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.