Book Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying

If you pay close enough attention and question everything you see, you probably by now know the media lies to you on a consistent basis and perpetuates hoaxes without regard to the truth. What you didn’t know is Ryan Holiday, the former Director of Marketing for American Apparel, wrote the book on it three years ago. “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” is the playbook of the hoaxing journalist exposed, as well as the secrets of those who pull at their strings to advance a given narrative. Here’s the takeaways from Holiday’s book:

1. Journalism as we once perceived it is dead, now fueled by a blog based economy prone to manipulation. 

Our former belief structure concerning news was that reporters would take the time to question subjects, investigate facts, and then present the news to the readers or viewers. Today, the model involves taking nuggets of information from blogs or lazy sourcing outlets like “Help A Reporter Out,” turning it into a series of links used for “credibility,” and then advancing that story to a “major” news outlet like the New York Times or Washington Post.

This structure, advocated by media “influencers” like Jeff Jarvis, Henry Blodget, and Nick Denton is incredibly prone to manipulation by people who know websites depend on page views and bloggers who need eyes on their work every hour. Fake an email account, send something outrageous to a blog writer needing web traffic for the day, and you’ve managed to start the seeds for a media hoax.

2. In today’s news, feelings matter more than facts.

If you want to make sure your story gets the attention of a major media outlet the best thing you can possibly do is play on emotion. Happiness is good, but it doesn’t match the levels of attention one gets by exploiting anger and outrage. That’s why so many articles you see gaining traction are what I’ve referred to for a long time as “outrage porn.” Slate, Salon, Jezebel, and the now defunct Gawker are perfect examples of all this, but it’s interesting to see even “credible” publications like The Atlantic go in this route as November approaches.

After reading Holiday’s book, and thinking about it in the context of the current election cycle coverage, it’s quite laughable to look back and see the media print articles on how to quell the “hatred” fermenting in America right now, and what can be done to reduce the hate. It’s as if those who bullshit are trying to either make a faux-apology for their bullshit, or simply start another round of ways to play with the unsuspecting public.

3. Truth means nothing in the world of “updates.” 

This is especially true if the headline reads something to the effect of “Did Glenn Back Rape and Murder a Young Girl In 1990?” Holiday points out this is the sort of headline used by clickbait bloggers to get you to read a story that is demonstratively false, or contains numerous lies, and yet still makes it to the front page as “fact.” It’s also easy enough to counter claims of falsehood with statements such as “reliable sources tell us,” “this still developing story,” and more. If there’s an issue later pointed out by a reader, either through online comments or social media, all the poster or an editor has to do is change a few things around, add (UPDATE) to the story title, and then propagate the same bullshit over again.

4. Feed the lie machine long enough and it will come back to bite you. 

It’s very cool how Ryan Holiday includes anecdotes in his book how strategies he used to benefit some of his clients were eventually used against him by other individuals in the media world. I think this is one of the bigger reasons Ryan felt motivated to write “Trust Me, I’m Lying.” By the time people were contacting real estate developers in New York after Holiday emphatically told a reporter “No, we’re not closing any American Apparel stores in New York” he knew the machine he’d helped create and used for the benefit of himself and his clients had grown into a monster that needed exposure, if not shuttering completely.

5. In the media world, it’s all fun and games. No one means a word they say. 

Go back to that point I referenced earlier about outrage and anger driving so much news? If you were to ask the hack at Gizmodo six months from now what made him so angry about Ken Bone, he’d probably wonder what you were talking about. The same goes for the Gawker writer who penned the post that saw Justine Sacco fired by the time she landed in South Africa. No one writing the outrage material actually feels any sort of hatred or anger toward their targets. They just write a hit job then move on to ruining someone or something else in worship of the almighty page view.

This disregard for the subject and continued pursuit for pageviews is a problem of the highest magnitude. It could lead to an era where journalists engaged in “hit pieces” might find themselves unexpected targets. Roosh V wrote a short story outlining such a scenario. Holiday’s work, scarily enough, outlines where Roosh’s fiction might become a reality.

“Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” is currently in a revised, expanded edition with appendices containing articles Holiday’s written on media hoaxes and manipulation, as well as case studies of hoaxes he started, how they played out in real time, and how the end results either benefitted or harmed him. I highly recommend you purchase the revised, expanded version if possible for that material’s value.

Ryan Holiday’s book is a wealth of information on how you’re lied to by the media daily. As he says in the introduction, “what you do with this information is up to you.”