Journalism and Ethics on the Stage

By Kim Campbell writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

Journalism and Ethics on the Stage


Kim Campbell writer of The Christian Science Monitor, 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.

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 question.

Interestingly, Wilson says she intentionally wrote the play so that the main character never utters the word "lie. …

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