Q&A with Scott Johnson

Scott Johnson led Newsweek's Baghdad bureau during the Iraq War, reported on the collapse of Zimbabwe and pursued the notorious killer Joseph Kony through the jungles of central Africa. Since then he’s been reporting on another place roiled by violence: the Californian city of Oakland. In The Ghost in the Cell, published by MATTER last month, Scott tells the story of an Oakland family riven by generations of trauma, and examines the science that may help explain why crime and violence persists in the environment around them.

Earlier this week we asked readers if they had any questions for Scott. Here are a selection, together with his replies. We’ll post a couple more tomorrow.

From Erin Peterson: You make a case about the biology of violence and trauma through generations by sharing the compelling story of a single family. Yet the ideas you hope to illustrate through this story are — as you acknowledge — controversial. Can you talk about how you feel about balancing good storytelling and being honest about the science, especially when one side of the story has such a good narrative associated with it?

Scott: First and foremost, you have to be ethical and honest in your reporting and writing. If you’re reporting a story with a heavy science component, like this one, you can’t try to make the science “fit” with an irrelevant narrative.

In this case, I didn’t have to worry because I was interested in the biology of transgenerational violence, and I found a family where transgenerational violence was a problem. But you also can’t shy away from difficult or controversial subjects — anything having to do with the idea of inheritance, for instance, is bound to be controversial — simply because it might ruffle some feathers.

We took care not to come to any grandiose conclusions about the woman we profiled. What we did do is raise some questions and give voice to scientists who themselves hypothesized about the nature of inheritance and what the implications might be for people like Yokia Mason, the subject of our story. So, yes, it’s a fine line. But I think if you keep asking yourself the questions you know your readers will also be asking, it’s easy to stay both curious and intellectually honest while also doing good journalism.

Brandon Desiderio: I'm a student journalist interested in pursuing an international career. I'm especially passionate about human rights, and the goings-on in warzones — basically, your entire career. Can you share with us the more personal journey which led you to pursue such a career? What's your perspective on the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War? What's your take on how it's being reported, highlighted? What's missing?

Scott: Well, there’s a lot to say about all of this. If I may, I might suggest you read my forthcoming book. It’s called “The Wolf and the Watchman,” and it comes out on May 20th, though you can pre-order it now. I mention it because I go into some detail about all of these questions — how I became a journalist and why I chose to focus on conflict zones, for at least part of my career. In my case it’s a rather long story, having to do in part with my father’s line of work — he was a spy — and in part my own curiosity about human nature and so forth. But it’s all in the book!

As for the Iraq war, I admit that the whole sorry saga is kind of disappointing. It feels sometimes almost like it didn’t happen, and it certainly feels like the country has sort of forgotten about it, despite all the recent anniversary packages and so on.It’s a historic event that I think most people would rather just forget about. Of course, some of that is because it was so painful for so many people and lingering on the wounds is itself difficult. But I also think it’s just part of how we think about things in this country -- events consume our collective attention for a while and then, suddenly, they no longer do.

In terms of the reporting, there’s plenty missing, too much in fact to go into here, but perhaps some of that will be recorded for posterity in books and longer examinations down the road. I hope so. I would hope to see more projects documenting the voices of ordinary people — Americans and Iraqis — who were affected by the war. If you haven’t seen the play “Aftermath,” I recommend it. I’d like to see something similar done about US vets as well.

Ghost in the Cell is available for 99c at the MATTER website and on Amazon.