No, silly. Of course not. Well, probably not. But the main thing is... I made you look.
That's the message of the most entertainingly disturbing and disturbingly entertaining book on the media published in decades, Ryan Holiday's Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Holiday pulls back the curtain on the ways that crafty publicity folks corrupt bloggers, who then corrupt mainstream media reporters, thus resulting in a "news" industry where the search for truth gives way to the search for fame and cold, hard cash.
Holiday made his media manipulation bones representing author and serial seducer Tucker Max, who does to women what Holiday himself does to bloggers, and American Apparel, which Holiday claims increased its sales to $60 million from $40 million when he came along.
Trust Me, I'm Lying offers a harrowing and entirely credible explanation of how the blogger food chain turns bold-faced lies into hard news. Holiday, or someone like him -- that is, if there's anyone quite like him -- will create a fake story and feed it to a low-level blogger, who is desperate for material because he or she must post constantly throughout the day in order to remain relevant... and solvent.
The blog piece then gets reposted by some higher level blog, which in turn becomes a source for, say, a local news website owned by a national news network (CBS, NBC, etc.), and now the story appears credible to the entire world.
Of course, it was never true, but now it sure looks true. For example, Holiday says he posted photos of vandalized Tucker Max movie posters in Los Angeles, after he personally did the vandalizing. Those photos soon oozed through cyberspace, ultimately turning into a national protest campaign against the allegedly misogynistic new movie based on a Tucker Max book. The whole campaign would never have existed had Holiday not defaced the posters and posted the, er, defacements. (Still with me?) For the cost of a few minutes' work, Holiday triggered millions of dollars of free publicity for his friend Max's film.
That's how it works.
Bloggers are complicit because they are paid by the page view; the more outrageous and provocative the story, the more likely they are to publish word-for-word whatever they are handed (sometimes from a fake email address; Holiday says bloggers are far too lazy to check sources before they post).
Websites like Gawker and Drudge Report pick up the most page-view-friendly stories, not because they're newsworthy or even true, but because websites make money by selling eyeballs, real or imaginary, to advertisers.
Often the stories lack the slightest kernel of truth. Holiday cops to posting fake American Apparel ad campaigns, including one showing a female pornstar's pubic hair, in order to stir controversy and get free ink. But it's not just movies or clothing; apparently you can get pretty much any topic into the media by following Holiday's simple directions.
He details a new and monstrous form of "reporting" called iterative journalism, in which bloggers post pieces without doing any work verifying facts, waiting for the world to correct them. Of course, lies travel much further and faster than the truth, so reputations, earnings, and reality itself gets hammered and there's practically no way for individuals or companies to defend themselves.
The book is extremely frightening, because it calls into question the basic assumption that news consumers hold -- that somebody, somewhere, checked the facts before the story was published. You can't read even Google News the same way -- how much of what's there is real reporting, versus lies that trickled up from the bottom of the blogosphere?
Holiday suggests there's nothing really new going on here -- he intriguingly and convincingly traces the pseudo-journalism of today's Internet back to the yellow journalism tactics of the 19th century. The compellingly written book is well-grounded in research, with frequent references to the Daniel Boorstins and Walter Lippmanns, 20th century commentators who would be appalled by how much worse the news media has become since their day.
What makes a post eyeball-friendly? A disturbing question, like the one with which I headlined this piece. A subject that lots of people care about: moms; dogs; money. A list of bullet points regarding a topic that everyone wants to know -- how to lose weight or find a mate. All fluff, all filler, all the time, but it's crowding out real news because people pay more attention to what's trending than what's important.
Holiday takes a confessional tone: He repents for his past bad actions and hopes that others won't use his book as a text on how to get the media to buy their lies. If he's telling the truth, and I'm afraid he is, then Trust Me, I'm Lying is the single most important book you can read about the way the media lies to itself and to you. You'll never read a blog piece or news story the same way. And you can trust me on that.
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