In the spring of 1996, disgraced Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke resurfaced after years in obscurity. Banished from journalism in 1981 after her Pulitzer Prize-winning story of an eight-year-old inner-city drug addict was revealed as a hoax, Cooke appeared on ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and asked the American public for forgiveness and a second chance. Koppel heard her confession and then turned to the cameras for his closing summation:
Some of you may wonder why what Janet Cooke did nearly sixteen years ago is still such a big deal to those of us in journalism. Many of you have such a low opinion of us anyway and are so convinced that we twist the facts, ignore the truth, make it up that you may think that we secretly revere Ms. Cooke as a role model.
Lord knows that we have all collectively and individually contributed over the years to that sad impression of what we do. But there must be certain basic standards. What's wrong with American journalism today won't be drastically affected by whether or not Janet Cooke is rehired. What we should do is fire everyone in the business who is as deliberately careless of the truth to- day as she once was. ( Ted Koppel, ABC's Nightline, May 10, 1996.)
It was a moment of great drama and solemnity. But is this really what is wrong with American journalism today? Are journalism's problems the fault of individuals within the news media who fail to live up to journalism's basic values? Can journalism's woes be cured by firing everyone who fails to live up to those standards? Or could the problem lie at least in part with the values themselves? Could it be that an increasingly irrelevant conversation within journalism about professional ethics distorts priorities and diverts the attention of both journalists and the public from the