Hot Air: Joan, Janet & J-school 101

Joan Didion made her bones with the publication of her groundbreaking series of magazine articles that were eventually collected in a book describing the wild and woolly, the groovy and the far-out California of the Sixties.

The book was called Slouching Towards Bethlehem and was published in 1968. One of the essays in the book takes the reader into San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the locus of burgeoning hippiedom and headquarters for 1967’s “Summer of Love.” Didion writes of visiting a very young mother and her five-year-old daughter. The little girl, it turns out, is tripping on LSD, given to her by her parents. Didion presents the scene in the detached manner of the professional journalist. In later years it’d be learned that Didion was repulsed by much of what she saw in the Haight. But her reporting style demanded she allow the reader to come to her or his own moral conclusions. The piece is a staple of J-school courses on maintaining objectivity in non-fiction writing.

Didion, now 82, is the subject of a new documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. Her recollection of the little girl on acid scene serves as the exclamation mark of the film.  Here’s a description of the scene from writer Rebecca Mead in a recent New Yorker piece:

Dunne asks Didion what it was like, as a journalist, to be faced with a small child who was tripping. Didion, who is sitting on the couch in her living room, dressed in a gray cashmere sweater with a fine gold chain around her neck and fine gold hair framing her face, begins. “Well, it was . . .” She pauses, casts her eyes down, thinking, blinking, and a viewer mentally answers the question on her behalf: Well, it was appalling. I wanted to call an ambulance. I wanted to call the police. I wanted to help. I wanted to weep. I wanted to get the hell out of there and get home to my own two-year-old daughter, and protect her from the present and the future. After seven long seconds, Didion raises her chin and meets Dunne’s eye. “Let me tell you, it was gold,” she says. The ghost of a smile creeps across her face, and her eyes gleam. “You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

And we wonder why a lot of people despise journalists.

It would follow, then, that the journalists milling around outside the emergency room at Parkland Hospital that sunny November Friday afternoon 54 years ago were nudging and winking at each other because, they too, were witness to news gold. Same thing when the 33 bodies were dug up from under John Wayne Gacy’s house. And how about those journalists who watched the World Trade Center towers collapse?

Great times, no?

Reminds me of the case of former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke. She’d written a piece in September, 1980, entitled “Jimmy’s World,” the tale of an eight-year-old heroin addict. Cooke described in stunning detail Jimmy’s horrifying home. He’d been, she wrote, addicted to junk since he was five. Here’s a graf from the story:

Jimmy’s is a world of hard drugs, fast money and the good life he believes both can bring. Every day, junkies casually buy herion from Ron, his mother’s live-in-lover, in the dining room of Jimmy’s home. They “cook” it in the kitchen and “fire up” in the bedrooms. And every day, Ron or someone else fires up Jimmy, plunging a needle into his bony arm, sending the fourth grader into a hypnotic nod.

The nation was aghast. And Cooke and the Post reaped the highest award journalists can win in this holy land — the Pulitzer Prize.

Only it was all a lie. Cooke had fabricated the story. That one and, it turned out, several others. She was forced to return her award and has since left journalism. On the other hand, her talents certainly lie elsewhere, as the poet Gabriel Garcia Marquez observed: “[I]t was unfair that she won the Pulitzer Prize, but also unfair that she didn’t win the Nobel Prize in Literature.” Some 16 years later, Cooke sold the rights to the story of her “story” to Tri-Star Pictures for a cool $1.6 million.

Like Didion said, it was gold.


My journalistic idol, Mike Royko, reacted strongly to the Cooke fiasco. He speculated about how the Post editors read the story and, presumably, rubbed their hands together in greedy glee, thinking they had a real winner here. In the story, Cooke wrote that she called the kid “Jimmy” because she’d sworn to protect the identities of him and his caretakers, as well as all the other adults in the room in exchange for access. Post editors, Royko rightly noted, played along with the agreement because it was more important to them to have a blockbuster story than to, perhaps, rescue an eight-year-old from living hell. Royko wrote:

I’ll tell you what I would have done if I had been the editor and a young reporter came to me with that same story. I would have said something like this:

I want the name of the kid now. I want the name of the mother. I want the name of the guy giving the kid heroin. We’re going to have that sonofabitch put in jail, and we’re going to save that kid’s life. After we do that, then we’ll have a story.

But would it be gold?

Shayne In Spain

Should you find yourself around a copy of the current Ryder magazine (dated Oct. 9 to Nov. 20), pick the danged thing up and check out Shayne Laughter‘s piece on her fabulous jaunt into Spain this past summer.

The lucky dog, she’d hooked up with some kind of English-language immersion program for adult Spaniards so, for two weeks in July, she held court at some sweet digs — a luxe hotel in Madrid as well as some venerable castle out in the Iberian boondocks.

Apparently, the gig is open to all who fancy themselves fair teachers of our tongue, have the spare couple  of weeks, and can pop for the trans-Atlantic round-trip fare.

The whole shebang sounded like a hell of a lot of fun.

[MG Note: The piece hasn’t been posted yet on the Ryder website so you’ve got to go old school and find a hard copy.]


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