Book Review: Web Site Founder Offers Media Criticism with an Attitude

     Say the word “Fark” and you either get knowing smirks or people think you are cursing. Geeks like myself might even make the connection with the expletive “frack” or “frak” from the two “Battlestar Galactica” TV shows.

     In reality, Fark is wildly popular Web site devoted to weird, unusual and often hilarious news and events. To true farkers, it isn’t just a Web site, it’s a way of looking at the news.

     In his own warped and wonderful way, Fark founder Drew Curtis is one heck of a media critic – one with a lot to say. (For a Q&A with Curtis, click here.) It’s insightful enough that media watchers and journalists should read “It’s Not News, It’s FARK.” (Published by Gotham, 288 pages.)

     Curtis is crass, crude and painfully honest. In one breath he’s commending PETA for having protests with “half-naked women.” (“Hooray for half-naked women,” he wrote.) In the very next sentence, he’s critiquing our obsession with celebrity opinions like the Live Earth event: “Like it or not, we live in a world where people will pay more attention to what a member of a famous boy band says on a technical subject as opposed to real scientists, who in theory should know more about what the hell they are talking about.”

     The book is that and more. It’s a Fark-like mix of serious and bizarre – sort of a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” examination of mainstream media culture. There are the earthquake drills held in Kentucky, the backyard zamboni and the $100 hamburger. Some of it is Curtis waxing humorously about the world.

·                          “Vegetables are like the exercise bike in your basement; you have them around only so you’d have the option to use them, but you never really get around to it.”

·                          “It’s not as if I’m the world grammar champion myself. I grew up in Kentucky, after all.”

     Mostly it’s just Curtis being Curtis and letting the media have it with both barrels. “You may have noticed a recurring theme of this book is that one of the determining factors of journalistic worthiness is laziness.” That assessment heads up a section on how journalists use “Unpaid Placement Masquerading as Actual Article.”

     Curtis shows how smart marketing people take advantage of reporters with stunts or made-up lists like the “(choose one of each of the following) Top/Bottom 10/25/50/100 Whatevers of the Decade/Century/All Time.” (For Curtis’s top 5 “problems with the mainstream media,” click here.)

     The book highlights some media habits that reporters should avoid and businesses can learn to exploit. Curtis attempts to identify media behavior in a sort-of author meets “Wild Kingdom” way. Here are just a few typical comments:

·                          On the annual media fest about the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain: “Can there be anyone in the Mass Media audience who doesn’t already know that once a year drunken idiots line up to be chased by rampaging bulls?”

·                          On the endless media coverage about one particular issue: “Media fatigue events pop up continually and make us all want to claw our eyes out.”

     For example, Curtis lists several “mass media patterns” that are right on the money including fearmongering, “Seasonal Articles” and “Media Fatigue.” While the fearmongering category is self explanatory, seasonal articles include everything from holiday travel stories (“the entire thing is one huge ad for the AAA”) to warnings about power usage (that “means one thing: no air conditioning. The horror.”)

     The only downside of the book is that it lacks the illustrations that help make Fark what it is. Even a couple minutes on Fark can leave a visitor laughing as posters respond to stories with drawings or photo illustrations.

     For example, one recent post commented on the new Bill Clinton book. “Bill Clinton's new book due out Sept 4th. In other news, Bill Clinton now looks like a frickin zombie.”

     It was only a matter of time before posters followed that comment and included photos of zombies, movie posters of zombies and, remarkably, a “zombie food pyramid.” That’s classic Fark. And it’s the one negative of the book is that it’s nowhere to be found.

     But what is there is worth the effort. His discussion of fearmongering touches on everything from the shuttle disaster to bacteria or terrorists at goat shows. To keep it extra light, Curtis adds comments from Farkers to most sections. Following the section on the media hype behind bird flu, comments ranged from “no more pigeon sushi” to how avian flu was moving past “‘slipping on banana peels’ and ‘freak peanut allergies’ on the list of top worldwide killers.”

     One comment, from a poster called Bugs_Bunny_Practiced_Psychological_Warfare, raised an insightful but humorous point about journalism: “Wait. I forgot. Are the terrorists trying to scare everyone or is it the media?”

      “It’s Not News, It’s FARK” answers that question and many journalists won’t like the result. Still, it’s a fun, easy read and a necessary survival guide for anyone in business who has to deal with the media.