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The 1960s and early-1970s was a socially-turbulent period in American history, with the staid conservatism that characterized the 1950s swept aside by the political transformations taking place in the United States. The war in Vietnam and the counterculture environment that took shape in many American cities, characterized by the use of recreational drugs, protests against the war and for civil rights, a lessening (some would say total destruction) of American social mores, and the developing split in the post-World War II consensus regarding foreign policy, presaged a major transformation in journalism. While this transformation had already begun with the publication of such novels as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the social and political turbulence associated with the war in Vietnam and continued racial tensions fostered a new kind of journalism. It was in that context that Joan Didion was writing the essays that would eventually be compiled in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
The cynicism that was pervading American politics and culture was manifesting itself in a journalism steeped in skepticism regarding government and society. Hunter S. Thompson’s journalistic accounts of the decidedly anti-social outlaw motorcycle gang Hells Angels (Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs ), of the degradation of American society embodied in the growth of Las Vegas (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream ), and of the morally ambivalent nature of American politics (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ), and David Halberstam’s indictment of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations’ conduct of the war in Vietnam (The Best and the Brightest  were all representative of the cynical approach the Fourth Estate had adopted regarding government and politics. The relationship between reporters and their editors on the one side and government officialdom on the other had turned decidedly bleak, and Didion’s collection of essays fit perfectly into this mold. In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion shattered, at least for a while, the notion of a press willing to blindly report what it was told by government press offices, and that it was the virtuous and principled institution many believed it to be:
“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” [Emphasis in original]
Didion’s portraits were reflections of this cynicism. In her essay Lifestyles in the Golden Land, she excoriates those who settled California’s San Bernardino Valley:
“This is the California where it is easy to Dial-a-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal of Double Indemnity [a 1944 film noir in which a beautiful, conniving woman conspires with an unethical insurance company official to murder her husband and collect on his life insurance policy], the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down a waltz-length white wedding dress, and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debby and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers school.”
That’s a seriously jaded look at an otherwise innocuous region of little interest to anyone outside the Valley’s confines. Didion’s harsh observations, however, reveal a kind of journalism shorn of the idealism of an earlier, more innocent era (an era that never actually existed, anyway). Along with her colleagues, such as the inventor of Gonzo journalism, the chroniclers of LSD-infused escapades, and the reporters of a war characterized by lies and deception, Didion did introduce and institutionalize a new form of journalism. And, this was years before Watergate and the disgrace of a president.
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