I interviewed Fark’s Drew Curtis last week, via phone, about his new book, It’s Not News, It’s Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News.
Incidentally, this isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed Drew. Way back in June of 2001, when I was running a humor mag, I interviewed Drew and he got progressively more toasted throughout the interview as he popped off lines like, “I love the Swedes because they love boobies.” It was a fun interview.
This one is a little more serious and it has also been edited a bit for readability’s sake. Enjoy!
John Hawkins: One of the chapters in your book is called, “Unpaid Placement Masquerading As An Article.” Tell us about that.
Drew Curtis: Yea, basically what happens is that…people sometimes get articles in the news by submitting press releases directly to a FAX machine somewhere…
For example, pretty much every single book interview is one of those…For example, there was one woman that I mention in the book that was trying to sell a book about — it was kind of race-related, DaVinci Code type stuff, and she was trying to claim that she herself was a descendant of Jesus Christ and that ended up becoming the article but the whole point of the thing was to drum up attention for the actual book…
John Hawkins: I got ya. The press picks up a lot of these because they’re lazy or –
Drew Curtis: It depends. Sometimes I’ve noticed that some people just get picked up automatically but I think it depends on who it is — like for example, both FHM and Maxim, every single year do “Top 100 Hottest Chicks” or something like that and so it’s another advertisement for their magazine. …It’s funny because like, if Maxim and FHM do it, then it’s publishable, but if…random Joe Blogger says what he thinks are the top 100 chicks, it doesn’t tend to go. I’ve noticed this especially with…the top whatever sports type thing.
Anything outside ESPN or Sports Illustrated…gets ignored, but when the big guys do it, it gets picked up. Another good example of this, too, is like “Top 50 Movies Of All Time” or whatnot — what will happen is that somebody will go actually concoct this just kinda goofing around and they’ll always make sure that they pick one of the items to make sure to cause controversy.-
For example, there was a recent article on the “Top 25 Most Influential Movies of All Time” and I forget who did it, but Number 7 was “Debbie Does Dallas.”
John Hawkins: (Laughs)
Drew Curtis: If there was ever a more obvious plant than that, I have no idea, but they put it in there so the news guys on the radio, the morning show, could go, “Can you believe that? What a bunch of idiots. These guys picked “Debbie Does Dallas” in the Top 25 Most Influential Movies and they actually tried to defend it.” The point was to get people talking about it.
John Hawkins: Right. That’s a good idea. I’m going to have to start doing that.
Drew Curtis: …People for the most part will get drawn in by that. I see bloggers try to do it all the time. I don’t know if they’re doing it intentionally or not.
John Hawkins: …OK another chapter in your book covers one of my pet peeves, “Headline contradicted by actual article.” Talk a little bit about that….
Drew Curtis: That was a little annoying, too. That one is actually not one that’s being done by journalists, as far as I can tell. More often than not, the editor, as I’ve come to discover from talking to journalists, doesn’t quite grasp the concept of what the article is actually about and so they change the headline without telling anybody what’s going on.
The other way it happens is that they just flat out change it in order…to trump it up, to make it a little more controversial. For example, a lot of times you’ll see celebrities complaining about being misquoted. There’s another chapter in the book on that, but oftentimes when a celebrity is being misquoted, actually what’s going on there is that they have been taken completely out of context and…in reality…(the celebrities didn’t) say anything like that.
My best example of the contradiction occurs with an article, that was a few years ago, when somebody had done a study of the Atkins Diet to find out whether or not it was better than traditional dieting. The study released its finding and the AP and Reuters both released alternate headlines about the same article. One of them said, “Atkins Diet is More Successful Than Regular Diet,” and the other one said, “Regular Diet is More Successful Than Atkins Diet.” If you actually read the article, what it said was that the Atkins Diet was more successful for the short term, but for the long term, the regular dieting would be the one that did it. So technically speaking, they both were…right, but they both just went ahead and grabbed the headline that would get more clicks just to trump it up to make it more interesting.
John Hawkins: One more chapter I wanted to ask about. You have got a whole chapter on media fearmongering in your book. Give us some details.
Drew Curtis: Sure, that’s one of my favorite ones there. You’ll see it a lot. Basically what they do is they try to get excited about stuff that really isn’t likely to kill you — and part of the reason they do that is because it does draw eyeballs. …For example, I think the farthest out asteroid that’s going to kill us all that I’ve seen recently was 2038. At the time that I wrote the book it was 2029. Every time they find a new one, they always talk about how, “Astronomically speaking, it’ll go within 300,000 miles of the Earth and that’s almost hitting it.” Yea, well, it’s still 300,000 freaking miles, guys.
John Hawkins: (Laughs)
Drew Curtis: The odds of it hitting are still pretty small. That would be like me going out in my back yard in Kentucky, throwing a baseball, and having it land in Los Angeles.
…One of my other pet peeves — …ABC News has really got a hard on for this story for some reason — but the U. S. government, Homeland Security has been spending literally billions of dollars putting surface to air countermeasures on FEDEX and UPS jets. But, when you actually look at the honest-to-God stats on it, globally in the last 60 years…, only 500 people have been killed by these things and zero in the United States.
We spent billions of dollars on this project trying to protect airplanes from something that doesn’t happen and it actually would save more lives if they did something like armor the cars of the pilots that flew them as they drive on the way to the airport because more people get killed doing that than get killed by rocket-launched missiles in planes. What’s really funny was there was a great article on Stratfor about that particular incident and…they said that they’ve got a real interesting problem with terrorists using heat seeking missiles.
Somebody actually had launched one at a jet in the last couple of years, and he missed, and they said the problem is the terrorists are kinda dumb, they don’t tend to read instructions, and with heat seeking missiles apparently, if he lets the jet get too close, it won’t get a lock. So you’ll just shoot right past unless you actually aim the thing directly at the plane. You’re gonna miss with it and that’s what they’ve been seeing more and more of over time.
…It’s also kind of a problem with human nature in general, that is, that we all have these baselines of things that we accept as normal. You and I don’t particularly care about the fact that if we drive out to the store later on today, we’re more likely to get killed doing that than other things. We’ve actually come to accept that as part of our daily lives. In Israel, for example, they’ve come to accept terrorism as part of their daily lives and a lot of people just don’t particularly care about it one way or the other because, what can you do? That’s why, for example, you don’t see articles about the dangers of just driving around because they can’t get anybody interested enough to click on it, because it’s human nature.
John Hawkins: …You had a very simple explanation for why the mainstream media doesn’t do a better job of reporting the news. You say, “People don’t really want to watch or read news that does the right thing. The McNeil-Leher Newshour was a great example of this. Quality news, mostly information, and no one watched it. It was dry as breakfast toast in a diner at lunch on Saturday. Is there any way to fix this? No.” Is that basically what it is, that people say they want really right down the middle plain, “just give us the facts” news, but they really don’t?
Drew Curtis: Yea, I think that’s the problem right there in a nutshell. There was an interesting study that came out during the Anna Nicole Smith thing which…highlighted that as well. They did a poll of people who were reading the news at the time to see what people thought about this Anna Nicole Smith (story). They found out that 67% of all the people who considered themselves news consumers were actively annoyed by the fact that any coverage was being given to this at all, but the real problem was that 11% of respondents said that they were following it closely and therein lies the problem.
I don’t know, I think news is kinda like church: we all say we go, but most people don’t and it’s one of those deals where the…numbers don’t bear out (what people say). I guarantee you that CNN and FOX and MSNBC got way more traffic on that Anna Nicole (story) than anything else. Otherwise, they would have quit doing it because they would have realized that, hey, while everybody was complaining about the fact that there was the coverage, they were also seeing (viewers) on there. So it’s kind of this push/pull problem. They really would like to get back to covering the regular news, but they just can’t bring themselves to do it because of the ratings hit they would take in the process.
John Hawkins: A while back, I believe this was on instant messenger, you gave me what I thought was a pretty grim prognosis for the future of the political blogosphere. Tell us a little bit about how you see the future of the political blogosphere unfolding and why.
Drew Curtis: …(T)he blogosphere is…niched out basically. You don’t see a lot of sites where there’s a lot of discussion going on. People are generally just reading about stuff that backs up their own individual views and not really worrying about converting themselves to anything else. Whether that’s a problem is debatable because I don’t think that it has ever been any different. I think we all…gravitate toward the stuff that…reflects what we (think). Is that what you’re referring to or something else?
John Hawkins: Well, I think you were…talking about how you thought it was…topped out, that you didn’t think really there was a whole lot of growth potential for the blogosphere, that you thought…that the blogosphere was pretty much going to stay at a low level, that it was never going to build huge audiences…
Drew Curtis: Yea, I think in general, it’s probably true. It’s interesting that…still…only like 30% or 40% of anybody out there has ever read a blog which is really kinda funny because the blogosphere obviously has a different opinion of that, but the numbers don’t bear it out. For the most part, your average Joe has heard of blogs maybe, because they tend to read the news, but for the most part they don’t check it out.
That being said, it’s probably getting all of the newsreading public without a doubt. It’s the people that don’t care at all that are the problem — and as far as the growth goes — ….the readership is probably past topped out where it’s at and it’s going to stay there for awhile.
(But there could be) changes. For example, I think there’s probably a really interesting niche out there for somebody who puts bikini photos next to their political commentary. I haven’t seen anybody do that yet.
John Hawkins: I’ve long thought that, Drew. I’ve long thought that.
Drew Curtis: …(Also), I have this theory that eventually all politics is going to be is a bunch of celebrities running for office. …Whether or not they’re valid or not that’s a whole another thing entirely because Reagan didn’t do a half-bad job. He did knock the Soviet Union out so that’s a decent thing — but, you know, for the most part, I don’t consider most actors to be qualified for anything.
John Hawkins: Well, you know, that’s funny because the big, hot guy in the blogosphere right now is Fred Thompson from Law and Order.
Drew Curtis: I know….yea, exactly. I think that shows just how bad the Republican contingent is. That’s not to say that Fred Thompson is horrible, but I certainly wouldn’t consider him to be definitely top-notch either. It’s one of those things where celebrities — people will vote for him just because they’ve heard of him.
John Hawkins: Maybe it’s because I’m a blogger, but I find the history of Fark and how it grew into a website that pulls 2 million pageviews a day to be really fascinating. Tell us about that.
Drew Curtis: Well, basically, it was kind of just organic. It really just came out of nowhere…
John Hawkins: When you started out basically, it was just a page that sat on the net for like a couple of years doing nothing, first of all, right?
Drew Curtis: Yea, exactly. It didn’t have any traffic at all during that time, so it was no big deal.
John Hawkins: And then you started it out. Tell us a little bit about how it picked up and grew to the size it is today.
Drew Curtis: Basically, it didn’t seem like it would happen overnight at any point. I mean, it was like gradual growth…People would ask me how do you get a lot of traffic on your blog, basically the answer is — and I told a buddy of mine about this — I said all you really need is to have some decent content up there, you need to continually update it, and at that point, that’s pretty much it. I mean, there’s not a whole lot left after that.
John Hawkins: You just keep doing it on and on….Well, you started out in what, 1996?
Drew Curtis: 1999, actually. I got the domain reserved in 1997, but hadn’t had any ideas to do with it.
John Hawkins: In 1999, you were thinking about doing an Indian curry site?
Drew Curtis: Yea. There was actually the only good one out there on the internet…and I was thinking, there was probably room for two. So that was actually almost what I ended up doing instead of FARK.
John Hawkins: Well, Curry’s loss is news’ gain here, I guess. Once you started out in 1999, tell us a little bit about how your traffic grew. I mean, how long did it take you, for example, to get to, say 10,000 readers a day?
Drew Curtis: It must have happened at some point during the second year, but it was at least a year and a half.
John Hawkins: I gotcha — and how long until you got to maybe a million?
Drew Curtis: That was a lot longer — probably about 3 or 4 years, or something like that. Even like on 9/11 we doubled our traffic and that was 200,000 a day…. So it definitely was a gradual process.
John Hawkins: Is there anything else you’d like to say or promote before we finish up?
Drew Curtis: Not really. I’d like everybody to check out the book though. One of the things is that it’s not particularly serious. Actually it’s really funny, that’s the good news about it; you’ll get a gut laugh out of it without a doubt. If you don’t, just hit me up and I’ll refund the money to you because what the hell, why not?
John Hawkins: Don’t make that promise, Drew.
Drew Curtis: I gave a copy to my mother-in-law who is so far outside our demographics it’s not even funny and she was laughing so hard she couldn’t breathe by the time she was done reading it. So it looked pretty good.
John Hawkins: I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but the parts I’ve read have been real good so far.
Drew Curtis: The problem is that once you’ve read it, you can’t un-see it and then when you watch any newscast you just can’t help but either laugh or want to throw a chair through the TV…
John Hawkins: Drew, I really appreciate your time. Thanks a lot.
Drew Curtis: No problem, any time…
You can buy Drew Curtis’ new book, It’s Not News, It’s Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News, here.