"The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers" was Thomas Jefferson's motto. Drew Curtis shares the sentiment to the extreme in his splenetic takedown of the press, It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries To Pass Off Crap As News, which came out late last spring.
In 278 quick pages, It's Not News, It's Fark does more to advance the journalistic art than all the millions spent by the Poynter Institute, the Shorenstein Center, the Nieman Foundation, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review, the Committee of Concerned Journalists, the various Annenberg outposts, and the Freedom Forum, combined.
Instead of urging journalists to raise their standards—the typical tack taken by the press-guardian-industrial complex—Curtis puts the onus on readers, insisting that they become better news consumers. The educated reader's top enemy is the "filler" of non-news, he argues, which the mass media pumps out whenever there's not enough hard news to complete a newscast or fill a newspaper. Through this crack come the inaccurate, fear-mongering stories about germs, earthquakes, and potential terrorist attacks; the worthless formula stories hooked on changing seasons, hot-weather spells, shark attacks, and holiday traffic patterns—the media events generated by PR firms that reporters translate into news stories. Even when journalists do right they often go wrong, he writes, by pausing in the middle of well-reported pieces to give equal time—in the name of balance—to flat-earth "nutjobs" (his word) who take the opposing view.
All the garbage the press publishes and broadcasts when it runs out of genuine news is what Curtis calls "fark." "Fark is supposed to look like news ... but it's not news. It's Fark," he writes. (The first chapter of his book gives the tangled origin of the word fark.) High-octane blends of fark contain celebrity news, press coverage of itself, and news served in the context of no context. When Shepard Smith screens, say, five seconds of a burning skyscraper in Brazil, followed by five seconds of a cat rescue in Montana, followed by five seconds of a flood in Thailand on the Fox News Report, you're sucking his fark.
Curtis became a press-taster nonpareil on the way to building Fark.com into an Internet colossus. The Fark.com creation myth in Curtis' book explains that back in 1999 he was e-mailing to friends links to the various "strange" news stories that he'd collected. As the e-mails became a couple-times-a-day event, Curtis decided to relieve his friends' inboxes by posting the weird links directly to his personal Web site. The growing Fark.com audience supplied Curtis with even more links to weird and interesting news, as well as their comments on the stories, which he also published. The site, which Curtis calls "a news aggregator and an edited social networking news site," now receives 2,000 submissions a day and claims 3.5 million unique visitors a month.
By raising the critical awareness of its readers, Fark.com encourages a kind of real-time press criticism of all the news on the Web. The mob Curtis has recruited to his site naturally ridicules the most outrageous fark, which appears on the home page, but it also assesses the news in other categories—sports, business, geek, showbiz, politics, etc. Readers endorse worthy stories with tags such as "cool," "interesting," "spiffy," "amusing," and "Florida"—applied to all goofy, stupid, and messed-up stories from the Sunshine State.
"The people involved in Florida stories, and this absolutely does include presidential elections, are bona fide hosed up," Curtis writes. "It's not a lifestyle choice, it's who they are."
It's easy to accuse Curtis of wanting to have it both ways—disparaging the same crap journalism that he showcases on Fark.com (a showcase that earns him a comfortable living, by the way).
But what's wrong with wanting to have it both ways? Why can't Fark.com be both a critique of the press and a valid news feed? Take, for example, the BBC News report linked to by Fark.com today: A woman dressed in a tomato costume suffered a slipped disk when the town mayor kneed her head as he leapfrogged her. One can easily take joy in reading the story and disparage BBC News for publishing it. Rather than being contradictory, the act is not unlike watching bad television. If you watch bad television because you think it's good, you're screwed up. But if you watch bad television because you like the feeling of watching bad television, you're OK.
For all its insight, Curtis' book has gotten scant attention from the mainstream press. Although Salongave it decent exposure, the Tucson Citizen was the largest American newspaper to review it, and theirs was a mini-review. Curtis did better on the broadcast side, with segments on NPR, Fox News Channel, and the nerd cable channel G4TV. Perhaps the book got overlooked because Curtis stuffed it with hilarious examples from his Web site, and Dave Barry blurbed it, making critics think it was a humor volume. ("Humor" is where my local Borders stocked the book.) Perhaps book review editors were put off because the book is a little farky itself: It suffers from more than 100 pages of padding, and it's derivative of material available on Fark.com, as Wired blogger Dylan Tweney notes.
Even so, I encourage you to add a little Fark.com to your diet to inoculate yourself from all the useless media out there. If it doesn't make you sick to your stomach, try Drew Curtis' book for dessert.
This column is not a pathetic attempt to get my story posted on Fark.com and reap the thousands of hits that naturally follow. Honest, I just found myself reading the first chapter online and liked it and wanted to read more and decided to write about it. Trust me, and send e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)