Nik Cohn, one of pop writing’s greats, wrote the article which became the movie ‘Saturday Night Fever’. Published in New York magazine in June 1976 ‘The Tribal Rites of Saturday Night’ profiled a dancer named Vincent (immortalised by John Travolta as Tony Manero), a ‘face’ at the 2001 Odyssey discotheque in Bay Ridge. Cohn hung out with him for days and wrote it up in the tough New Journalism style popular at the time. Except Vincent didn’t exist. Twenty years later Cohn admitted that he was a ‘complete fabrication’. What had been presented as reportage from the youth-cultural front-line – right down to the pseudo-academic title and the bald introductory statement that ‘everything described in this article is factual and was either witnessed by me or told to me directly by the people involved’ – was fiction. ‘Not having been to a place never stopped me from describing it… Any more than not meeting someone stopped me talking about my interview with them.’
In the UK last month* it was discovered that award-winning journalist Johann Hari – who had met his very real interviewees – had been passing off words they uttered in other interviews and books as having been said directly to him. Hari’s borrowings caused a furore and a Twitter meme where the public imagined him interviewing historical figures and scooping all their most famous lines.
Context is the contract between writer and reader; we judge what is presented to us by where it’s located, how it’s categorized. But for both our campaigning journalist and subcultural correspondent a higher authenticity was paramount. Hari claimed what he was writing was more than mere interview, that he was doing a service to the figures he profiled by using their most well-turned phrases no matter where they came from (and implied that his readers were somewhat pedestrian for not getting that). Cohn – already a published novelist – chose rather to present his work not as fiction but fact – using journalism as a cover for his belief in the greater resonance of myth.
Hari – pushing the logic of our internet-assisted age to breaking point yet busted by a quick Google search – is currently suspended.** Cohn the trickster, the myth-maker, got away with it but eventually decided to confess anyhow (albeit when it was too late to matter). Great writers may believe that to lead us to higher truth they need to pull the wool over our eyes, but somehow they still want to be caught in the act of doing it.
*NB this article was written for Germany’s Groove magazine in July of this year. Since then Hari has also admitted that he had been editing his and others’ Wikipedia entries under the alias ‘David Rose’.
** After an internal enquiry Hari is currently on unpaid leave from the Independent but will be returning to work there in 2012.