Journalism and ethics on the stage

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In 1981, when reporter Janet Cooke had to give back her Pulitzer Prize because she was found to have made up her story about an 8-year-old heroin addict, a teen in Newark, N.J., took note. That teenager - who dreamed of being a reporter herself - eventually took up fiction writing and became a playwright. And two decades after Ms. Cooke's fabrication appeared in The Washington Post, Tracey Scott Wilson is exploring the issues of ethics and identity raised by that case in her latest play, "The Story."

Ms. Wilson's tale of an African-American reporter who bends the truth was written in 2001, before the Jayson Blair scandal rocked The New York Times. But the work benefits from being staged on the heels of one of the most significant journalistic upsets since Ms. Cooke admitted all those years ago that little "Jimmy" didn't exist.

Like other retellings in popular culture - Blair-type scenarios on TV's "Law & Order" and a movie called "Shattered Glass" about disgraced New Republic writer Stephen Glass - "The Story" offers an opportunity to examine what pushes people to cross the line between ethical and unethical behavior.

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That a play influenced by the Cooke case exists now doesn't surprise Jane Kirtley, the Silha professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. The incident still resonates with journalists and the public, she notes, as it was a stunning, tragic situation. "It's been crying out for dramatic treatment. My only surprise is that it's taken this long," she says.

Playwright Wilson is interested in issues of race and class, and it was her fascination with Cooke and other headline-grabbing situations involving blacks that prompted her to write "The Story." In it, she melds the idea of rounding up African-Americans who fit a certain profile with the assumptions that people, even black people, make about blacks. But it is the Cooke incident that most clearly informs the plot.

"I was fascinated by that case ... [by] what she chose to lie about, the fact that she sort of chose to exploit the stereotype about African-Americans. And that she got away with it at a paper that less than a decade before had brought down a president," says Wilson during an interview at New York's Public Theater. (After a month-long run Off-Broadway before Christmas, the play starts previews Wednesday at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.)

In Wilson's play, Yvonne, a young, ambitious journalist who wants to get a scoop and please her editors (much as Cooke did) discovers a black girl gang member who claims to have murdered a white man. Doubts about the existence of the girl quickly emerge, and when it's learned that the reporter embellished her résumé (also the start of Cooke's problems) the story's veracity is more fully called into question.

Interestingly, Wilson says she intentionally wrote the play so that the main character never utters the word "lie." "Yvonne doesn't think of it as lying," she explains. It's not as if she's trying to be a mechanical engineer when she's not, Wilson adds. "She's a good writer, she knows it. She just got off track."

Wilson was attracted early in life to news and the way it's gathered. She read the Sunday New York Times and participated in family discussions about what was on the nightly news. Cooke's tumultuous career had an impact on Wilson. "I remember when she won the Pulitzer, [being] proud as an African-American. And then when it was taken away ... the disgrace of that."

In her view, neither the Post's editors nor Cooke knew much about life in a drughouse, and that's how the article got through. Still, Wilson finds that on some level she's empathetic. "On the one hand, you could say what she did was obviously very unethical, but on the other hand, I understand her overwhelming ambition and desire to be perfect. So it was sort of like a weird empathy sort of thing, wondering, you know, if I was under that kind of pressure, how far would I go, because ... you want to make the race or the family or the whatever proud."

Wilson's empathy for Cooke was influenced by a June 1996 interview in GQ magazine that revealed more about Cooke's motivation. Life with a controlling father made lying a regular part of Cooke's life. Later Cooke wondered why this wasn't more of a red flag to her. "The conclusion I've come to is that lying, from a very early age, was the best survival mechanism available. And I became very good at it," she said in the rare interview. "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?"

"It is a very twisted way of thinking, I know..." she adds in the article. "The problem becomes, what do you do when your world view is based on such a twisted proposition? What becomes of you?"

One difference between Cooke's experience and Wilson's play is that Yvonne never backs down about the truth of her story, with shocking consequences. Wilson speculates on what it would have been like had Cooke done the same: "I honestly think that if Janet Cooke had excused herself and gotten her second wind ... she could have held onto that story. She could have said, you're right, my résumé's not true, but I'm a good reporter."

Ultimately, Wilson wants people to leave her play asking themselves where their ethical line is drawn - how far would they go to make life a little easier or to keep a prized job?

A newsroom is a good place to examine that, she says. "Journalism is one of the few professions where your honesty is all that you have, and where it's absolutely essential to tell the truth. How else is the public supposed to know what's going on in the world?"

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