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'A Thousand Braying Asses': Kim Gordon & Churnalism's Busy Sewer
Paul Tucker , April 24th, 2013 07:50

This week's sensationalist reframing of a nuanced profile of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon to focus entirely upon her split from Thurston Moore, writes Paul Tucker, cast light on a wider problem

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On Monday I clicked on a tweet that linked to Elle writer Lizzy Goodman's profile of Kim Gordon. Goodman's piece made for an excellent read, covering many topics including Gordon's childhood growing up in LA, her views on the destructive power of art and music ("Punk rock was tongue-in-cheek, saying, 'Yeah, we're destroying rock.' No-wave music is more like, 'NO, we're really destroying rock.'"), her admiration of Hillary Clinton ("She's a living embodiment of being pro-women") and, crucially, her divorce from Thurston Moore.

I say crucially not because the piece centres on it (Far from it in fact, Goodman's coverage of the split is notably understated, and as music journalist Laura Snapes pointed out in her tweet, the article is engaging "more for the general "Kim Gordon is a life force" parts rather than the details of what happened with Thurston Moore"), but rather because of its prominence in the coverage of the piece that soon began to pop up on my Twitter feed.

The thing about Kim Gordon's account of her break up with Thurston Moore is that does contain ingredients that make it ripe for sensationalism – Affair! Younger Girl! Interloper in the Sonic Youth circle! Lying Husband! Jilted Wife! etc – should editors choose to make that leap. And so it proved, as music website after music website soon reported on the Gordon-Moore breakup in exactly those sort of exclamatory tones, completely ignoring the fact that the article focused on Gordon as a modern feminist hero rather than an abandoned wife. In an example that showed particular disinterest in the majority of Goodman's article, the Brooklyn Vegan blog tweeted a link to their coverage of the article under the title 'Kim Gordon Tells Why She And Thurston Moore Are Divorcing And Stuff'.

While admittedly Moore and Gordon's split did come as something of a shock to many – not least because it seemed to herald the end of, in Sonic Youth, one of the most important alternative music/modern art projects of the past thirty years – how well does it reflect on music journalism that the most sensationalist facts of one well-written, well-informed piece (commissioned, with actual money no doubt, by Elle) can be skimmed off to create a headline for a hundred other websites?

This case, while not identical, isn't a million miles away from the kind of reporting that presented novelist Hilary Mantel's nuanced and lengthy speech on the unenviable role of royal women ("We don't cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them") as a blunt and vicious smear on England's newest rose, Kate Middleton. It would be a huge exaggeration to say the repurposing of Elle's Kim Gordon piece displayed the same wilful dishonesty as the Mantel case. Nonetheless, it does smack of laziness and mediocrity.

Like Mantel, Lizzy Goodman put the hours in. She conducted research, drew on previous meetings with Gordon, sat and spoke with her (presumably at some length) and then went away and wrote the piece for Elle. And then, hungry for content, content, content, the music website community scrambled to reproduce a small part of it, as if it was some kind of scoop. This sort of thing is not reporting, it's selective cutting and pasting.

Like the pieces it spawns, this practice is everywhere. When I first started writing for music websites, one of them offered to let me work on their news section. This opportunity excited me – not only was I being offered an outlet for my own writing, I was also being given an opportunity to exercise my journalistic muscles. A few minutes later, however, links to two existing news stories that had recently been published on other sites landed in my inbox. 'Just rewrite these for us and send them back when you can,' said the email. 'Why?' I thought – 'What is the point?'

Elsewhere, editors send press releases to writers asking, "Will you write this up?", the subsequent rewrites are then picked up by other editors, writers rewrite the rewrites and so it goes on until, barely transformed and rarely investigated further, a single snappily written press release has become news, featured on the front page of every website whose readership might have a vague interest in its contents.

This is the sort of detrimental practice that people like Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh have rallied loudly against in science journalism. It might seem odd to bring up science reporting at this point – no doubt the efficacy (or otherwise) of certain cancer drugs is infinitely more crucial than whether or not Jai Paul's debut album has leaked – but regardless of the subject matter, journalism without a basic and objective curiosity is not journalism at all. As mentioned earlier, there may be no major dishonesty being demonstrated by publications in the case in question – but neither is what they are doing any good.

In his satirical poem 'The Dunciad', Alexander Pope decries the mediocrity that he sees in the publishing world of 18th century London. New printing methods mean that many more people are suddenly able to print and reprint work without resorting to methods that are prohibitively expensive or even legal. In Pope's London, the resulting cultural stagnancy is reflected by rivers of effluence that flow down the streets.

Meanwhile, London's booksellers and publishers vie for attention by taking part in contests: which bookseller can urinate the highest; which political hack can make the biggest splash by diving into a ditch full of the city's faecal matter ("Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes around / The stream, be his the Weekly Journals, bound"), and so on. Amid these scatological scuffles are the writers, wailing en-masse with no other purpose than to see which can create the loudest racket. The result? "Now thousand tongues are heard in one loud din/ The Monkey mimics rush discordant in." Sound familiar?

Admittedly things are not, nor have they ever really been as bad as all that; Pope was a conservative figure, and something of a snob. Almost 300 subsequent years of novels, poetry and journalism, as well as countless other published forms, prove him to be wrong. The thing is, Pope was wrong because enough people put those newly available tools to good use, and many of today's publications are doing the same with the tools of our time. But by resorting to the kind of methods that see exemplary reportage reduced to a torrent of sensational headlines about a person's marriage breakdown, we all risk drowning in effluence of our own creation.

Jon
Apr 24, 2013 12:09pm

Great article and great point - the Kim Gordon piece was great in that we did get a rather deep insight on many subjects with a fairly withdrawn but highly influential musician. It's too bad what it was reduced to by so many other outlets - often similar to when other sites advertise an exclusive or first listen of an album stream or track only to have a link to the true site where the stream is.

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arbiter_of
Apr 24, 2013 12:41pm

Thank you for the sanity. In the age of the muscle-memory retweet and 'Add to Cart' activism, the call for better in Journalism must always sound.

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Claudia
Apr 24, 2013 1:03pm

Great article

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Anonymous
Apr 24, 2013 1:03pm

An interesting take on the manner in which stories are excerpted, twisted, decontextualized, misunderstood, and tweeted for their gossipy tidbits. I agree that it casts a pretty negative light on the way other media outlets will grab onto the most sensationalist aspects of a story in order to create attention-grabbing headlines. But surely that isn't news to anyone who follows modern media/communications? That the repurposing of original stories rarely goes beyond surface content should come as no surprise to anyone and doesn't really seem worthy of its own story.

More importantly though, I find it surprising that Paul gives the Elle article such an easy pass. Although I appreciated the pro-women slant and the focus on Kim as an incredibly striking example of a positive force in the art world, the writing (in the Elle piece) is terrible. I've seen better high school level journalism. Even worse, it strikes me as decidedly anti-feminist in spots (see the description of Coco's room as "refreshingly girly" as but one example). I suppose we should not expect more from Elle, but do we really need so much content on Kim's clothing, her eyeliner, what she's drinking, etc? And then most tellingly of all, why should Goodman bother dragging Kim and Thurston's split through such mud in the first place? I find it appalling that she thinks we need to know such details. And surely Goodman was savvy enough to know that her article would garner such widespread interest precisely because of those gory details, and not because of her take on Kim's philosophy and approach to life. I can only imagine Kim reacting to this piece with horror, wondering how her words got twisted so, and asking what gave Goodman the right to pry into personal matters in such an obvious attention-seeking way. I'm not impressed at all with Goodman's "journalism", nor Tucker's sideswiping of the issues raised here. May Kim and Thurston and all others involved get on with their own lives free of our nosy attention.

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Eric Schmidt
Apr 24, 2013 1:31pm

I blame SEO for all of this .

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Apr 24, 2013 1:33pm

In reply to Anonymous:

I'm sure she knew any details she gave on the divorce would be included in the article...

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Anonymous
Apr 24, 2013 2:05pm

As a student studying music journalism, this practice of re-writing news stories is actively encouraged by our teachers. It's soul destroying to say the least but seen as a necessary evil in the furious drive for content.
Solid article and very relate-able to young writers such as myself who are trying their best not to be disillusioned by the workings and practices of the Music Journalism industry.

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Bob
Apr 24, 2013 2:44pm

Running the main news points of a longer article in a journalistically sound and correctly credited manner alongside a wider range of original stories and articles doesn’t really feel like a problem to me as it brings the ‘news’ to a wider issue (and Kim Gordon would be aware her quotes on her divorce were newsworthy). To be fair to Brooklyn Vegan or are mentioned, they do run a wide range of original articles, and this sort of story is the exception rather than the rule.
What's more troubling for journalism is your well-made second point. Too many so-called 'online music magazines' are currently little more than barely rewritten press releases, barely rewritten stories by other people and music streamed from record labels. Where is the journalism, criticism or origination? And more worryingly, what happens when a story that seems too good to be true drops into their laps? Without the faculty to question the facts it's becoming all too frequent that bogus music stories are widely reported as fact before anyone thinks to ask, 'is that right?'. Doesn't really bode well for the wider future of musical journalism...

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ca
Apr 24, 2013 3:57pm

people lead with the divorce because it's a) new information and b) relevant to the break up of sonic youth. the rest of the article is good, but it's just about a person. who cares about a person?

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julio
Apr 24, 2013 6:06pm

concerning this article: there's a thing on internet articles that is abscent on print media. it's called 'tagging'. it' a term that comes from library science, where each item on a library or archive receives 'tags'/'descriptors' - words or expressions who will make it easy for users or staff to locate the material who is more in line with the needs of an certain research. in this case, if i was to tag THIS article for any future researcher, the term 'divorce' would come after 'kim gordon'and'sonic youth' in the descriptors' list,much before 'feminism', for certain. and elle is a magazine about 'feminine issues', which means her divorce and reaction to this is part of what they cover. dont wanna play devil's advocate here, but the girl did what a 1000 music mags couldn't cause they would have no justificative, did it well and as i see, spot on and with a general respect for her subject (ask myself if they tried to call thruston about kim's declarations later to have both sides on...i think that they did, or they would have received news from his lawyer by now).
facebook? twitter? their biz is gossip, most of their user are on to vent themselves to the world, they did on this what anyone would expect. and music sites - the article above included - are simply printing the answer to 'the question who is not our of our bussiness' now that it's public. it's a ugly part, but part of their job anyway...
for my, any part don't lesser itself for this: kim, the journalist, network users, music media. one person said something she think is important to her life now, it was a detail but one we never knew, it got bigger than the sum of all she said. sad in more than one way? yes. but nothing out of normal.

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Apr 24, 2013 6:08pm

the reason people care about the divorce is because Kim Gordon's value to most resides solely in her involvement with Sonic Youth. Any info on the divorce would provide information on the potential future of the band.

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julio
Apr 24, 2013 6:26pm

In reply to ca:

sorry, but it's important data about this person life, in what concern to the world in general, if we think that being a member of SY is the main reason why she became a fashion/ feminist/ inspirational icon in first place. i doubt that future biographies of the band will just skip this issue, 'cause, let's be real, this information OF EXTREME IMPORTANCE TO THE HISTORY of the band. they broke up 'cause of this. maybe it would not be talked about for a long time, but someday someone would ask, and i think i'd rather hear about it from kim's mouth(will thruston talk about it later?) than from some third part 5 years from now in page 346 of the someone's book. or you think that this outcome would give more 'dignity' to this information?

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pat
Apr 24, 2013 7:04pm

So...it's not that Gordon was indiscreet or undignified in bringing up her domestic problems in a high-profile interview - the problem is that other media outlets reported what she said?

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Hervaise
Apr 24, 2013 8:54pm

Er, that's called disapproving of something so you can write about it. But don't worry you're in good company. It's what the daily mail do

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Hervaise
Apr 24, 2013 8:55pm

Er, that's called disapproving of something so you can write about it. But don't worry you're in good company. It's what the daily mail do

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Walter Winchell
Apr 25, 2013 3:49am

Wake up! Kim ** intended ** to shame Thurston and rightly so, though I wish more people would cop to how lame his solo music and new fake "band" are.

No shame in relationships ending, of course, but it's obvious Thurston & his inane world's oldest teenager schtick playthemselves this time.

The big question is who does Eva Prinz hop to next when the bloom comes off this turd too.

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Adam daniels
Apr 26, 2013 12:20pm

Wonderful piece!

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Otto
Apr 27, 2013 4:34pm

What part of the article was the most interesting for you?

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