A SHORT*, FRUSTRATED PIECE ON JOHANN HARI'S QUOTE DECEPTIONS
[*Yes, fine, it turned out to be quite long.]
Life is too short for me to spend it fact-checking Johann Hari. It’s too short for anyone else, too, which is why Hari gets away with it, I think. His new book Chasing The Scream, about the war on drugs, has now been published and is getting mainly positive reviews. High-profile journalists in Britain and the US want him to be rehabilitated, because - if I understand it correctly - he can write well and they generally agree with his politics. He still hasn’t given an account of which of his articles in a decade of work were finky and which weren’t, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Welcome back, Johann, and all that stuff you for some reason still haven’t owned up to properly is forgiven!
To calm even the most bleeding heart liberal who might feel a little queasy about letting a plagiarist and fabricator back into the fold, Hari and his publisher have created a website for the book, to which many of the audio clips for his interviews have been uploaded. So you can listen to them and see that he hasn’t fudged anything this time round. He’s reformed!
That’s the idea, anyway. In fact, he hasn’t reformed at all, but the simple act of his doing this has been enough for several people. Nobody is actually going to bother going through them. Bit too much like hard work. He’s put some audio clips up, so let’s simply presume that this proves he has done everything properly. As I laid out in my last frustrated post on Hari, he still hasn’t learned what quotes are - the precise transcription of someone’s words - but is fast and loose with others’ words and massages them into the message or narrative that he prefers. And the same applies to the quotes in his book. I spot-checked several dozen of the clips against the book. In almost all cases, words in quotes had been changed or omitted without being noted, often for no apparent purpose, but in several cases to subtly change the narrative. As many of these are minor, Hari knows it will be seen as pedantry if anyone points it out - but over the course of a book, it is a very revealing habit. I have my own work to do, but two detailed examples from one interview he conducted might get the idea across of this overarching problem in the book. I hope someone else will look deeper at it to see that this isn’t an isolated example, but simply Johann Hari’s continued methodology.
Here is how Hari introduces Chapter 5 of Chasing The Scream on the book’s website:
‘This is the story of Chino Hardin, a transsexual crack dealer in Brooklyn who was conceived when his mother, a crack addict, was raped by his father, an NYPD officer. Chino’s remarkable life – and the wider context I place it in – reveal, I hope, one of the most disastrous effects of the drug war in the real world. These interviews with Chino were conducted over three years, from 2011 to 2014.’
There’s plenty of interesting stuff in the chapter - I’m not saying Hari cannot write - but in putting up selected audio clips from his interviews with Chino, Hari shows how shoddy his journalism is. Throughout the book, Hari presents interviewees and himself as following a journey of discovery. (This is something he liked to do in his articles, too.) Here are two passages about Chino:
‘Until he was twenty-one, Chino regarded the drug laws as a force of nature, as uncontrollable and irrevocable as the weather. But then gradually, in stages, over time, he uncovered something that was buried with Henry Smith Williams but keeps stubbornly rising in the minds of people—that, as he puts it, “there’s nothing natural about this.”’
A few paragraphs later, we have Chino’s journey expressed more explicitly:
‘It began to occur to him over time that his story, Deborah’s story, Victor’s story—it didn’t have to happen this way. It wasn’t inevitable. What if it doesn’t have to keep playing out, generation after generation? What if there is another way?
On Chino’s block back in East Flatbush when he was a kid, there were no alcohol dealers selling Jack Daniel’s or Budweiser with a 9 mm Smith and Wesson at their side. Yet this happened—this exact process—when alcohol was prohibited in the 1920s. The government fought a war on alcohol, and this led inexorably to gangs tooling up, creating a culture of terror, and slaughtering as they went. I spent weeks reading over the histories of alcohol prohibition, and there it was—this story, repeating right through history. When the government war on alcohol stopped, the gangster war for alcohol stopped. All that violence—the violence produced by prohibition—ended. That’s why today, it is impossible to imagine gun-toting kids selling Heineken shooting kids on the next block for selling Corona Extra. The head of Budweiser does not send hit men to kill the head of Coors.
Chino begins to conclude there wouldn’t have been “the same culture of violence—absolutely not” if other drugs were brought back into the legal economy. “It wouldn’t be such an extreme culture of violence—a continuous culture of violence.”’
The fudging here is in the quotes from Chino. It might well be the case that Chino changed his views about the drugs war over time and that they came to resemble, well, precisely the same views Johann Hari has come to from his reading. But these quotes don’t show it, even though they’re designed to give readers the impression they do. ‘Chino begins to conclude...’ It’s in the present tense, but when does this refer to? It suggests, of course, a continuation of the logic two paragraphs before: ‘It began to occur to him over time that his story...’ Now we are leaping into that realisation in real time.
Let’s look at the audio on the website. Firstly, Hari hasn’t given us the whole tape uninterrupted, or several tapes, but snippets of interviews in which Chino says some of the quotes in the book. This means we don’t have a lot of the context for the interviews, although some of it is obvious – and shows how dishonestly Hari works. Let’s take the quote ‘there’s nothing natural about this’. Hari presents this as part of Chino’s gradual realization over many years, his uncovering of an idea that had been buried but ‘keeps stubbornly rising in the minds of people’. Actually, the audio clip in question strongly suggests Hari simply planted the idea in the mind of Chino:
‘Hari: So to make sure that what happened to you doesn’t happen to these kids, you know, doesn’t happen again – because, it doesn’t have to keep happening again, you know. It’s not like it’s like some law of nature, it’s not like, I don’t know, Down’s Syndrome or something that is just a thing that just happens naturally, it’s, you know, it’s a man-made thing, isn’t it, or, like, it’s not tsunamis or whatever.
Chino: Yeah, there’s nothing natural about this. I mean, it’s something that has been put in place for very strategic reasons. And we know those reasons, you know, we know those reasons: capitalism, we know it’s social control. We know all these reasons, but how that translates into our communities is sometimes very different, you know what I’m saying? Oppression is real. And not just insitutional oppression but internalized oppression and inter-personal oppression and how that plays out, you know? As much as... it’s kind of interesting because...’
And the tape stops there. Chino agreed with Hari that the drugs war is not natural but man-made - well, it self-evidently is - but did so in passing and immediately went on to talk about how the drugs war has been ‘put in place’ for ‘strategic reasons’, such as capitalism and ‘social control’. It’s hard to follow and conspiratorial, but not an especially surprising speech: it’s basically ‘The System is to blame’, albeit phrased more articulately and with some more tacked on. Hari left this out, perhaps because it would give the impression of Chino as a rambling drug-dealer railing against The Man, and instead quoted Chino saying ‘there’s nothing natural about this’. But it doesn’t look at all to have been the revelatory conclusion of years of thought on the matter having previously been convinced that the opposite was the case. It seems to be Chino simply stating to Hari what Hari has just stated to him and then moving on to state something else entirely. Hari started off with an emotional appeal to his question – how can we stop the suffering drugs brought to you coming to a new generation of children – and then stated that there was nothing preordained about such things happening as it is man-made rather than a law of nature. By simply agreeing with Hari’s self-evident statement that the drugs war is man-made rather than being a natural phenomenon like tsunamis, Chino was then quoted by Hari to come up with this:
‘Until he was twenty-one, Chino regarded the drug laws as a force of nature, as uncontrollable and irrevocable as the weather. But then gradually, in stages, over time, he uncovered something that was buried with Henry Smith Williams but keeps stubbornly rising in the minds of people—that, as he puts it, “there’s nothing natural about this.”’’
There’s nothing in the audio of the interview to suggest Chino ever regarded drugs laws as forces of nature as irrevocable as the weather and that, over time, he uncovered the idea that they weren’t natural. It looks more like Hari just picked out a bit from an interview with Chino that suited what he wanted him to have concluded, and which Chino said to him as a result of Hari suggesting it to him.
The other quote is similarly dishonest, and also relies on a leading question.
‘Chino begins to conclude there wouldn’t have been “the same culture of violence—absolutely not” if other drugs were brought back into the legal economy. “It wouldn’t be such an extreme culture of violence—a continuous culture of violence.”’
The ‘begins to conclude’ is again Hari presenting someone’s idea as though it has come from them, unprompted, as part of their journey of discovery. But again, the audio shows this is simply something Hari asking Chino for his view on, and Chino answering, agreeing with the very point Hari made and giving no indication it is part of a wider journey of discovery. For this audio clip, Hari misses out a bit beforehand, but the context strongly suggests he was putting forward the leading question of asking Chino if his life would have been any better if drugs hadn’t been criminalised. Chino says it might well have been.
‘Hari: You wouldn’t have been growing up, I don’t think – and tell me if you think I’m wrong – in the same culture of terror…
Chino: Yeah, in the same culture of violence, absolutely not. Nah. It’d have been less. I say violence... I’m not saying if the drug war ended today or tomorrow there’d be no culture of violence, it just wouldn’t have been such an extreme culture of violence – a perfect, you know, like a continuous culture of violence, you know what I’m saying?’
It’s not a particularly interesting idea: in effect, if there hadn’t been all the criminal violence over drugs there might not have been so much criminal violence. But through massaging the quotes and the context, Hari forges it into something that sounds like a revelation. When I say massaging, I don’t think he needed to have ‘a perfect, you know’ or some of the other stops and starts normal to speech, but Hari has not presented the quote honestly. Instead, he has dug into a passing comment to draw much greater significance from it. He has also changed significant words. For example: ‘It wouldn’t be such an extreme culture of violence’ is presented as a quote, but is not what Chino said on the tape. Hari changed the tense. Chino’s tenses in his quote are, admittedly, confused: he says if the drugs war ended today or tomorrow, there wouldn’t have been such an extreme culture of violence. Hari changes the tense in this part of the quote and uses the confusion to present Chino as drawing a much stronger conclusion than one hears in the clip. The question Hari posed to him was a hypothetical one about the past – if Chino had grown up in a world in which drugs were not criminalized, what would that have been like. In the book, he falsely presents Chino as saying this in the context of having come to conclusions as part of a personal journey over the question of ‘if other drugs were brought back into the legal economy’. That isn’t the context on the tape at all.
In both cases, Hari has twisted both what this interviewee said and the context in which he said it to hide his own leading questions, as well as to make it look as if the answers he got were part of a deeper realisation Chino had come to on a personal journey, rather than his simply agreeing with Hari’s leading questions. Hari presents off-the-cuff agreement with his own statements as evidence of his interviewee having gradually come to the same assumptions he has come to, as part of some deep struggle.
I think this is extremely shoddy practice, but it’s hard to explain without looking like a pedant. These aren’t two isolated examples, though – almost all of the clips I listened to had problems along these lines. Explaining them all would be time-consuming and tedious. And unfortunately, I suspect there are also other journalists who misrepresent and alter quotes like this to make them dramatically say what they want them to, and if you’re such a journalist you then won’t see the problem here, clearly. It’s not plagiarism, after all, and even that doesn’t seem to have mattered. Hari knows this, knows nobody really cares or will listen to the audio in depth – and so he gets away with it. I’d urge you to think instead how one can really trust the conclusions of a journalist who pursues their confirmation bias like this, and who is also so arrogant as to put up the evidence for it for everyone to see.