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.
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 resume (also the start of
Cooke's problems) the story's veracity is more fully called into
Interestingly, Wilson says she intentionally wrote the play so
that the main character never utters the word "lie. …