Last week we found out the media had again fallen for a complete hoax when it was revealed that a now-famous waitress who had been the victim of a homophobic no-tip-because-of-your-lifestyle attack in New Jersey had in fact made the whole thing up.
The original story had made the front pages of CNN, ABC, Fox News and countless others. On the Huffington Post, the story received close to 8,000 comments and 16,000 Facebook shares (with follow-ups receiving more). One Gawker story alone did something like 200,000 pageviews.
In other words, the entire media system ate up a story that millions of people then read, heard or saw, but had not bothered to check if it was true.
This is not a rare occurrence, unfortunately. The exact same thing happened with the recent “Why I Make Terrible Decisions” poverty sob story that went viral, launching from the Kinja platform before being covered everywhere, from Zerohedge to the LA Times opinion pages to a massive post on Huffington Post that was recommended more than 220,000 times. $100,000 in donations later, it turned out to be complete fiction. Oops.
It makes you wonder, right? What else did you recently read that was utterly untrue? Are these stories the exceptions? Or are they the tip of the iceberg? What other hoaxes, lies, embellishments and lazy reporting did we all fall for?
Probably a lot.
This is a media environment where, when criticized for falling for such a hoax, Gawker’s editor defended himself by saying that if he stopped publishing such stories, “traffic would crater.”
Understanding how the media actually works is critical. Because editors depend on ignorance and media illiteracy to ply their trade. The fact that many readers expect fact checking, editorial oversight and ethics actually makes it easier for the media to be lazy. They coast on assumptions that are no longer remotely true.
So what is one supposed to do? How does one learn how this system really works?
Well it turns out that the media system has operated on many of the same principles for a very long time. Smart people have been exposing these flaws, revealing how the system really works for just as long. For instance, one can flip through the journals of James Fenimore Cooper to hear him bitching about newspapers misreporting the run-up to the Civil War–just like they did for the Spanish American War, for Vietnam and for Iraq.
Nearly 100 years ago, Upton Sinclair self-published this muckraking exposé of the corrupt and broken press system in America. It will change your understanding of journalism much in the same way that The Jungle changed your perceptions of industrial agriculture in that era and in today’s times. The title is a reference to prostitutes, which in Mr. Sinclair’s estimation, most journalists were. It’s a fitting indictment even now, when journalists are paid by the number of pageviews their articles get, or worse, churn them out in the digital equivalent of a sweatshop. There is not a page in this book that does not apply as much today as it did back then and every person whose life or career is affected by the media in any way needs to read this book.
Our former Librarian of Congress wrote this book, but don’t let that scare you away. Because in 1960, before talk radio, Fox News or blogs, he was able to successfully predict the false reality and echo chamber that our media culture was going to become. According to Mr. Boorstin, a “pseudo-event” is any event or announcement created solely for the purpose of getting the attention of the media. This creates a kind of unreality, where everyone is performing not for the people but for publicity. Well today, when 99% of the news is a press conference, press release, premiere party, “leak,” “exclusive,” or celebrity tweet, you have to say he was right.
Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism by W. Joseph Campbell
Let’s be clear: there was no golden age of journalism. The media has always been bad. And instead of improving, it spent a lot of time and energy making up its own myth. The reality is that William Randolph Hearst and the yellow press did not cause a war with Spain. Walter Cronkite did not end the Vietnam War by turning against it. People did not riot in the streets when passages from The War of the Worlds were read over the radio. And it wasn’t the Washington Post that brought down Nixon. All of that was media myth making. The news is notoriously inaccurate and our memory of it is even worse.
There are few people who have read more news stories than Drew Curtis, founder of Fark.com. Creating and running one of the web’s first and biggest news aggregators gave him one of the best perspectives you could hope for in a book about the media. Plus, he’s actually funny–not a boring, old and condescending media studies nerd. Everything you need to know about spotting, catching and protecting yourself from media fluff and sensationalism is in this book. Read it.
The last thing we need to fear is a malicious Orwellian political censorship, because what we have already is so much worse: culture incentivized to be as shallow, fabricated, and captivating as possible—at the expense of what is actually real or true or meaningful. The news as entertainment is the real danger, because the truth or accuracy of what it is reporting becomes irrelevant. This is what we are seeing today. Mr. Postman prompts us with a crucial question to ask whenever we see, hear or read something: What do I plan to do with this information? If you don’t have an answer, stop! You’re being played.
Of course there are many other great books on the media out there. Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is mindblowing. Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion (published 1922) is, like Sinclair’s The Brass Check, still relevant all these years later. Michael Schudson’s Discovering The News gives a great history of the business. So does Edward J. Epstein’s The News from Nowhere and my favorite, Between Fact and Fiction. Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble is important as well (though as I have written, a bit hypocritical). There is great fiction, too, like The Harder They Fall and All The King’s Men.
I get that a lot of these books are old. Some are really old. But that’s a good thing. It means they stood the test of time and survived many media–from print to radio to TV to cable to the internet. I’m convinced they will still be relevant fifty years from now, which is why I am hoping you’ll read them and benefit from them.
What you’ll understand from each of them is that the real threat of media manipulation doesn’t come from the outside. It comes from the media itself. They are the real manipulators–not publicists, not politicians or the CIA.
As a final (and more current) recommendation, I urge everyone to read Patrick Goldstein’s excellent longread about the journalism war between the Hollywood trades. In one niche, we see the microcosm of the entire news business: the toxic economics, the toxic personalities, and the broken news they create. It all calls to mind that classic Kissinger saying about how the “knives are so sharp because the pie is so small.”
That same fight is happening right now in every niche from sports to gossip to politics. And it’s changing what you see and how you see it.
As Russell Brand put it in a moving editorial this week, “There is a certain duty that comes with being the anointed purveyor of truth. Can we trust that our media is fulfilling that duty?”
The answer is no. Which means the job falls on us, on you.
I hope these books help.
Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and Growth Hacker Marketing and is an adviser to many brands and authors.