Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Remembering a Courageous Whistleblower

The program pays tribute to one of her first editors, Vivian Aplin-Brownlee, who recently lost her fight with leukemia.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Every now and again when I have something on my mind, I like to talk about it in a commentary. And today, I want to pay tribute to a former colleague of mine who recently lost her fight with leukemia.

Her name was Vivian Aplin-Brownlee, and the reason I put it that way - lost her fight - is not that I'm wedded to euphemisms, but rather that's how I think of her, as a scrappy, tough-as-nails editor with this little girl voice who could pull things out of you you never knew you had.

Vivian was one of my first editors when I got into the news business. I had been a summer intern at the Washington Post, just out of college. And at the end of the summer, I got an entry level job there - barely one step up from an intern, really - working for what was then a relatively new thing, a zoned edition of the metro section.

It was supposed to be hyper local - births of quintuplets, standout high school scholars, zoning disputes, that kind of thing. It was in tabloid form, an insert to the rest of the paper. I got the impression from my colleagues that we were supposed to think of ourselves as stepchildren to the rest of the paper, but Vivian was having none of that. No, her attitude was that she was running her own newspaper, and we had better snap to it.

Every day, she said, was a chance to get on the front page. Never mind that there were only two of us fighting for that weekly slot. We were expected to go out, beat the bushes, get a story and make it sing. Oh, and sit there and rewrite it and re-report it until it did. I appreciated Vivian because she was tough. She made it clear excellence was to be expected every day, but she was also supportive.

Once when a highly respected married senior newsman made a crude come-on to me and I have no idea what to do, she never doubted me for a minute and never made me feel bad for being so upset. Vivian became semi-famous because of her role in what had to be one of the most painful episodes of both of our careers - the Janet Cook scandal.

Cook was a young African-American female reporter who made up a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict in the district. She stuck to the lie all the way through her selection for a Pulitzer Prize, one of the industry's highest awards. Vivian smelled trouble right away. She knew that Janet was a fabulous writer, but a streetwise reporter she was not. She was afraid to go into parts of the city, so the idea that Janet could actually persuade a drug dealer so hard bitten he would shoot his kid up with drugs to let her write about him was laughable to Vivian.

Vivian tried to raise an alarm about the piece, but her superiors did not believe her. I'm not really sure why, but I think there were some suggestion that the glamorous young Cook was the target of professional jealousy.

Well, the rest, as they say, is history. Vivian was right. Janet Cook was a total fake - her story, her resume, even her weave.

Can I just tell you? I learned some of the most powerful lessons of my career. First, that racial solidarity cannot substitute for core values. Vivian could have kept her mouth shut so as not to embarrass another black woman, but she refused. The truth was more important. And then, when the truth finally did come out, Vivian told her story to the paper's ombudsman, and then she stopped talking about it. I never saw her give another interview about the whole mess, and I never heard her gloat.

If anything, she's thought the whole thing was tragic. Vivian was a class act. In a time when people get confused about what journalism is supposed to be about, Vivian was very clear it's about calling it as you see it - no more, no less.

Vivian Aplin-Brownlee taught me that. She died last week at the age of 61. I hope to be like her when I grow up.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues
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