Thursday, October 8, 2009
It's Not News, It's FARK: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap as News by Drew Curtis
You all know FARK.com, right? What? You've never heard of it? I'm honestly and truly shocked - unless, of course, you've been away from the internet for the last ten years, in which case you may be forgiven. For the rest of you - SHAME!
FARK is a news aggregator website, though it differs from others in that it's entirely moderated. People submit stories that they think are interesting, add what they hope is a funny tag line or title, and see if it'll be green-lit to make the front page. Over the years, as FARK's audience has grown to make it one of the most influential websites out there, FARK has become a kind of go-to site for news and commentary, though probably not the erudite, level-headed commentary we all might want.
Whether site creator Drew Curtis intended it or not, FARK has become a de facto source of news for many people on the internet who are looking not so much for the top stories of the day, but for all the strange, cool, heroic and Florida-centered news that CNN claims to have too much dignity to run. Over its decade-long history, Curtis has seen thousands upon thousands of articles, moderated countless threads about the day's news and, therefore, believes he has a pretty good idea of how the mass media works.
In this book, Curtis uses his experience as a professional newshound to look at the trends in mass media, attempting to identify the reasons why there's so much irrelevant crap out there. We all know what he's talking about - the helicopter shots of motorcades, the Missing White Women, the shark attacks, internet predators and the top ten lists of household products that could kill you and your family. We've all seen this and asked, "Why are they bothering with this crap?"
According to this book, there's two big reasons: the endless, 24-hour news cycle and sheer human laziness.
There is only so much Real News in any given day, Curtis believes, and I agree with him. The question, of course, is "What is 'real news,'" and rather than try to determine what real news is, Curtis decides to explain what real news isn't. As for the rest, we'll know it when we see it.
Of the many ways that the mass media tries to fill time and space, Curtis points out seven major ones, my favorite being Media Fearmongering. I suppose I like this because it's just so obvious and so easy. Examples include the current hype over where to relocate the world-devouring supervillains from Guantanamo, the perennial articles about how hidden earthquake faults could kill us all, and the airplane crash stories. The recent crash of Air France 447 is an excellent example.
While it is certainly a terrible thing that the plane went down, and important to the families and friends of those who died on the plane, is it really a topic the needs a week of international coverage? 228 people died in that crash, and while it's not really fair to weigh one death against another, it is estimated that that many people die in car accidents every two and a half days in the United States. The same goes for suicides in Japan. So why does the media go nuts for a plane crash, but not for unsafe driving or suicide? My guess is that a plane crash is more spectacular, more mysterious and more likely to get people's attention. Reporting on the actual number of auto-related fatalities would hit too close to home. What's more, a plane crash story probably writes itself. Change a few names and numbers, and the reporting on one crash looks pretty much like every other. That combination of spectacle and sloth makes plane crashes a godsend for reporters and editors with time to fill.
Fearmongering in the media isn't harmless either. Last year, in the run-up to the activation of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, there were a lot of articles about whether or not the LHC would destroy the world. Rather than do some investigating, ask some experts and report back that it wouldn't, the media decided to teach the controversy. Matching another of Curtis' bad news categories, they gave Equal Time to Nutjobs who claimed that the work at the LHC would destroy the world. Rather than debunk the nutjobs, they played it for all it was worth, claiming that there actually was a controversy over the LHC, when in fact no such controversy existed.
One of the effects of this was the suicide of a girl in India, who believed in the end-of-the-world scenarios. She was sixteen years old, and the news convinced her that she and everyone she loved was going to die. Can we hold the mass media directly responsible for this girl's death? Only if we can hold them responsible for the other deaths their fearmongering has caused - and here I'm thinking of the "controversy" over whether vaccines cause autism. They don't, but it's more fun for people like Oprah Winfrey to pretend they do. And so kids die.
My other favorite Not News is Media Fatigue - what happens when the media eats itself. With twenty-four hours a day to fill, but without twenty-four hours of news to fill it, the competition for breaking news is incredibly fierce. The first network to report on a big story will basically own that story, and the other networks have to scramble to catch up. In that writhing, twisting nest of vipers, it's sometimes very hard for anyone to stop reporting on a story that has basically run its course - thus, media fatigue. Curtis has broken it down into five simple steps:
1. News breaks
2. Issue retractions
3. Talk it to death
4. Can't... stop... talking
5. Has The Media Gone Too Far?
By the time they stop focusing on the story and start talking about themselves, you can be pretty sure that you're seeing the end of it. Examples of Media Fatigue abound, and Curtis uses Dick Cheney's shooting spree and Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction as examples. Really, neither of these events were news of any import. Hunting accidents happen all the time, and Jackson's boob-flash was so quick and so low-def that most viewers didn't know they had seen it until they were told they had (and probably didn't know they should be outraged until there were told they should be). But both stories generated media storms that didn't blow out until way past their expiration dates.
The point is that while the concept of news on demand is good, the execution of it has been terrible. With networks talking about health care reform in the same breath as whether or not David Letterman made an inappropriate joke, it's hard for the audience to know what they should read and what they should ignore. While the news providers' position has always been 'We leave it up to the readers to judge what's important and what isn't," that flies in the face of what we all know about human nature: people can be really, really dumb. People don't have the time or the inclination to read every story, judge it on its merits and sort the wheat from the chaff, and to pretend otherwise reveals either a profound misunderstanding of human nature or a level of cynicism that makes me look like Pollyanna.
While it may seem all patriarchal, I think we do need someone to draw the line and say what is news and what isn't. I don't know who, or how, but someone should do it if only so that we can have a news source that we can trust to give us what we need to know. Put the Britney and Elvis stories in the tabloids - if we buy those, we know what we're getting - and leave the real news alone.
The book is a good, quick read, and while it's clear that Curtis may not have the academic or professional qualifications to be a media analyst, he has whatever the internet equivalent of "street smarts" is. He's snarky and cynical, in the mold of so many people whose job it is to sit back and observe society. You can only run a news-based site for so long without noticing some patterns. He also includes some of the stories featured on FARK and select comments from users, which are usually entertaining.
While Curtis believes that there may be a way to fix the media, he doesn't believe it'll ever be done. As a fellow cynic, I have to agree - it would be far too much work and cost far too many advertising dollars to whip things into shape. The current system, from the point of view of the media outlets, works, and there's no point in tinkering with it. Perhaps the much-prophesied Death of the Newspapers will help some - the local news outlet can be resurrected by a kind of local bloggers' co-op or somesuch. I'm sure there are people out there who follow the journalistic tradition of wanting to tell people what's going on. Unfortunately, those aren't the people that the media wants right now.
So give it a read, and keep your eyes open. When you see a story about something like "sexting" or whether Tom Cruise drinks puppy blood for breakfast, ask yourself - is this news, or is it just FARK?
"The real answer to Has The Media Gone Too Far? is yes, it goddamn very well has."
- Drew Curtis, It's Not News, it's FARK
It's Not News, It's FARK on Wikipedia
Drew Curtis on Wikipedia
It's Not News, It's FARK on Amazon.com
FARK on Wikipedia