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Black Sky Thinking

'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

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.