In "Trust Me, I'm Lying," Ryan Holiday confesses his PR sins, blowing the whistle on the online media in the process.
Trust Me, I'm Lying is maddening. The book by Ryan Holiday chronicles the ways publicists manipulate the current online media climate to advance their own agendas, taking advantage of structural flaws at the core of what might be considered the mainstream blogosphere. He opens with the story of Tim Pawlenty's brief run for the Republican presidential nomination, and how a blogger at Politico following Pawlenty became grounds for a New York Times story speculating that he may be mounting a candidacy even though he didn't have a bus or a manager, and that became enough to get television news interested. For a few months, Pawlenty was taken seriously as a candidate without generating any actual enthusiasm.
Holiday presents this story as an illustration of how badly the online journalism system works, which may be a bit melodramatic considering how reality eventually caught up with Pawlenty's run, and that streak runs through the book. Still, his big picture is accurate enough. "By 'blog, I'm referring collectively to all online publishing," he writes, and the imperative to generate traffic drives online coverage toward the cheap and salacious. It creates a disincentive to thorough storytelling, he says. People won't read stories longer than 800 words, so writers simplify and truncate stories. If a topic is hot and generates clicks, there's incentive to keep the story alive longer than it merits and with flimsier and flimsier pretexts. The rush to get a scoop leads to hasty, shoddy journalism with little incentive to genuinely correct errors.
Holiday's concern is that this process leads to unreliable information driving our civic and political lives. He writes, "When the news is decided not by what is important but by what readers are clicking; when the cycle is so fast that the news cannot be anything else but consistently and regularly incomplete; when dubious scandals pressure politicians to resign and scuttle election bids or knock millions from market caps of publicly traded companies; when the news frequently covers itself in stories about 'how the story unfolded'--unreality is the only word for it. It is, as Daniel Boorstin, author of 1962's The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, put it, a 'thicket ... which stands between us and the facts of life.'"
Holiday moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans to write Trust Me, I'm Lying, and he'll sign books Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Octavia Books. As New Orleans prepares to go all-in on digital journalism, it's disturbing but valuable reading.
The "I" in the title is Holiday himself, and he writes from experience. In his role as a media strategist, he created false controversies and took advantage of the system for his clients' interests. At some point, he realized that the playbook he used to get attention for American Apparel and professional lout Tucker Max was being used for more nefarious purposes, such as the demolition of the reputation of Shirley Sherrod. Still, he balks when I ask if he has become more ethical as a publicist.
"I think 'ethics' is a complicated word," he says. "These aren't so much things I've wanted to do as much as they're things that had to be done. If you want to get attention, this is the only way that works on the Internet. I wish it wasn't that way. Writing this book was about making it clear that this is the system for better or worse. It's going to be on the public if that's how they want it to continue to go."
The problem Holiday sees is that the pressure to get clicks compromises journalists, and the relatively easy entryway into online journalism allows people to get in the game without much of a journalistic compass. It's the role of journalists to sort out the truth from the hype for readers, he says, but "with the advent of the Internet, they've abdicated their role as the purveyor of truth, and they just sell shit that will get page views."
Many bloggers and followers of blogs will likely take issue with the way Holiday lumps together the single-user blogs that were so important a part of New Orleans' post-Katrina media landscape with Gawker, Buzzfeed, Jezebel and Huffington Post--large, multi-person enterprises that blur the distinction between news and entertainment.
"'Blog' is the word I decided to use for this page view-driven mindset," Holiday says. "The reality is that The Huffington Post is driven by that mindset, just as much as The New York Times is, just as much as basically anybody publishing content on the Internet. Are YouTube users bloggers? No, but is their view of the world essentially the same as a blogger? Yes. I don't like the word 'blogosphere' because it's kind of lame, but that whole network of interconnected, independent media institutions known as blogs are undoubtedly the dominant culture medium. They're where we get most of our information and they drive our information cycle. Their economics are a lot different than people would expect." What's changed since Hurricane Katrina's aftermath is the amount of money involved in blogging. "They weren't selling to companies like AOL for $300 to $400 million, and now that kind of money's on the table."
Like so many New Orleanians, he has concerns about how this logic will affect the state of journalism in New Orleans as The Times-Picayune becomes a thrice-a-week publication and Nola.com becomes the enterprise's dominant voice. Even if it doesn't tie compensation to clicks, Holiday says it can't help but affect the nature of coverage. "When you're publishing on the Internet, you start to care a lot less about the people of New Orleans and you start to care a lot more about anyone who's willing to read your stuff," he says. "You're deciding to cover some high school girls' basketball game that's only going to get views from a small population or cute puppy photos that will get clicks from all over the world."
The solution is simple but it's not, and Holiday's not optimistic. The obsession with page views is detrimental and wrongheaded. In Trust Me, I'm Lying, he argues that traffic's significance is overvalued, and that it doesn't necessarily translate to higher ad revenues as many ads get sold cheaply regardless of the number of page views. A better model than tying the site's money to advertising and compensation to page views is to base the outlet's income on subscriptions. "I don't know if that's viable as a business model," he says. "I just know that it creates more positive incentives."
Although he blows the whistle on many of his manipulations in the book, he hasn't necessarily forsworn all of them. He is, after all, a media strategist.
"My job is to market and get publicity," Holiday says. " My job is not the job of a journalist, which is to get to the truth and protect their readers."