Case Study: “Jimmy’s World”

30 Jan

By: Gabriela Gonzalez

“Jimmy’s World” may have seemed like a moving piece with Pulitzer Prize potential to Janet Cooke. But it quickly became much more than that.

The descriptive piece about the 8-year-old heroin addict put people in motion.

David A. Maraniss of the Washington Post wrote, “Upon publication, the Jimmy article prompted a strong and immediate response in the city. Mayor Marion Barry and Chief of Police Burtell Jefferson assigned a task force of police and social workers to locate the 8-year-old cited in the city and to obtain medical treatment for him. When the child could not be located, Barry and Jefferson voiced deep skepticism about the validity of the story. Barry said he believed “Jimmy” did not exist, or was a composite of several different youngsters.”

Not only did this happen, but later it was discovered that Janet Cooke didn’t graduate magna cum laude from Vassar College like she said. She also did not receive a master’s degree from University of Toledo in Ohio.

She was creative from the very beginning.

Reid MaCluggage said that a story does not need an advocate, but instead someone who will put it on the witness stand and tear it apart. In “Jimmy’s World,” by the time this was done, it was too late.

After I read the article, I was impressed by the descriptiveness of it all. At second glance, I came up with these questions:

1.      How did social services allow this child to stay at home when he obviously wasn’t hiding? Didn’t the school notice?

 

2.      There weren’t a great amount of credible sources linked to the family. The only ones who were “named” are the ones in the family, but no one else knows them or talks about them. The nameless fat woman doesn’t cut it. Who is the fat woman?

 

3.      Did any of the doctors ask about the boy and/or offer to treat him?

 

4.      How did the journalist find the family? How did Cooke gain such inside access (watching them “shoot up”)?

 

5.       Was law enforcement involved somehow?

 

Unfortunately, “Jimmy’s World” has not been the last case of fabrication, and it has not been the last piece that has had a lack of skeptical adversaries before publication. There was the “memoir” which quickly became popular called “A Million Little Pieces.” This was also an addict’s memoir.

Many of the things in the book ended up being embellished details and fictionalized accounts. Of course, this was discovered after it sat at The New York Times Bestseller List for nonfiction paperbacks thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement. She made this book part of her book club reading list. Ironically, when you walk into any bookstore you can still find the book in the biography section.

People are lazy and creative.  It is because of this that editors and journalists must be on their guard. Not just editors, but the public, too, because apparently we editors are missing some serious slip-ups. It is important to be skeptical. Try all of the facts.
If not, you may end up with “A Million Little Lies.”  

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