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Journalism 101 

Dear Reactionaries: If you think the New Times merger spells trouble for local music, read this column

Wednesday, Nov 9 2005
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As my great-grandpappy used to tell me over tumblers of rye, his wispy beard blowing in the wind as bullets whizzed by (we hung out on battlefields), there comes a time in every columnist's life when he must rebuke a colleague or two. This is that time.

First, though, I would like to recognize that my subject -- SF Weekly's parent company, New Times, merging with and obtaining a controlling stake in Village Voice Media to manage 17 alt-weekly papers in this United States, and this move's effect on local music coverage -- is quite possibly very boring to you, and perhaps you would rather some of us just shut up about it or save it for our blogs. I feel your pain. But certain people have said certain things that must be examined, for they are false or misleading (strange, seeing as how they're coming from journalists) and affect this here music scene we care so much about. By way of compromise, dear reader, I will try to make the following as entertaining as possible by including the occasional joke. For example:

What has five arms and likes to eat pussy? The Indigo Girls and the drummer for Def Leppard.

Ahem.

In the past few weeks, in response to an Oct. 25 announcement by the aforementioned companies, writers of every stripe have been singing a chorus of doom and gloom. New Times, they insinuate -- or, in the case of venerable local hip hop scribe Jeff Chang, come right out and say -- is the "Clear Channel of alt-weeklies." San Francisco Chronicle columnist Neva Chonin used this quote from Chang in an Oct. 31 screed. The origins of many of these writers' ideas can be traced back to another alt-weekly in this town, whose name will not be mentioned but whose editor/publisher, it should be noted, looks a bit like Santa, vaingloriously enjoys sticking his face on news boxes citywide, and can't seem to spell my name right when he sends me personal e-mails that I think are meant to be taunting but which are really just kind of funny. (Ever get a letter from someone in prison? I have, and this is kind of like that.)

Since these tirades are essentially of a piece, we need only select and debunk one. For its achievement in the field of Bullshittery (second only to hacky sack in its bid to become an Olympic sport), I choose the Chonin.

Let me begin by saying that I've never met Chonin and have no opinions about her personally. She's probably totally nice. Also: What did God get for Christmas? Johnny Carson.

According to her rant, what matters to Chonin is "cutting-edge music, progressive politics, indie film." We will focus on the first item, clearly of great importance to the writer in question, as one might glean from a smattering of her recent reviews of "cutting-edge" scrappers like Coldplay, the White Stripes, and Destiny's Child. Chonin's insinuation is that coverage of "cutting-edge music" (which I'm leaving in quotes, because it takes a certain kind of writer to use those words with a straight face these days) is lacking in SF Weekly.

Now, I suppose if someone unquestionably believed the biased information disseminated by this paper's enemies (and what's a publication without its enemies?), one might hold such a belief. But if one were to read this music section, one would notice that it contains a kind of coverage not found anywhere else. Why, in this very issue Rick Rubin, Neil Diamond, local underground hip hop mixtapes (self-released, all of them), and a jazz artist who covers the Rolling Stones are sitting on the very same page! Taken together, this week's reviewed albums probably won't sell more than 10,000 copies, but our writers are reviewing them because they've got something to say about them, and that's really all we care about.

Excuse me for one second: What does a stripper do with her asshole before she goes to work? Drops him off at band practice.

Chonin refers to New Times' "bland template of syndicated reviews and articles." It's true that occasionally a talent from another paper writes something relevant to this city that I think our readership would appreciate and enjoy, so I include it in the section. This happens, oh, about once per 50 articles, most of which are written by local writers about local shows. For shits, take a look at the number of times the Chron runs a story from the AP and slaps it on its front page, or picks a columnist living in Texas for its editorial page. And while we're on the subject of hypocrisy, isn't the Chronicle owned by Hearst, a not-all-that-small corporation run out of New York City? And hasn't the Village Voice been owned by a succession of Big Bad Business Entities, including everyone's favorite media baron, Rupert Murdoch? That info would seem at least a little relevant in a column about this merger, wouldn't it? I guess not to Chonin, who declined to include it in her Memo of Justice.

Make no mistake: I'm not saying New Times is good because we're not Fox News. I'm simply saying that corporations are not inherently "good" or "bad"; they are complex. There's a component to this one, as with any business in the world, based on fiscal stability -- and that shit's ugly, period. You could smear just about any corporation, company, or mom-and-pop operation by focusing on the careful maneuvering that takes place with an eye toward the bottom line. Such a smear wouldn't tell you much about the taste of mom's cookies, or the quality of the writing in a newspaper.

See, it is the job of journalists -- and this is Journo 101, people! -- to unravel complex situations, like the merging of two newspaper chains, with a definitive level of intelligence and objectivity. When they spew empty platitudes based on unexamined and unsupported biases -- like, say, a predisposition to hating a paper they clearly haven't read in ages -- it's not just bad for the subjects they're writing about, it's bad for journalism, for the truth, for the very institutions these alarmists are rushing to aid.

What you, me, and Chonin should be worrying about here is simple: the writing. To examine the words in this music section is to understand that this paper is no more beholden to major-label top-40 superstars than it is to the struggling indie band on your block. What we write about and how is not determined in Phoenix or Denver. That is a fact, regardless of what Chonin and her ilk would have you believe. We welcome bands of all different kinds, with all different sounds -- many of which you'll read about here for the very first time -- but you'll forgive us if we kiss none of their asses.

It would appear that Chonin was unaware of any of this when she output, most robotically, her senseless, uninformed invective. And that, readers, is the biggest joke of all.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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