Media guru Ryan Holiday exploits the chinks inherent in the armor of the news-gathering process, and the fourth estate fights back. Chuck Ross interviews a self-admitted media manipulator.
Describing his book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday writes: “I have illustrated the ways in which bloggers, as they sit down at their computers, are prompted to speculate, rush, exaggerate, distort, and mislead—and how people like me encourage these impulses.”
As media guru for controversial figures such as Tucker Max and Dov Charney of American Apparel, Holiday learned how to exploit the chinks inherent in the armor of the news-gathering process. He’s hoisted Gawker, Jezebel, and even the hallowed New York Times on their own petard by creating “faux-troversy.” In his own words, Holiday believes that “open secrets are total fucking bullshit” that should be exposed.
Through pointed criticisms of major online media outlets like Gawker, Huffington Post, Business Insider, and the Drudge Report, Holiday shows us that the media’s thirst for first makes for an inferior product that does not meet proper journalistic standards. And the problem, according to Holiday, is that many of these online news resources are trading their content up the chain to more established old media sources.
Here at The Good Men Project, we understand that Holiday could also be talking about us, but we’re willing to have the discussion.
CR: The typical question first. Why did you write this book?
RH: I had to. I couldn’t stop myself. Every conversation I had I would steer to the topics I talk about in the book. I was peppering everyone I knew with questions. I was reading every book I could on the topic. So I finally said: this has to end. I have to put my thoughts together once and for all and get them in front of people or I am going to go crazy. And that’s what I did.
What will the readers of blogs learn about how they’re being manipulated by the modern newsmaking process? Also, which sites do you consider the most egregious manipulators?
You’re going to learn that blogs are not writing FOR you. They are writing to get something FROM you—your time, your attention, your clicks. They are not interested in truth or in converting you into a loyal long term reader. They want to shake you down now for a few pennies and move on to the next mark. I would say that are all egregious manipulators, they have to be. That is the model. No one is trying to build a product worth paying for. But the worst of the bunch? Gawker, Business Insider, TechCrunch, etc.
In the book you cite a well-understood truth about the news—news that hits on our extreme emotions, or news with valence, sells. Negative news is especially popular. Two of the popular sites that you focus on in your book, Gawker and Jezebel, have names that even carry negative connotations. I’d say that “Drudge” Report often lives up to its name. This makes me wonder if a site like the GMP—with “Good” in its very title—has any chance at all in this link-based, pageview medium. Are we fighting an unwinnable fight against human nature?
Well, what is your end game? Because that goal is what will determine the decisions and tactics you employ now. Are you trying to make money from CPM ads? Are you trying to build a site you can sell to someone else in a few years? Or are you playing a longer game—a game that sees its readers as allies rather than idiots who can be tricked?
There are some things you’ll never be able to escape online, like the pressure for short posts, for a constant stream of new material. But you can insulate yourself a bit. You can NOT be Business Insider, breaking up a crappy 1 page article into a 20 page slideshow.
Some argue that the underlying problem here seems to be that news consumers can’t control themselves. I’d draw a parallel between this and the mass consumption of Big Macs and Coca Cola. We know that we shouldn’t consume them, but we do it anyway. Some would blame the consumer. You don’t fully agree with that assessment. How would you allocate responsibility for people spending their most valuable resource—their time—on non-stories?
I’ll draw the same parallel. McDonalds and other fast food chains produce food that they say is very cheap and then rake in enormous profits from. But it is not cheap because the real costs—obesity, heart disease, malnutrition—are just externalized onto the public. SOMEONE pays for it, it’s just not McDonalds. It’s the general public, it’s society.
Online journalism is much the same. They say they’ve made the news business more efficient, faster, cheaper. But really they just flipped it. The news is now cheap to produce but expensive to read. Expensive how? Well it’s fucking wrong all the time and you have to read multiple articles just to get a vague sense of what is real and made up. And that costs us hours of time, and it distracts us and bogs us down with crap.
Are people partially responsible for this? Sure. But we are the real losers here. So I want to go after the people who are getting fat and rich by structuring the system this way. And those people are Nick Denton, Henry Blodget and the like.
The way you describe a lot of modern blogging and online news reporting—digging up dirt that didn’t need digging and then refilling the unnecessary hole—reminds me of the concept of make-work. Pageviews and then revenue is often generated out of thin air through “frovocation”, or faux-provocation. You provide many anecdotes of companies doing this. What is your favorite?
I don’t have a favorite. I hate all of them. But it often makes me smile (sadly) to see a blog write a story that was obviously wrong, set the whole internet afire with it, and then write a second post correcting the whole mess which gets MORE pageviews than the first. It’s like they spread the disease and then sell the cure.
You write about the website HARO—Help a Reporter Out—in which reporters match up with sources for topics they’d like to report on. You even fooled a New York Times reporter into believing that you were an expert on vinyl records. They fell for it, relied on you as a source, and only updated their piece by saying you lied to them. This sounds like journalism’s version of steroids. Is it fair, and how does that alter the news?
I’m not sure if it’s like steroids. It’s more like straight up corruption. Journalists and publicists have a secret social network where they trade with each other: “I don’t want to do my research.” “I want to be in the news.” “Ok, let’s swap.” And then when someone exposes that to the world, they attack me and try to make me the bad guy. It’s like the financial crisis. They want you to think that this was some isolated incident, that it was one bad actor. When it reality, the system is broken and corrupt to its core.
You tricked Jezebel and Gawker into promoting Tucker Max’s books and his movie. You also played up Dov Charney’s cad side on those same sites to get free “frovocative” press. Both of these public figures cater to men but they were promoted and buzz was built through female-centered websites. How and why did that work? Are female-centered or activist-minded sites easier marks?
It works because their model is outrage, not activism. They don’t want people to go out and do anything, they don’t really care about causes. They care about signaling and about getting traffic. So I gave them a made up thing to be outraged by and they said “Thank you” and ran with it.
You also talk about nimble bloggers who take shots at companies or individuals, citing examples of companies being hurt by bloggers who peddle lies or dangle rumors and then move on before their deception can stick. I thought of guerilla warfare tactics. The guerilla warrior has the upper hand because of the element of surprise and because their target is on the defensive. Is this an apt description of the business?
It’s exactly like that. I am a big fan of John Robb’s work in fourth generation warfare and it definitely shaped how I understand blogs and their impact. The part you’re missing is the scary part: these blogs can always do more damage to you than you can do to them. I talk about Jezebel making up the “Jon Stewart is a sexist” accusation for pageviews. That did irreparable damage to his show—millions of dollars of respect earned over a decade was instantly lost. What could HE do to THEM? They aren’t really even worth millions of dollars. So that’s the inequity that blogs exploit. They have nothing to lose, everything to gain. The people they attack have much to lose, nothing they can do in response.
Given that you’re up front about being a media manipulator, many will question your ethics and thereby cast doubt on your book. How would you respond to those critics?
I don’t. I don’t care what they think. What are THOSE people doing about the problem? I know what I’m doing. I wrote a book, with my name on the cover, that named names and said what everyone else was afraid to say. Sure I profit from it, but I also put my career on the line to come forward. And what have they done? Oh right, nothing—because they are part of the problem.
Watch Media Manipulation—Fact or Fiction? A Google Hangout discussion with Ryan Holiday, John Jantsch, Peter Shankman, David Meerman Scott, and Shel Holtz.