Cavet freakin’ emptor, amigo: A review of Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying with fear and loathing

July 28, 2012

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator
by Ryan Holiday
(Portfolio/Penguin, $26.95)

I think I’ve told this story before, but anyway, it seems apropos.

A long time ago, at a newspaper 214 miles away, a couple of young reporters got bored. So they decided to start a rumor that the current Secretary of State of the unnamed geopolitical entity they were living in was being considered as the next commissioner of Major League Baseball, after Bowie Kuhn. (Which was about the coolest job that the young reporters could imagine for a career politician.)

There was no basis to this rumor. We They were just bored.

So the first thing they did was create a file in the computer system. In this file, which they slugged “Secretary of State Possible Scoop,” they typed a bunch of questions, alleged for the SOS, about his entirely fictional imminent job with MLB. Stuff along the lines of:

when leaving? resigning? at end of term?

gov. appoint sucessor? special election?

interest in sport? playing background?

connection to Kuhn? (Handpicked by current commish source sez)

The file went into what they thought of as a “basket” in the dedicated computer system
the newspaper they worked for shared with their main competitor — who operated across the hall in what was in those days was known as “a joint-operating agreement.” Part of this agreement was that the competitors’ reporters wouldn’t look at our boys’ files, but they suspected there were at least one or two members of the other side who didn’t follow the agreement to the letter. (This was 30 years ago — you didn’t need to be all that sophisticated to defeat what passed as cyber security.)

That was about all they did, though over the course of the next couple of days, while they were working their various beats, both of them did ask a couple of people if they’d heard the rumor. (Some verified that they had, which struck our lads as very funny, though neither of them let on that it was a pure fabrication.)

Anyway, a couple of weeks went by, and the SOS held a press conference on another, totally unrelated matter. And in the course of this press conference, one of the reporters from the competiton whom our heroes had suspected of reading their supposedly private files, asked the SOS if indeed he had agreed to become the next baseball commissioner. The other newspaper’s reporter even said he had “information” (which wasn’t exactly a lie) that the SOS had been recommended for the job by the current commissioner.

Our boys were jubilant — not only had they proved that the competition was peeeking at their files, they had caused one of their chief antagonists to embarrass himself in front of the SOS and the geopolitcal entity’s journalistic elite. Or so they thought.

What they hadn’t anticipated, was that the SOS would smile, and coyly deflect the question. “I can’t talk about that right now,” he said.

Luckily for our boys, little attentioon was paid to this incident — no one ordered anyone to do a followup and pin the SOS down on this baseball commissioner madness. I’m not even sure the exchange was ever even reported. But the lesson is pretty clear. It’s not that hard to “exploit the media.” Not if you’re willing to lie.

Ryan Holiday, whose book Trust Me, I’m Lying is sitting on my desk as I write this piece, is willing to lie. And so he has managed to get a lot of publicity for his clients, because some — maybe a lot — of journalists are lazy and like to get things for free. And now that we have the Internet, we have a lot of people who fancy themselves journalists (and who are in fact journalists) who don’t necessarily buy into or even know the traditional rules about trusting and verifying and disclosing conflicts and stuff like that. So it’s even easier now than it was 30 years ago to plant fake stories.

That said, I enjoyed Holiday’s book. It’s funny in places, and as far as I know, he never made a fool of me. I didn’t bite on any of that Tucker Max stuff — I don’t think I wrote anything at all about the movie I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell that Holiday promoted. (Full disclosure, my wife Karen reviewed the DVD. She didn’t like it. I just remember that it was pretty boring.)

So I’m good. Heh heh. Some “journalists” are stupid. Though I’m not sure I buy Holiday’s thesis that he’s pretty brilliant. He’s just willing to do things that some — I almost said “most” — people won’t. People who do that do generally win — for a while. We call them cheaters. And it’s silly to pretend they don’t prosper — look at Wall Street. Look at the New England Patriots.

But anyway, I don’t know if I believe some of the stuff here anyway. That’s sort of a joke. Most of it I have no trouble believing, but it doesn’t really tell me anything I didn’t know. Holiday would probably be a fun guy to have a drink with — and there’s a way to receive this book as a public service. But it’s kind of a depressing truth he tells. People are dumb. And lazy. Caveat friggin’ emptor, amigo.

I rather read Updike or Cheever or Philip Roth. You get some of the same lessons there, without the self-aggrandizement. But then Ryan Holiday appears to be very young — unless he’s lying about that too — and he lives in New Orleans (again, I didn’t check that out), so I’m inclined to give him a break.

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