Once upon a time, there was an unwritten rule for reporters who tried to pass off bogus stories on their superiors and the public. Once discovered, these disgraced journalists were permanently exiled from the news business, based on the quaint notion that they could never again be trusted to report the news.
It was an unforgiving standard, but it had its merits, as typlified by the case of former Washington Post staff writer Janet Cooke. After being forced to return her Pulitzer for a story on a non-existent, eight-year-old heroin addict, Ms. Cooke became a journalistic pariah, unable to find even entry-level work in her chosen profession. When a magazine writer caught up with Ms. Cooke in the mid-1990s, she was working as a department store clerk in the Midwest, living in a small apartment and riding the bus to work.
Sadly, times have changed. Barely two years after she was fired for assembling a phony story on President Bush’s Air National Guard service, former 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes has landed a new gig, working for Dan Rather’s new show on the HDNet Channel, which debuts next month. As Paul Mirengoff at Powerline observed, the good news is that virtually no one will be watching. The bad news is that someone–even a fledgling cable network–is again entrusting Ms. Mapes to report the news. Ms. Mapes says she’s “thrilled to be on board,” and working for a channel that wants to “break news and have some fun breaking balls.”
We can only shudder at the potential “exclusives” Ms. Mapes will come up with in her new position. The Thornburgh-Boccardi investigation into the fraudulent 60 Minutes report painted a damning picture of a producer run amok, a journalist who ignored the fundamental rules of fact-checking and verification in an effort to rig a story–and unseat an incumbent President.
In days past, Ms. Mapes might be checking the help wanted ads for the local Dillard’s or Nordstrom’s, but obviously, those days are long past. Her old/new boss, Dan Rather, sees nothing wrong with Ms. Mapes’ professional standards and ethics. He’s probably tickled pink to have her back on board as well. The billionaire owner of HDNet, Mark Cuban, apparently has no objections, either. On with the ball-breaking.
If Rather is looking for a reporting team to round out his staff, perhaps we could recommend some other folks who’ve played fast-and-loose with the truth. I’m sure that former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair would be happy to sign on, as would disgraced New Republic reporter Stephen Glass. And for good measure, the CNN producer team for the bogus “Tailwind” report could be recruited as well. Sounds like a veritable “dream team” for Rather’s latest journalistic venture.
As for Ms. Cooke, she was clearly ahead of her time. Had she waited a bit longer to write “Jimmy’s World,” she might have landed a lucrative book and movie deal, and not a job behind the cosmetics counter.
After finishing this post, I was reminded that Cooke did, indeed, profit from her fraud. Not long after Mike Sager’s GQ article on Cooke appeared in 1996, a Hollywood studio bought the rights to her story for $1.6 million, divided between Sager, Cooke (55%) and their agents. .