I woke up this morning to the sad news that legendary musician Lou Reed had passed away. I was going to use this post to highlight some of the great music he had recorded over the years, but reading the coverage of his death made me realise that it also marked another sad event – the continued decline in the health of journalism.
Lou Reed’s story is one that really shouldn’t need any flim flam or fluff. He was intimately connected to Andy Warhol, one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century and was involved in a scene that took in pretty much a Who’s Who of 60s rock aristocracy. His debut album with The Velvet Underground is probably one of the most influential albums of the last half century.
Moving on he then helped to shape the Berlin sound of the 70s through his work with David Bowie as well as the album named after the city. Whilst his work rarely reached those heights again after that, his ongoing impact on the modern music scene is hard to overstate, and there were still some gems, including the magnificent Romeo Had Juliette from the album named after the biggest love of his life, New York.
So, there should have been plenty for journalists to include in their coverage of his death, particularly in papers and sites with decent artistic credentials such as The Guardian and Sydney Morning Herald. But instead they were both chock full of quotes taken from tweets. In the case of John Cale, Reed’s partner in crime from the Velvets, this at least has some relevance.
"The world has lost a fine songwriter and poet…I’ve lost my ‘school-yard buddy’ – john cale" http://t.co/8MZMNhkzvf
— John Cale (@therealjohncale) October 27, 2013
This is a man who knew Reed intimately, and was undoubtedly expressing a profound sense of loss.
But can someone please explain to me why on earth it matters what Whoopi Goldberg or Susan Sarandon are feeling about Reed’s death? Because the fact that both features in the Herald’s coverage surely means it has some wider meaning. And maybe they do; perhaps Goldberg was inspired to make unbearably overly-sentimental ‘comedies’ after hearing Reed singing about cross-dressers giving blow-jobs. But if so, a good journalist would provide that context.
The Guardian does little better. Whilst the celebrities it chooses to quote at least seem to have some connection to the musician, whether directly (David Bowie) or through the obvious influence he had on them (Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon) there are still a couple of randoms on there (celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain anyone?), it loses any Brownie points by simply reprinting reams of tributes from fans.
A few years ago I came across the word churnalism, which described the increasing tendency of journalists to simply paraphrase press releases and more or less reprint them word for word. It strikes me that we now need a similar word to describe the process of devolving the job of actually telling a story and simply rehashing others’ quotes from social networks. Maybe tweet-writing instead of type-writing? I don’t know, but my point remains the same.
It strikes me that the rise of clicktavism, where people can put off having to actually do anything by giving the appearance of activity through social media, has been mirrored by a similar rise in the desire to appear to be connected to a moment of sadness by telling everyone how sad you are. And I’d argue that rather devalues the feelings supposedly being expressed.
I should admit that I am guilty of both of these things myself. But then I am not a professional journalist, and I think it’s important that such people do something to separate the substance of the story from the style that surrounds it. Apart from anything else, Reed was such a disagreeable man that I can’t help thinking that he’d hate all of this secular canonisation, which is exactly what inspired my own tribute.