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Built to Lie to You – Learning About Media Manipulation From Ryan Holiday

 

I like to think I’m skeptical but after reading Ryan Holiday’s media tell all, Trust Me I’m Lying, I realize I have not been skeptical enough. Ryan Holiday, the self-proclaimed media manipulator, has worked in public relations for the fashion brand American Apparel, as well as the bestselling authors Robert Greene, and Tucker Max. In Trust Me I’m Lying (TMIL), Holiday takes the reader through the mechanics of the modern media cycle and it’s ugly. But it’s also eye-opening; the best thing about Trust Me I’m Lying’s is how it has forced me to examine and reconsider many of my assumptions about the media. Here are a few of them.

Assumption 1 –  Blogs Have Standards like Newspapers  

I can say that before reading Holiday’s book I knew there was a difference between the New York Times and The New York Post and yet somehow when it came to the world of digital media everything sort of blurred together. To me, a story published Business Insider was pretty much the same as a story published in The Washington Post. More broadly, I was operating under the assumption that any sufficiently large media outlet was governed by some sort of overarching code of media ethics – something akin to the Hippocratic oath for media – a code that you have to follow if you want to respect yourself and be respected by others. And I was totally wrong.

New digital media aka blogs are not incentivized to care about standards. If they do publish something false, they can blame it on poor sourcing and issue a correction. As long as the story has generated page-views and thereby advertising revenue they’ve still come out ahead. As TMIL puts it:  

Blogs need things to cover. The Times has to fill a newspaper only once per day. A cable news channel has to fill twenty-four hours of programming 365 days a year. But blogs have to fill an infinite amount of space…

Assumption 2 – Newspapers Have Standards

More established media outlets like The New York Times and CNN may have more stringent sourcing standards but they also live and die by advertising dollars. Thus if a story is generating a lot of attention at lower level blogs, established media outlets will feel immense pressure to cover it as well.

This creates a kind of echo chamber effect whereby stories we get exposed to are not those that are important but those that resonate and reverberate through the medium of our modern media, which is, of course, the internet.

Even within publications, the burden of proof for the print version of a newspaper might differ drastically from what reporters need to go live with a blog post. As media outlets grapple with tighter deadlines and smaller staffs, many of the old standards for verification, confirmation and fact-checking are becoming impossible to maintain.

Assumption 3 – The Truth Will Out

I always thought there was a symmetry to the news; e.g. if a there was a big scandal, then discovering that the scandal was manufactured, bogus or just plain wrong would be equally newsworthy. As Dwight Schrute would say, this is False!

Bad behavior makes us talk, public shaming and gossip are things we love to share with others. On the other hand, finding out that we were wrong about something, that our outrage and condemnation were based on nothing more than hearsay, or outright media manipulation is not the kind of thing we’re dying to share on Facebook. The media knows this and adjusts their publishing accordingly.

The example Holiday uses is Toyota. You probably heard that Toyota was pounded by the media for supposedly selling cars that accelerated on their own. Toyota ended up recalling vehicles and settling with the Department of Justice to the tune of $1.2 billion.

What you probably never heard is that an investigation by NASA determined that there was no electronic malfunction that could have caused large unintended acceleration. And yet Toyota remains guilty even after being proven innocent because exoneration doesn’t get page views.

Assumption 4 – The Media Is Selective

It’s human instinct to associate popularity with importance. If you see someone looking up, you’ll naturally tilt your head skyward to see what’s going on. In the same way we also tend to assume that if a popular media outlet is publishing something it’s worth reading. Not so.

This is because one, blogs don’t care about what’s important, they care about what’s going to generate interest. Two, they have to almost zero marginal cost for each additional story they produce. So when marketers want to pitch or even write stories for these publications the blogs are more than happy to oblige. TMIL illustrates this almost ad nauseam but my favorite example concerns a memo on the subject from Business Insider to the world at large:

In April 2011, Business Insider editor Henry Blodget put out an advisory to the PR world. He was drowning in elaborate story pitches and information about new services. He just couldn’t read them all… So he proposed a solution: the publicists could write about the product launches of their own clients and Blodget’s site would edit and publish them. ‘In short’ he concluded, ‘Please stop sending us e-mails with story ideas and just contribute directly to Business Insider. You’ll get a lot more ink for yourself and for your clients and you’ll save yourself a lot of wasted work.’

While TMIL can at times feel repetitive, braggadocious, sensational and self-righteous, it’s more than compensated for by the fact that I’m sure I’ll never look at the media the same way again. In fact, reading TMIL has convinced me to go on a media diet, a diet I think I’ll actually stick to for a change.

 



The Secret To Finding Work You Love – The ABP Criterion

Finding work we consider meaningful and enjoyable, in short, work we love, is one of the most important and difficult challenges we face. Important, because the majority of our waking lives are spent at work, and difficult because of the complete lack of attention devoted to the question by our educational system.

Indeed, given how much of our lives are spent working, consider how strange it is that you are infinitely more likely to spend a semester taking calculus, greek, or acting than you are seriously addressing how to go about finding what meaningful work means for you. In this absence of any coherent framework for addressing the problem, it’s no wonder that many people feel lost and depressed as they struggle to find the answer on their own.

The good news is that intelligent people have given the matter some serious thought, and there are tools you can use to dramatically increase your odds of success.  Among the most powerful of these tools is a three word decision rule that, if used consistently, will naturally guide you towards work you truly love.1

The rule goes like this:

A always

B be

P producing

And that’s it; Always Be Producing or ABP for short, is simply a way of saying that the true test of whether you’re making progress towards doing work you love is whether you’re producing.

For example, say you think you’d love to work as a Hollywood screenwriter.  The Always be Producing (ABP) rule asks, are you consistently producing (or trying) to turn out screenplays? Or, if say you want to be fashion designer, are you expending time and effort towards creating production quality designs?

The ABP rule states that if the answer to those questions not an unequivocal yes – if you’re not consistently producing – then you’re not doing what it takes to find work that you love.

Using the ABP criterion is that simple. The next time you start daydreaming about work you think you’d love, ask yourself why you’re not already doing it or better yet, just get started.

How ABP Works — Avoiding Psychological Traps

The ABP rule works in large part because it helps you avoid and overcome some common psychological tendencies or “traps”. Traps are detours that take us off the path of discovering what we truly love.

First among these is our tendency to assume the work we love is simply to create the things we like to consume. This a potent misconception because like any good lie it contains a grain of truth.

For example, the fact that you enjoy watching films seems to lend credence to the notion that you should be working in the film industry. The truth is that while it may in fact be an indicator that you could have a fulfilling career in the film business, enjoying films is actually a very weak predictor of what work you’ll love. This is because the experience of actually working to produce something is almost always materially different than you imagine it will be when you consume the end-product.

Take music for example. Many people love consuming it so much that it seems natural that they would love to work on creating music as work. But the act and experience of creating music is much more like sifting through and struggling with bad music than it is like consuming good music. Similarly, while an appreciation of good food is probably necessary for being a competent chef, the act of producing good food involves struggling to control the textures and flavors of ingredients under extreme pressure and is nothing like the act of eating at your favorite restaurant.

The ABP rule overcomes this psychological trap by forcing us to confront the fact that the reality of production is very different than we presume. Thus ABP keeps you from naively assuming the things you love to consume, are the things you’d love to make.

A related but distinct flavor of self delusion is our tendency to think that consuming things related to work we’d like to do is is getting us closer to doing work that we love. This trap is insidious because it feeds off our own good intentions. Our thinking often progresses along the lines of: we want to make progress towards finding work that we love, and what better way to do that than by immersing ourselves in the content of our respective passions?

As an example of this, consider the case of an aspiring film-maker who every night upon finishing her 9–5, plops down on the couch to expand her knowledge of critically acclaimed cinema. It is tempting to assume that the time she spends increasing her familiarity with great films is getting her closer to being a film-maker. But this is a dangerous misconception.

Dangerous because the superficial similarity of what we like to consume, to what we want to work on can lead us to spend time on activities that are effectively opiates. Meaning activities that make us feel like we’re making progress, when we are actually just avoiding the sometimes difficult reality of what’s required to discover where our true passion lies. The ABP rule overcomes this by rightly asserting that instead of sitting on the couch, the aspiring film-maker would be much better served by attempting even a terrible amateur film project.

Finally, there is the trap of assuming we’ve put in enough work and stopping. Especially because work that we love can sometimes feel unexpectedly like work, it’s tempting to assume that one act of creation should be enough and with one project under our belt, all we need to do is wait for the tide to roll in.

Imagine for instance an aspiring writer, he’s set his jaw and summoned the discipline, and clarity of vision necessary to complete a first book. Maybe he even finds a publisher for the book but it fails to take off in the way he expected, and in frustration he concludes that by writing this book he’s proved he wants to be a writer but in this unfair world he just can’t. The world can definitely be unfair. But according to the ABP rule, his conclusion is false; the only way to honestly say you still want to be a writer is to keep producing.

To be clear, the ABP rule isn’t saying you can’t give up. It’s just saying that you can’t delude yourself by blithely assuming that you want to be a writer or anything else, unless you’re actively trying to produce. It’s ok to change your mind about what you want to work on, the world changes, people change. The ABP rule just keeps you from lying to yourself about when you do.

Good decisions come from confronting reality. The ABP criterion is incredibly powerful because it is at it’s core a test of whether or not you’re willing to do just that. ABP works because the demands of production, consistent production, are like a knife that cuts through the veil of bullshit we use to protect our egos. Protect them from the fact that like most worthwhile things, finding what we love may not be easy, may not come quickly, may not be what we expected.




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