In 1981, Janet Cooke was a Washington Post reporter who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning story of an eight year old heroin addict. She was eventually forced to return the prize, when when it was discovered that Cooke cooked the books and invented Jimmy out of whole cloth. (Walter Duranty’s Pulitizer is still on the books, incidentally.)
Asked about Cooke in an interview, new journalism pioneer Tom Wolfe replied:
It reminded me of when I first went to work on the New York Herald Tribune and they were still laughing over the ship-of-sin scandal from prohibition days. An informant had told the Herald Tribune that there was a ship of sin operating outside of a three-mile limit off of eastern Long Island. On board you could get liquor and dope and sex. So the Tribune sent a reporter out. He didn’t find the ship, but he did find a saloon in Montauk, and he phoned in about five days’ worth of the most lurid stories in the history of drunk newspapermen. Half of New York City gasped and the other half rushed out to eastern Long Island to rent motor launches, until it was discovered he had made up the whole thing. These things happen about every three or four years; some reporter gets caught piping a story out of his skull…Phony stories are going to be written every once in a while, so long as you give reporters the trust that you have to give them.
Especially when you send them down to New Orleans to report on the aftermath of a hurricane when there’s a conservative president in office.