It's Not News It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap as News
Fark is what fills space when mass media runs out of news. It's not news, it's Fark. Fark is supposed to look like news... but it's not news.
There is an ancient (supposed) Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." Let's face it, interesting times suck. Whenever Mass Media is really fulfilling its intended purpose, generally something bad is going on. Wars, blown elections, bad weather, you name it -- when people need to know something, it's probably because it's likely to kill them. We'd be much better off living in non-interesting times.
This presents a problem for Mass Media, however, when we are not living in interesting times. This has been further compounded by the advent of twenty-four hour news channels and the Internet as a news source. Back in the days when TV news concentrated most of its resources on one half-hour blocks of news, finding material to fill the time slot wasn't difficult. Nowadays cable news networks have to scramble to have something to talk about for twenty-four hours a day, even when nothing of important is going on. Sales departments are still selling advertisements, after all. Mass Media can't just run content made entirely of ads (with the possible exception of the Home Shopping Network). Something has to fill the space.
Over the years Mass Media has developed several methods of filling this space. No one teaches this in journalism school; odds are Mass Media itself hasn't given much thought to the process. It's a practice honed over the years by editors and publishers, verbally passed down from one generation to the next. They're not entirely aware they're doing it, although the media folks who read advance copies of this manuscript all had the same reaction: "I've been saying we should stop doing this for YEARS."
Let's get this one out of the way: Fark.com isn't a Weblog. Mass Media has categorized Fark.com as a blog, but it's not. The word Weblog seems to have been defined by Mass Media as anything news-related that is not Mass Media. If you asked them, they'd tell you a weblog was everything from sites actually producing news commentary, to guys in their pajamas talking about what they ate for dinner. Some so-called Weblogs have offices and employees. When did we stop calling these magazines? The only difference is the lack of a hard copy print version of the Web site.
Fark.com the Web site is a news aggregator - an edited social networking news site. Every day Fark receives 2,000 or so news submissions from its readership. I pore over them and decide what to put up on the Web site; usually this is based on how funny the submitted tagline is more than anything else. The tagline is essentially the article headline rewritten into a one line joke by the submitter that attracts readers to the article link. For example: original headline -- "Brain Power." It's an article about how species with larger brains need to consume more food to power their brains. Fark tagline -- "Study shows the bigger your brain, the more energy you consume. This explains how Paris Hilton can survive on a diet of alcohol and semen." As you can see, the end result is much improved and sometimes more accurate.
Fark isn't an acronym. It doesn't mean anything. The idea was to have the word Fark come to symbolize news that is really Not News. Hence the slogan "It's not news, it's Fark." It never caught on. So it goes.
Fark was originally a word I became known for using online back in the early 1990s. Damned if I can remember why. I think it was either to replace another F-word or I was just drunk and mistyped something. I tell everyone it was the former; it's a better story that way.
I lived in Great Britain my junior year of college. In Nottingham to be exact. When I returned from the United Kingdom in 1994, few people had an e-mail address. My friend Phil had one until he left university, after which we switched to snail mail to keep contact. Being average guys, we were horrible at keeping in touch via snail mail. For a while we were trading letters, probably once every six months - and that's being generous. I spent the mid-1990s starting an Internet Service Provider (ISP) from scratch. Phil spent at least part of the nineties volunteering for medical experiments for cash. He really did. I'm not sure which of us came out ahead on our respective ventures.
Fark.com initially sprang to life from the back-and-forth correspondence Phil and I sporadically sent each other. I have no idea when it started, but I began dropping in the occasional weird news story from America. One of the first ones I remember, if not the actual first one, was a news story about a fighter plane crash over New Mexico or Nevada. The crash was caused when one of the pilots, flying within feet of another jet as air force pilots do when on maneuvers or invading other countries' airspace, took off his flight suit to moon the other pilot. They were high enough up that he lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen and crashed.
In the summer of 1997, I remember having a conversation with another friend, Mike, who ran the servers and other equipment for the ISP and still runs the servers for Fark. He made a comment about how all the four-letter domain names were disappearing quickly. On a whim I checked to see if Fark.com was available. It was, so I grabbed it.
At the time the only thing you could do with a Web site was put up what was then called a "vanity site." This was almost all the Internet consisted of back in 1997. Think of vanity sites as poorly coded MySpace pages. Yes, MySpace pages look pretty bad, but these were worse. I didn't want to use the Fark.com domain name for a vanity site, so I decided to wait until I had a better idea.
A year and a half later in February of 1999 I had two ideas. One was to build an Indian curry recipe database. There's still only one good curry database on the Internet, Death By Curry. I haven't gotten around to doing this one; maybe someday I'll get back to it. The other idea was to do what Fark eventually became. Phil had gotten an e-mail account as had a few of my other friends. I was sending them strange news articles multiple times a day. I started to suspect that getting so many e-mails might be really annoying, so I told my friends that I wasn't going to send out e-mails anymore and that I was going to put them up on Fark.com instead.
I remember sitting in my living room thinking long and hard about starting Fark. I decided that if I was going to do it, I would have to do it every single day. I took a deep breath, and jumped in.
My friends evidently told other people about Fark. And that's how it all started.
The first year we received 50,000 page views. I was blown away. Not a bad number for a site started from scratch. The second year it was a million. Fark's traffic growth has been gradual since it began and there wasn't any one huge hit that made us big. We received some help from TechTV, who had me do a weekly spot on their Screen Savers show via Webcam for about a year and a half. On a week where I did the show, traffic would rise slightly. When I didn't go on the show, it was flat.
From very early on, morning radio shows used Fark as a resource to cull their morning news. A longtime Farker and radio DJ sent me a copy of an internal memo from Clear Channel recommending to all DJs that they use Fark as a resource for show prep. Not surprisingly, a lot of show prep services ("a lot" being "all of them" as far as I can tell) use Fark as a resource as well.
The first year I ran my ISP our office was in the same building as a radio station. Occasionally I would wake up around 5:00 a.m., give up trying to sleep, and go into work early. (I'm genetically a morning person, I just can't help it.) Anyhow, the station's morning DJ, Keith West, who incidentally is still on the air somewhere (hi, Keith), was also at work that early. I got into the habit of joining him in the early mornings just for the company.
Every morning Keith would arrive at the station an hour before going on air. He would have a copy of every local newspaper, USA Today, and a pair of scissors. He would then read all of the newspapers, find material he wanted to discuss, cut the articles out, and organize them for later when he was on air.
I ran into Keith again a couple of years ago. He told me that now instead of one hour before airtime, he arrives about five minutes before he goes on air, pulls up Fark.com, and starts reading it top to bottom. He prints the articles he likes and talks about those during his show. He loves Fark because it gives him an extra hour of sleep each day.
Initially, radio DJs went out of their way to not mention us. As time went on, most discovered that saying they got their stories from Fark didn't hurt them at all. They came to discover that no one cares where radio DJs get their material, they just like hearing it. I actually don't have a problem with radio shows using Fark headlines as long as they can help us out by giving us a mention once in a while. It's great publicity and gets us new readers which helps tremendously.
One interesting thing about Fark is how many Mass Media people comb Fark for story ideas, not just for radio but for television, newspapers, and Internet media outfits. Once we switched to Google Analytics for Web traffic tracking we discovered that the number one highest-traffic corporate Internet hitting our servers was CNN. Number two was Fox News. Mass Media even submits a lot of their own articles to Fark, sometimes with taglines so outrageous it's hard to believe these are the same people who run Mass Media. I can't even give any examples; it would be too easy to track back to the source and get people in trouble. The most I can tell you is that it happens multiple times every day. And we really appreciate it.
MASS MEDIA PATTERNS
I've met the guys over at The Smoking Gun (thesmokinggun.com) many many times. For those few readers out there who are not familiar with The Smoking Gun, they're essentially an investigative journalism Web site. Unlike your average Weblog, The Smoking Gun researches and produces all of their own material. It's usually crime-related, but not always. They're not very interested in the media spotlight. In fact they once told me that whenever they get a call from TV media to do an appearance, they fight over who has to do it. It's not that they are introverts, they're definitely not. None of them prefers being in the spotlight even though the bits I've seen each of them do in the past are top notch. After having done a bit of TV and radio myself in recent years, I have the occasional flash of clarity in which I completely agree with their feelings about doing Mass Media appearances. It's a fairly demanding prospect, but it's something no one wants to hear about because at the end of the day it's not work, it's just talking with a camera and/or microphone on. The real challenge is not looking like an idiot. It's very easy to look like an idiot.
Because the guys who work on The Smoking Gun are rarely in the public eye, people are curious as to what kind of guys they are. I respond that they're actually doing what every person who ever wanted to be a journalist imagines that the profession is like. They are highly motivated individuals working on cases that are sometimes meaningful, often important, and almost always amusing. They're doing their job well and they are making a difference.
For an example of their tenacity, during one visit I had the opportunity to watch the site founder, Bill Bastone, call Ticketmaster's help line in an attempt to recover some Springsteen tickets that had been lost because of a Web site snafu. He had reserved the tickets he wanted but a click or two later the system released them, and he couldn't find any tickets that were better or even as good. I watched him work his way through their help desk system, being extremely firm and resolved without being the least bit personally insulting. I never did find out if he got the tickets he wanted (it would surprise me to find out he didn't), but what I did find out is that under no circumstances do I ever want the guys at The Smoking Gun coming after me for anything. I've told them this. They tell me that the minute I do something embarrassing they will nail me to the wall. They laugh when they say it (and so do I), but I'm sure they're not kidding.
I point this out because in real life, being a journalist sucks. The pay is horrible, the pressure is high, and they spend the vast majority (if not all) of their time just filling space. Part of the problem is that the nature of news has changed. Nowadays unless you work for a major national media outlet, all of the news is prepackaged by the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, or another wire service.
I'm no journalist, but after reading nearly 2,000 news articles a day since 1999 while running Fark I've noticed some patterns in the Not News articles that Mass Media consistently likes to run. I've made a list of the most common types of articles that I see, and every day dozens of examples of these media patterns are submitted by our readership. This book will shed some light on these patterns that have been influencing our daily news for years.
It's interesting to note that during times when real news is actually occurring, these types of articles all but disappear from Mass Media. I don't know whether or not to think that's disappointing or reassuring.
Incidentally, one of the more surprising things I discovered while researching the articles for this book is that a number of them exactly mirrored a Wikipedia entry on the same subject. I didn't find any exact copies of Wikipedia in the articles in this book, but the structure often was the same and used the same citations in the same places. If I had to guess, I'd say that half of all the "original" articles covered in this book are Wikipedia entry rewrites. If not more. It certainly makes me wonder about the rest of the articles I didn't research. Wikipedia accuracy concerns aside, that's just not cool. Or perhaps that's how the Wikipedia articles were generated in the first place. Due to the obscurity of certain details in some of the articles, and the fact that none of those details showed up in a Google search on the same subject, I am more inclined to believe reporters borrow heavily from Wikipedia, and not the other way around.
I'm being intentionally vague here so no one sues me for all I'm worth. Someone else is welcome to do the follow-up evidence.
Without further ado, here are the patterns around which the book is organized.
Media loves to extrapolate, especially regarding natural disasters. The general question of any fearmongering article is What Would Happen If Some Wildly Improbable Event Occurred? The general answer is; millions of people would die and civilization as we know it would collapse.
On the morning of the first space shuttle landing since the Columbia disaster I was sitting in the CNN studios in New York waiting to go on. I'd prepared a short three-minute rant on the space shuttle coverage, but I was bumped when the shuttle landing was delayed for twenty-four hours. CNN decided that it was probably not a good idea to have me on to deliver a humorous critique of media coverage of the space shuttle landing before they were done covering it. In retrospect that was probably a good idea, because media coverage of that first space shuttle landing in two years was embarrassing. If you ran a search on CNN.com for "space shuttle" around that time, literally every article was about the space shuttle blowing up.
Incidentally the ratings for that particular shuttle launch were the highest of any shuttle launch ever. Why? Because everyone tuned in to see if it would explode. Seriously. It was like watching NASCAR race highlights consist of just the wrecks. Incidentally, space shuttle mission coverage is still like this today.
The most over the top article was about the potential destruction if (1) something went wrong, (2) the shuttle had to land in the desert, and (3) the shuttle overshot the landing and hit Los Angeles. That's a lot of "ifs." Classic fearmongering at its best.
Unpaid Placement Masquerading as Actual Article
A main source of easy to write articles is the press release. Every day hundreds of scientific organizations, political think tanks, activist groups, and corporations release scads of press releases about anything under the sun. Most of these are boring as hell, which is often done on purpose, especially when there is bad news to report. The worse the news, the later in the week it is announced. In fact most White House pressrooms (no matter which political party is in charge) toss out a huge dump of bad news around 5:00 p.m. every Friday. Which as far as I can tell is at least five hours after the media corps has clocked out for a three martini lunch with no intention of coming back to work 'til Monday.
One tame example of an Unpaid Placement Masquerading as Actual Article is a recent study that indicates that 90 percent of the ocean's large fish species are now extinct. The press release fails to mention how this number was actually determined. It certainly seems plausible that there might be fewer large fish today than in years past. But does the person doing the study know how many large fish species there used to be? Do they know how many there are now? Did someone get out there and count them individually? No. No one knows the current population of all the large fish in the sea. I can't prove it, but even if they did a study, it looks like they just made this up. They get away with this mainly because there's no way to confirm or deny its veracity. There certainly is no way they could actually know for sure.
At any rate, it turns out that the guy who released this so-called "study" was promoting a book about damage to the environment. The entire article was effectively an ad for it, thanks to Mass Media giving it some publicity.
Many odd news items are commercials in disguise. They're not necessarily bought and paid for in payola-type situations, but it's obvious what the point is. Mass Media has been full of these types of articles for years although most people haven't noticed.
Headline Contradicted by Actual Article
Journalists are taught to sell a story. They hype its conclusions, misconstrue study findings, take things out of context, and generally do whatever it takes to catch your eye to get you to read a story. Occasionally they go too far.
The Detroit Free Press ran an article entitled "Asian Vehicles Rank Low in Survey," a headline that appears to state that foreign cars have reliability problems. However, hidden a few paragraphs down was this gem: "But Asian nameplates still dominated the most-reliable list. Of the 31 cars that earned a top reliability rating, 29 were Japanese." Buh?
I've been told by some of my friends in Mass Media that oftentimes the culprit is bad editing or, more to the point, an idiot editor.
Equal Time for Nutjobs
Journalists are taught to give equal time to both sides of a story. Equal time is a great idea when we're talking about debatable issues like school vouchers, immigration reform, and whether or not Duke sucks. There are two sides to all of those arguments (well, except for maybe the Duke sucks one). But in some cases there flat-out isn't another side. Take moon landings for example. Any time moon landings are mentioned in the media, they always have to go get a paragraph of comment from the nutjobs who think the moon landing was faked. This is not up for debate; the moon landings happened. Equal Time for Nutjobs is the kind of article that gives equal time to a group that doesn't quite deserve to have its voice heard.
The Out-of-Context Celebrity Comment
Usually these celebrity comments are snippets of much larger interviews. The interviewer runs out of "pertinent" questions for the celebrity (How's the movie going? Who are you humping? etc), so they start asking random questions about the celebrity's personal opinions on things. I can only guess that this is some kind of fishing technique, whereby dozens of questions are asked about unrelated topics in the hope that the celebrity will slip up and say something stupid. Which inevitably happens. Once it does, this stupid statement becomes the story lead.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, political issues seemed to be the hot-button topic. This was probably because the candidates themselves certainly weren't giving any definitive answers. Brad Pitt was asked his position on stem cell research (he liked it). The Dixie Chicks commented on President Bush's foreign policy (they didn't like it). Sean Penn probably did the best of all, voicing his opinion on the state of the Iraq war (didn't like it, but didn't know where Iraq was, either). Soon after, Penn was actually picked up as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and sent overseas to Iraq to do some on-the-spot reporting for the newspaper. While there he reportedly punched the hell out of Geraldo Rivera's cameraman, who at the time was not actually in Iraq at all. Which begs the question: Where the hell was Sean Penn exactly? I won't attempt to answer that one. It turns out that Sean Penn didn't punch anyone, which is as surprising to me as it probably is to you.
As we've mentioned before, when nothing newsworthy is going on, the media is forced to fill column inches with whatever else it can find. There are several seasonal topics the media loves to focus on, articles covered every single year no matter what. The main reason for these repeat articles is twofold. The first reason is that certain publicity-seeking organizations have discovered that if they issue a press release at the same time on the same subject every year, but disguise it as an update of some kind over last year, it will see print every time. The single best example of this is the AAA (or just the plain AA in Britain -- not the drunks, the car people). Every single holiday, every local AAA chapter contacts their local Mass Media outlets to notify them that traffic will be bad. Here's a concept: Why not tell us when traffic won't be bad? That would be some serious news right there. We already know we're going to hit traffic on Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and all those other holidays. The AAA knows that Mass Media will run it, so they send out the same damn thing every holiday.
Which brings us to the second reason many of these articles repeat every year: Mass Media doesn't like to work during holidays. But newspapers still go out and broadcasters still need material, so why not fill space with articles that you can just keep in a drawer somewhere until you need them? ABC News has a canned bit on how champagne bubbles are caused by dust in the glass. I've seen that at least twice and both times were on New Year's Eve. They probably run it every year for all I know.
It's not just holidays though, for just about anything that happens on a seasonal basis has its own seasonal article.
Mass Media has a short attention span. If you ask Mass Media people about it, they'll claim it's due to the fact that their readers have a short attention span. That's only part of the story. The other part has to do with the nature of news. It's not possible to run a media outlet repeating the same information over and over again, day in and day out. Unless you are CNN Headline News - and even then it's difficult.
The challenge of reporting is to continually come up with new information on the issues on which you're reporting. This can be extremely difficult if not impossible when dealing with sudden emergencies. Most terrorist attacks fit this pattern. Initially, the media is blindsided by the event. Initial reports start coming in, the vast majority of which are inaccurate. Media outlets don't have the option to remain silent about breaking news. Having nothing else to talk about, they repeat the rumors. Unfortunately, they either don't realize that people take rumor information as fact from mainstream news outlets, or they do realize it but feel they have plausible deniability by reporting rumors as rumor rather than fact.
As minutes and hours pass, rumors are dispelled and real information comes in. Toward the end of a twenty-four-hour period the media usually has a pretty good handle on what actually happened.
Having no new information to report is the bane of Mass Media. As mentioned before, you can't just repeat the same story over and over again, you have to find new information. The only alternative to this is switching to a different story, so if you want to continue to report on something, you've got to start exploring Other Angles.
The first angle covered is interviewing eyewitnesses, as many as possible. These people are usually survivors of some sort of horrible trauma, and too often the media forgets this. Right after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a Fox News reporter on a live feed interviewed the first person he saw: a man walking a dog.
- Reporter: You're live on Fox News Channel. What are you doing?
- Man (incredulous): Walking a dog.
- Reporter: Wh-why are you still here? I'm--I'm just curious.
- Man (slight stunned pause): None of your fucking business!
- Reporter: Oh, that was a good answer, wasn't it? That was live on air on national television; thanks so much for that.
- Man: Well, you know... (continues yelling at the reporter)
- (National desk cuts live audio feed)
Media will ask survivors some of the most deplorable questions such as "How do you feel right now?," "Has this changed your life?," and "Do you think you'll be able to recover and move on?" For most people following these events, the answers are always "Like shit," "Yes," and "Hell no." Although occasionally you'll get people praising and/or crediting Jesus/Mohammed/Buddha/Hubbard-Xenu that they pulled through, conveniently forgetting about the masses of people hurt, maimed, killed, or in the very least not protected by their deity of choice. At any rate it's not the interviewee's fault for coming up with stupid answers. Reporters shouldn't be asking these types of questions in the first place. Just leave the poor bastards alone.
Once the Mass Media has run out of eyewitnesses to interview, they bring in The Experts. The industry refers to them as talking heads, which is the best description of what they actually do: not a goddamn thing. These folks are brought in to kill time while the anchors go on smoke breaks. Occasionally they do offer good insight. However, most of these people aren't currently working in their area of expertise - having quit their day jobs to move on to full-time media expertism.
The final stage is: Has the Media Gone Too Far? This cry goes out once the media has truly run out of things to talk about. They switch focus to examining their own coverage of the event and critiquing whether they went overboard, usually either by covering inane material or by overhyping minutia. The vast majority of these articles leave the conclusion open-ended, but the real answer to "Has the Media Gone Too Far?" is yes, it goddamn very well has. And you can bet the farm that they'll do the exact same thing next time around.
This cycle lasts two or three days on major media events (kids falling down wells, pop stars being acquitted, space shuttles exploding), or as little as twenty-four hours on more minor stories (politician extramarital affairs, streakers at sporting events, controversial music/tv/radio). Once the cycle completes, coverage of the initial event drops off to nothing. The media will have exhausted every potential angle on the story and needs to move on. This is Media Fatigue.
The longest we've ever seen a cycle go without repeating is a week. Only two news events have ever done this. One was 9/11. The other was Janet Jackson's boob popping out at the Super Bowl. Yeah.
Lesser Media Space Fillers
For whatever reason, Mass Media feels compelled to consistently write about certain topics. These are not tied to any particular part of the calendar year. They are articles that Mass Media simply can't resist publishing whenever they occur. These include missing white chicks, plane crashes, and amputations of random body parts.
Using some of the best stories from Fark as examples, let's examine how these media patterns apply. You may notice that some of the article headlines seem a little strange. That's because they are the taglines that appeared on Fark and not the actual headlines of the articles themselves. The comments that follow each article are the postings from Fark's discussion board at the time the original article came out.