irrelevant whether Trump might have responded more diligently to the pandemic had Woodward outed him, whether he might have followed science instead of pandering to his base. Woodward cannot be expected to control what Trump might have done. But Woodward had absolute control over what Woodward did.
In Mike Royko’s column about “Jimmy’s World,” he addressed the decision of a writer and editors to hold back information — in that case, the real names — from the public. And he correctly saw that choice not as the protection of a journalistic principle but a dereliction of journalistic — or civic, or human — duty.
“How could they sit there and say, yes, we will keep our word to a mother who is letting her child be slowly destroyed?” Royko wrote. “How could they say that we will protect the identity of a man who is slowly murdering a child?”
If Royko’s rhetorical question applied in 1981 to one life, then how much more so does it apply in 2020 to nearly 200,000?
Samuel G. Freedman is the author of eight books and a professor at Columbia Journalism School. He contributes regularly to the Sun-Times.
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