Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. By Ryan Holiday. New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-59184-628-4.
How bad are things in what has been dubbed the “lame-stream media?” If Ryan Holiday is to be believed, Fox News is indeed “fair and balanced” when compared to online sites such as Gawker, The Huffington Post, Mashable, and BNET. Or maybe not. One of Holiday’s major points is that what’s left of the mainstream media has been so drastically pared that it relies upon bloggers for news feeds, tips, and breaking information. That’s not a good thing. Holiday insists that trolls, shills, and liars like him populate the blogosphere.
The book title invites us to distrust Holiday and you should definitely raise your skepticism shields before plowing into his book. Still, given that Holiday pioneered and profited handsomely from some of the online media’s worst tactics, he’s at least a semi-credible source. The world he describes makes the days of yellow journalism seem charmingly innocent. Forget the adage that perception is reality; the blogosphere invents and commodifies each. A slow news day is no problem for bloggers skillful enough to tailor a rack of suits from a single loose thread. Ask Toyota, which paid millions of dollars for lawsuits, retrofitting, and manufacturing redesign when blogs began humming of stuck accelerators. In nearly all cases, nothing more sinister than operator error was in play, but soon every speeding yahoo on the freeway was blaming Toyota for his actions.
How did it get this bad? Didn’t open web gurus like Jeff Jarvis promise us that the information highway and citizen journalism would democratize information and politics? Holiday argues that “process journalism”–publish immediately and allow stories to evolve organically–gave way to “iterative journalism” in which a central message is put forth and endlessly repeated, facts be damned. The latter created a culture in which hits on one’s blog are more important than truth. Buzz sells and a well-crafted, oft-repeated story becomes fact-resistant. If you think buzz hasn’t replaced time as money and truth as perception, check out Holiday’s case studies–including his efforts to convince us that the generic offerings of American Apparel are high-fashion chic, or how he made millions for ‘fratire’ peddler Max Tucker by enhancing his misogynist image through a manufactured backlash.
In essence, journalism has been hijacked by advocacy advertising with all its inherent propaganda tendencies. When forced–and that’s the right word–to issue corrections and retractions, bloggers simply bury them at the bottom of websites where few will see them. Holiday categorically states, “Corrections online are a joke” (178). Really clever bloggers reduce legal liability through judicious use of weasel words: might, according to reports, escalating buzz, possibly, we’re hearing…. (170) But make no mistake; buzz and publicity are so potentially lucrative that no one can ignore the bloggers that peddle it. Holiday identifies the blogger’s nine tactics through which they win clients and influence the public, a list that includes: “tell them what they want to hear” (49), “give them what spreads, not what’s good,” (69) “make it all about the headline,” (87), and “just make stuff up” (113). Most horrifying of all is that these are often now the people who are the original ‘source’ of stories that appear on the nightly news or on the pages of the New York Times.
Holiday tells a distressing story that will be of enormous interest to journalism scholars and those studying digital media. Alas, I wish the study was better told. Toward the end of the book Holiday warns us of the dangers of “snark” (195), but that’s largely the tone of this book. Holiday clearly dislikes several other bloggers and, denials notwithstanding, it often sounds personal. What purports to be the confessional of an individual who has had a change of heart, comes off like one rapper dissing another. Moreover, Holiday’s conversion experience seems (note my weasel word!) to have occurred when he found himself and his clients on the attack end of the blog culture he helped create. His writing is both sophomoric and soporific. We should pay serious attention to the issues Ryan Holiday raises, but one longs for a more articulate reform advocate with a less ambiguous moral core.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst