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S I X Double Standards and the “Double-Special Burden” The Post has no more important and tougher job than explaining life in the black community in Washington. A special burden gets put on black reporters doing that job, and a double -special burden on black reporters who try to see life through their own eyes, instead of seeing it the way they’re told they should. —Washington Post publisher Don Graham in a letter to Janet Cooke, 1981 On September 28, 1980, the Washington Post led the front page with a chilling story entitled “Jimmy’s World,” which chronicled the tragic life of an eight-year old, third-generation drug addict born into a life of spiraling dysfunction. According to the article, written by Janet Cooke, an ambitious twenty-five-year-old African American reporter, Jimmy—“a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms”—is the product of the rape of a teenage girl by her mother’s boyfriend. So despondent was she after his birth that she didn’t bother to name him. “My sister liked the name Jimmy and I said ‘OK, call him that, who gives a fu—?’” Jimmy is said to live in an apartment—where addicts drift in and out, some jittery in their withdrawal, others in a drug haze—with his mother and Ron, her “live-in lover,” who is a drug dealer. It was Ron who first turned Jimmy, at age five, on to heroin. “I let him snort a little and, damn, the little dude really did get off,” Ron is quoted saying. Six months later, Jimmy was hooked. Cooke quoted Jimmy as| 161 | saying: “I felt like I was part of what was goin’ down.” Added Ron: “I don’t really like to see him fire up. But you know, I think he would have got into it one day, anyway. Everybody does. When you live in the ghetto, it’s all a matter of survival. . . . Drugs and black folk been together for a long time.” The story ends with Ron injecting the boy with heroin, and Jimmy climbing into a chair where he goes into a drug-induced nod. In 2,256 words, Cooke had written the ultimate black dysfunction story, replete with broken English, teenage pregnancy, immorality, hopelessness, and a sweeping indictment of every law-abiding African American in the “ghetto.” Rather than challenge the shallow portraits of inner-city life, which adjoins poor, working- and middle-class people of varying aspirations and inclinations, or offer a way out of mindnumbing despair, “Jimmy’s World” cemented in many minds the worst stereotypes of urban blacks. “Jimmy’s World” was not simply Jimmy’s, but that of the black urban poor. It was a dramatic story naturally destined for the front page of one of America’s greatest papers. The story was picked up by another three hundred papers across the country and throughout the world. “Jimmy’s World” turned out to be a fabrication that would forever haunt Cooke, the Post, and all of American journalism. But “Jimmy’s World” is not merely the story of a woman, journalism ethics, and an institution; it also helps illuminate a pervasive double standard that determines the disparate rewards and sanctions for black verses white journalists in the American news media. It is a persistent and stark double standard that places greater pressure on blacks to write negative stories on African Americans. “Jimmy’s World” also provides a window onto a routinely employed double standard that allows whites, but not African Americans, to overcome egregious journalistic transgressions. In all of the postmortems on “Jimmy’s World”—and there were many, including the Post’s candid ombudsman’s report published in its own paper—little attention has been paid to the role of race in the story’s creation, prominent display, awards, or in Cooke’s quick ascension at the Post. And in an industry in which the contributions of blacks have always been viewed skeptically, the rise and fall of Cooke reveals how indelibly etched in our psyches are the flagrant transgressions of black journalists, Double Standards and the “Double-Special Burden”| 162 | and how some are quick to translate them into an indictment of all black journalists. The Sunday that “Jimmy’s World” was published on the front page of the Washington Post, it immediately provoked suspicion in Washington’s overwhelmingly black community. Many district...


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