Click here to play the podcast. In this episode of the Gweek podcast I interviewed Ryan Holiday. Ryan’s the author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. He’s a media strategist who started his career as an assistant to Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power and is currently the director of marketing at American Apparel.
Bonus! Here’s an excerpt from Trust Me, I’m Lying.
Irin Carmon, the Daily Show and Me: The Perfect Storm of How Toxic Blogging Can Be, by Ryan Holiday
“Most crucially, that machine, whether it churns through social media or television appearances, doesn’t reward bipartisanship or deal making; it rewards the easily retweetable or sound bite–ready statement, the more outrageous the better.”
— Irin Carmon, Jezebel
In the first half of my book, I give reader the inside on how to manipulate blogs. There are fatal flaws in the blogging medium that create opportunities for influence over the media—and, ultimately, culture itself. And if I were writing this book two or three years ago, it would have ended there.
I did not fully understand the dangers of that world. The costs of the cheap power I had as a media manipulator were hidden, but once revealed, I could not shake them. I had used my tactics to sell T-shirts and books, but others, I found, used them more expertly and to more ominous ends. They sold everything from presidential candidates to distractions they hoped would placate the public—and made (or destroyed) millions in the process.
Realizing all this changed me. It made it impossible for me to continue down the path that I was on. The second half of this book explains why. It is an investigation not in how the dark arts of media manipulation work but of their consequences.
HOW BLOGS CREATE THEIR OWN NARRATIVES FOR FUN AND PROFIT
In 2010, I oversaw the launch of a new line of a Made in USA, environmentally friendly nail polish for American Apparel. Although American Apparel typically manufactures all of its products at its vertically integrated factory in L.A., for this product we’d collaborated with an old-fashioned family-owned factory in Long Island, where even their ninety-year-old grandmother still worked on the factory floor. Shortly after shipping the polish to rave reviews, we noticed that several bottles had cracked or burst underneath the bright halogen lights in our stores.
It didn’t pose a risk to our customers, but to be safe rather than sorry, we informed the factory that we’d be pulling the polish from store shelves and expected immediate replacements. We’d discussed the plan in-depth on a weekly conference call with our relevant employees. A confidential e-mail was sent to store managers informing them of the changes and asking them to place the bottles in a cool, dry place in the store until instructions for proper disposal were given. The last thing we wanted, even with environmentally friendly nail polish, was to throw fifty thousand bottles of it in trashcans in twenty countries.
A Jezebel blogger named Irin Carmon somehow received this innocent internal communication and e-mailed me at 6:25 a.m. West Coast time (Gawker is in Manhattan) to ask about it. Well, she pretended to ask me about it, since she signed her e-mail with the following:
Our post with the initial information is going up shortly, but I would be more than happy to update or post a follow-up. Thanks so much. Irin
By the time I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, the post was already live. When I saw it, all I could feel was a pit in my stomach—and, frankly, that surprised me. I knew how blogs worked, was plenty cynical, but even then I sensed that this would be awful.
The headline of Jezebel’s piece: “Does American Apparel’s New Nail Polish Contain Hazardous Material?”
To settle Jezebel’s reckless conjecture: The answer is no, it doesn’t. Unequivocally no. For starters, the leaked e-mail specifically says the problem was with the glassware and mentions nothing about the polish. But Carmon wasn’t actually interested in any of that and she definitely wasn’t interested in writing an article that addressed the issue fairly. Why would she want an actual answer to her incredibly disingenuous question? The post was already written. Hell, it was already published.
As I had not intended to discuss the nail polish bottles publicly yet, it took about an hour for me to get a statement approved by the company lawyers. During that time dozens of other blogs were already parroting her claims. Major blogs, many of which had posted positive reviews of the nail polish on their sites, followed her bogus lead. The story was so compelling (American Apparel! Toxic polish! Exploding glass!) they had to run with it, true or not.
Within about an hour I e-mailed the following statement to Carmon, thinking I was taking her up on the offer for a follow-up to her first post:
After receiving a few reports of bottles breaking, we made the internal decision to do a voluntary recall of the bottles on both a retail and public level.
We chose this small US manufacturer to produce our nail polish because we support their business model and have a fondness for [the] family who runs it. However, one of the realities of all manufacturing is first-run glitches. We worked all last week with the manufacturer to make the improvements necessary for the second run. Another reason we sought out a US-based company is so we would be able make changes, and now we can investigate what went wrong as quickly as possible. We still believe in the factory we’re working with and the new polish will be in stores within the next two weeks.
We will offer an exchange of two new bottles or a $10 gift card for anyone who brings in a unit from the original run or a receipt.
On another note, one thing we’re taking very seriously is the disposal of the bottles we had in the stores. Even though our polish was DBP-, toluene-, and formaldehyde-free, we don’t want our stores just tossing it in the trash. We’re using our internal shipping and distribution line to arrange a pickup and removal of the polish to make sure it gets done right.
I felt this was a great—and ethical—response. But it was too late. Carmon copied and pasted my statement to the bottom of the article and left the headline exactly as it was, adding only “Updated” to the end of it. Even though the statement disproved the premise of her article, Carmon’s implication was that she was mostly right and was just adding a few new details. She wasn’t—she’d been totally wrong, but it didn’t matter, because the opportunity to change the readers’ minds had passed. The facts had been established.
To make matters worse, Carmon replied to my last e-mail with a question about another trumped-up story she planned to write about the company. She ended again with:
By the way, just FYI—I’d love to be able to include your responses in my initial post, but unfortunately I won’t be able to wait for them, so if this is something you can immediately react to, that would be great.
The controversy eventually meant the undoing of the nail polish company we’d worked so hard to support. Had these blogs not rushed to print a bogus story, the problem could have been handled privately. The massive outcry that followed Carmon’s post necessitated an immediate and large-scale response that the cosmetic company could not handle. No question, they’d made mistakes, but nothing remotely close to what was reported. Overwhelmed by the controversy and the pressure from the misplaced anger of the blogger horde, the small manufacturer fell behind on their orders. Their operations fell into disarray, and the company was later sued by American Apparel for $5 million in damages to recover various losses. As the lawyers would say, while the nail polish company is responsible for their manufacturing errors, if not for Carmon’s needless attack and rush to judgment—the proximate cause—it all could have been worked out.
Carmon is a media manipulator—she just doesn’t know it. She may think she is a writer, but everything about her job makes her a media manipulator. She and I are in the same racket. From the twisting of the facts, the creation of a nonexistent story, the merciless use of attention for profit—she does what I do. The system I abused was now abusing me and the people I cared about. And nobody had any idea.
A PATTERN OF MANIPULATION
Did you know that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart hates women? And that they have a long history of discriminating against and firing women?
Sure, one of its cocreators is female, and one of its best-known and longest- running correspondents is a woman, and there really isn’t any evidence to prove what I just claimed, but I assure you, I’d never lie.
This was the manufactured scandal that Jezebel slammed into The Daily Show in June 2010. Irin Carmon’s piece blindsided them just as her Jezebel nail polish story had blindsided us. It began when Carmon posted an article titled, “The Daily Show’s Woman Problem.”
Relying on some juicy quotes from people no longer with the show, Carmon claimed that the show had a poor record of finding and developing female comedic talent. She was also determined to make a name for herself. In order to accomplish this, she didn’t actually speak to anyone who still worked for The Daily Show. It was much easier to use a collection of anonymous and off-the-record sources—like an ex-employee who hadn’t worked there for eight years. As you should expect by now, the article was a sensation.
The cluster of stories that followed were read more than 500,000 times.
The story was picked up by ABC News, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, E!, Salon, and others. In a memo to his staff, Carmon’s boss and the publisher of Gawker, Nick Denton, commended the story for getting the kind of publicity that can’t be bought. Denton wrote, “It was widely circulated within the media, spawned several more discussions, and affirmed our status as both an influencer and a muckraker.” Jon Stewart was even forced to respond to the story on air. The New York Times rewarded Carmon and the website with a glowing profile: “A Web Site That’s Not Afraid to Pick a Fight.”
For a writer like Carmon, whose pay is determined by the number of pageviews her posts receive, this was a home run. And for a publisher like Denton, the buzz the story generated made his company more attractive to advertisers and increased the valuation of his brand.
That her story was a lie didn’t matter. That it was part of a pattern of manipulation didn’t matter.
The women of The Daily Show published an open letter on the show’s website a few days after the story hit.3 Women accounted for some 40 percent of the staff, the letter read, from writers and producers to correspondents and interns, and had over a hundred years’ experience on the show among them. The letter was remarkable in its clarity and under- standing of what the blogger was doing. They addressed it, “Dear People Who Don’t Work Here” and called Carmon’s piece an “inadequately re- searched blog post” that clung “to a predetermined narrative about sexism at The Daily Show.”
If I hadn’t experienced the exact situation myself, the letter would have made me hopeful that the truth would win out. But that’s not how it works online. The next day the New York Times ran an article about their response. “ ‘The Daily Show’ Women Say the Staff Isn’t Sexist” the headline blared.
Think about how bullshit that is: Because the Jezebel piece came first, the letter from The Daily Show women is shown merely as a response instead of the refutation that it actually was. No matter how convincing, it only reasserts, in America’s biggest newspaper, Carmon’s flimsy claim of sexism on the show. They could never undo what they’d be accused of— no matter how spurious the accusation—they could only deny it. And denials don’t mean anything online.
Kahane Cooperman, a female co–executive producer at the show, told the New York Times: “No one called us, no one talked to us. We felt like, we work here, we should take control of the narrative.” She didn’t know how it works. Jezebel controls the narrative. Carmon made it up; no one else had a right to it.
The day after the story ran, but before the women of The Daily Show could respond, Carmon got another post out of the subject: “5 Unconvincing Excuses for Daily Show Sexism,” as she titled it—dismissing in advance the criticism leveled by some concerned and skeptical commenters. It was a preemptive strike to marginalize anyone who doubted her shaky accusations and to solidify her pageview-hungry version of reality.
In the titles of her first and second articles, you can see what she is doing. The Daily Show’s “Woman Problem” from her first post became their “Sexism” in her second. One headline bootstraps the next; the what-ifs of the first piece became the basis for the second. Her story proves itself.
When the New York Times asked Carmon to respond to the women of The Daily Show’s claim that they were not interviewed or contacted for the story (which restated the allegations), she “refused to comment further.” Yet when The Daily Show supposedly invoked this right by not speaking to Carmon it was evidence that they were hiding something. A double standard? I wouldn’t expect anything different.
Did Carmon update her piece to reflect the dozens of comments released by Daily Show women? Or at least give their response a fair shake? No, of course not. In a forty-word post (forty words!) she linked their statement with the tag “open letter” and whined that she just wished they spoken up when she was writing the story. She didn’t acknowledge the letter’s claim that they actually had tried to speak with her and neglected to mention that it’s her job to get their side of the story before publishing, even if that’s difficult or time-consuming.
How many Jezebel readers do you think threw out their original impression for a new one? Or even saw the update? The post making the accusation did 333,000 views. Her post showing the Daily Show women’s response did 10,000 views—3 percent of the impressions of the first shot.
Did Carmon really send repeated requests for comment to The Daily Show? A major television show like that would get hundreds of requests a week. Who did she contact? Did she provide time for them to respond? Or is it much more likely that she gave the show a cursory heads-up minutes before publication? In my direct personal experience, the answers to these questions are appalling. No wonder she wouldn’t explain her methods to the Times. All I have to go on is my personal history with Carmon, and it tells me that at every juncture she does whatever will benefit her most. I’ve seen the value she places on the truth—particularly if it gets in the way of a big story.
There is something deeply twisted about an arrangement like this one. Carmon’s accusation received five times as many views as the post about The Daily Show women’s response, even though the latter undermines much of the former. There is something wrong with the way the writer is compensated for both pieces—as well as the third, fourth, or fifth she managed to squeeze out of the topic (again, more than five hundred thou- sand pageviews combined). Finally, there is something wrong with the fact that Denton’s sites benefit merely by going toe-to-toe with a cultural icon like Jon Stewart—even if their reports are later discredited. They know this; it’s why they do it.
This is how it works online. A writer finds a narrative to advance that is profitable to them, or perhaps that they are personally or ideologically motivated to advance, and are able to thrust it into the national consciousness before anyone has a chance to bother checking if it’s true or not.
Emily Gould, one of the original editors of Gawker, later wrote a piece for Slate.com entitled “How Feminist Blogs Like Jezebel Gin Up Page Views by Exploiting Women’s Worst Tendencies” in which she explained the motivations behind such a story:
It’s a prime example of the feminist blogosphere’s tendency to tap into the market force of what I’ve come to think of as “outrage world”—the regularly occurring firestorms stirred up on mainstream, for-profit, woman-targeted blogs like Jezebel and also, to a lesser degree, Slate’s own XX Factor and Salon’s Broadsheet. They’re ignited by writers who are pushing readers to feel what the writers claim is righteously indignant rage but which is actually just petty jealousy, cleverly mar- keted as feminism. These firestorms are great for page-view-pimping bloggy business.
Let me take this to its natural conclusion. Writers like Irin Carmon are driven more by shrewd self-interest and disdain for the consequences than they are by jealousy. It’s a pattern for Carmon, as we’ve seen. She’s not stopping, either.
Just a few months later, needing to reproduce her previous success, she saw an opportunity for a similar story, about producer and director Judd Apatow. After spotting him at a party, she tried to recapture the same outrage that had propelled her Daily Show piece into the public consciousness by again accusing a well-liked public figure of something impossible to deny.
The actual events of the evening: Director Judd Apatow attended a party hosted by a friend. Carmon attempted to corner and embarrass him for story she wanted to write but failed. Yet in the world of blogging, this becomes the headline: “Judd Apatow Defends His Record on Female Characters.” It did about thirty-five thousand views and a hundred comments.
Carmon tried to “get” him, and did. I guess I have to give her credit, because this time she actually talked to the person she hoped to make her scapegoat. But still, you can actually see, as it happens, her effort to trap
Apatow with the same insinuations and controversy that she did with Stewart. In the interview, Carmon repeatedly presented criticism of Apatow’s movies as generally accepted fact that she was merely the conduit for, referring to his “critics” as though she wasn’t speaking for herself.
From the interview:
Q: So you think that’s unfair that you’ve gotten that criticism?
A: Oh, I definitely think that it’s unfair. . . . But that’s okay.
Q: I wonder if you could elaborate on your defense a little bit. A: I’m not defensive about it.
Q: Do the conversation and the criticism change the way you work?
A: I don’t hear any of the criticism when I test the movies and talk to thousands of people. I think the people who talk about these things on the Internet are looking to stir things up to make for interesting reading, but when you make movies, thousands of people fill out cards telling you their intimate feelings about the movies, and those criticisms never came up, ever, on any of the movies.
In other words, there is nothing to any of her claims. But the post went up anyway. And she got paid just the same. Notoriety from events of 2010 and 2011 worked very nicely for Carmon—in the form of a staff position at Salon.com and a spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list.
Honestly, her tactics may have once impressed me. I have no problem when people get their piece of the profits—particularly when the whole scene is such a farce. The problem is when they get too greedy. The problem is when they stop being able to see anything but the need for their own gain.
Today, I’m not impressed anymore. I am depressed. Because the corrupt system I helped build is no longer in anyone’s control. The manipulators are indistinguishable from the publishers and bloggers—the people we were supposed to be manipulating. Everyone is now a victim, including me and the companies I work for. And the costs are incredibly high.
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See also: Man punks journalist