I’m not sure when I first became aware of Charles C. Johnson. It may have been from a few tweets he directed at me. It might have been from one of the numerous controversial profiles of him in the New York Times, Politico, Gawker and other places. I do specifically recall being tagged in a tweet for a $500 bounty he’d put on anyone who could get an advertiser to pull out of Al Sharpton’s TV show.
It was exactly the kind of political divisiveness that I have tried to cut out of my life over the last few years, so I mostly ignored it. It’s also the kind of stunt that has made Charles wildly popular in some conservative circles. He’s aggressive, he’s unorthodox, he knows which buttons to press. With the collapse of traditional media, he’s figured out how to drive media narratives better than just about anyone. In this way, he is very much the heir to the legacy of Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe.
For some people, that’s an honor. Others consider it a damning insult. To some, Charles is a toxic troll, abusing the system. To an equal number of people, he’s a maverick and a truth teller.
I can see it both ways. It’s complicated and here’s why: Charles cites my book Trust Me, I’m Lying as one of his most significant influences. In other words, I may want disavow what he does, but I cannot avoid admitting that he is partially a reflection of myself. It’s an unusual position for an author to be in—to see his own book used in ways he’d rather not have it be used. In fact, in this instance I’m seeing it used in precisely the ways I warned against. At the same time, it’d be hard to argue that Charles C Johnson is doing anything that your average publicist, blogger, pundit or strategist doesn’t do—the only real difference is degree.
When Charles tweeted about my book last week, I decided to act. Why not email him and talk? Clearly we share some common ground, why not connect? Having already spoken to left-wing activists who manipulate the media and the people behind #GamerGate, why not learn from someone equally controversial? We ended up chatting on the phone for about thirty minutes last week discussing everything from the Overton Window to the towns of central California. It was pleasant, provocative and challenging. I came away impressed in a lot of ways. I followed up over email with the questions below. Some of the views he expressed I strongly disagree with. In other answers, I think he nails it. But that is the nature of a figure like Charles—smart, but undeniably frustrating in the ways he uses it.
I hope that Charles’ honest and amoral tactics help reveal even more about the media system (sorry, racket) to you, the public. Only when we know how our news really gets made, can we gauge our appetite for consuming it.
So we’ve never met, never really spoken, but it occurred to me that I had rather strong opinions about you. Yet, if I really dig into my own views here, I have to admit those opinions come almost entirely from sources I don’t trust or respect much. Do you find that that is fairly common with people who interact with you?
You’d be surprised at the sorts of people I interact with on a day-to-day basis. I’m friendly with dozens of journalists, multiple billionaires, law enforcement, and thousands of everyday researchers. This is how I like it. In Shakespeare the fool was the one who was allowed to tell the truth. I don’t mind it if I’m made fun of or mocked so long as all the right people know that I’m right. I simply don’t believe that most of the media has any real power at all and that it’s only a matter of time before it all implodes.
There was a concerted effort by various publications and blogs to demonize me in 2014, especially after I exposed the Rolling Stone scandal and Jackie [Ed note: Last name has been deleted], the lying girl behind it. These include BuzzFeed, Gawker, Jezebel, Deadspin, etc., who just made things up about me. Normally this negative attention would have bothered me but I don’t really respect all of these sites so I understood what they were doing. They saw a competitor so they reacted negatively. Andy Warhol once said that he doesn’t read criticism but measures it in inches. I’m much the same way.
I think a lot of the dislike for me isn’t real but a social signaling thing that’s used by reporters to vainly assure themselves that I’m not onto something.
Tell me, how do you describe what it is that you do? What’s your livelihood? How does it work? What place do you see yourself fitting in our current media culture?
I like to tell people I do research and that I’m building a private intelligence network. I own two companies—one is a news company and the other a research firm. The two operate synergistically. I make money from clients, from speaking gigs, from donors, from traffic, and from a hundred or so other sources. I like to use Twitter because that’s where the self-appointed cognoscenti create public opinion, i.e. the media or the political class. Jesse James robbed banks because that’s where the money is. I mess with Twitter because that’s where the people who need to be messed with are. In so doing I combine celebrity culture, nerd culture, and heavy research. It’s essentially #GamerGate applied to everything in the cultural space. I really enjoy having people from all over the world work with me to change the narrative and ultimately to change the world.
David Carr (who I did respect), wrote in his column about you that your style of journalism “says everything about the corrosive, underreported news era we are living through.” I agree we live in a corrosive media era, but I would argue that we’re anything but “underreported.” What would you say to the idea that we have far too much media and that at some point, it’s become this giant beast that needs to be constantly fed?
I spoke to David for 4 hours and explained to him very politely what I was doing and why it was important and in keeping with the journalistic icons we hold dear. He couldn’t write the column that I may actually be brilliant so he had to slime me. He kept insisting that I was like the ghost from Ghostbusters 2 and then he said I was juvenile or something. It was kind of sad. I wrote about the story here.
I think there was something very revealing about the Times and our media where great reporters like Ray Hernandez and Nicholas Wade don’t get the media attention they deserve and ultimately leave the Times while recovering crack addicts like Carr—with no technical chops whatsoever—are lionized as the voice of the Internet. It’s very strange. I don’t agree that there is such a thing as too much information and I’m a tad bit disappointed that there’s not even more information available. I suppose the human brain is only capable of so much.
Is there anything you’ve published that you regret? I’ve argued in the past that iterative journalism is a real problem—this reporting live, in real time, as everything happens—but you clearly operate your Twitter feed in a sort of stream of consciousness reporting style. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.
I regret publishing the wrong photo of Jackie for an hour [Ed note: last name deleted]. Other than that, I don’t regret anything I’ve published. I think there are higher standards for me than there are for massive media conglomerates, which is odd, because I have a millionth [of] their resources. Still, I’m profitable and they are not so maybe it doesn’t really matter.
I can’t think of anything I’ve gotten wrong. Sometimes I’ll be right years later, like I was with U.S. Senator Menendez. Sometimes I’ll be proven right in real time as I was with Sony not being hacked by North Korea or Elizabeth O’Bagy, a Syria analyst, manufacturing her credentials to lie us into war. Of course in the media these days it doesn’t much matter if you are right. It matters if you can persuade people you are right. This is kind of a fascinating feature of our time. You have to become a celebrity before people start to listen. I wish this weren’t so but it is.
Who is the least trustworthy person in journalism?
Shane Smith of Vice is a serial con artist who lied about being a wartime correspondent. The notion that his company is worth a billion plus dollars is laughable. (I wrote about it at the Daily Caller.) Anderson Cooper is a close second. The more you dig in on Cooper the more you’ll find out he’s made up things in his past, too.
The newsroom can never know as much information as the crowd or private network can.
What is the easiest loophole to exploit in our current system?
The newsroom can never know as much information as the crowd or private network can. There’s a certain necessary occupational arrogance that comes with assuming that a few thousand people can know all the news that’s fit to print. I’m a bit more suspicious. There’s a huge bias toward breaking news. If you can break new news while everyone else is following your lead you can control the future. People are tired of the right-wing and left-wing ghettos.
If you wanted to pass a totally false story through the media, how would you do it? If you wanted to take someone down, how would you do it? Can you spot when that is happening or being done by other people?
Well, Rolling Stone and NBC News are the experts on fake stories and I had a hand in exposing both of these organizations. I have only one rule—which is that I don’t do anything fake. I start with the unguarded moment. Most people have moments where they aren’t “on,” where they reveal their true selves. Oftentimes it’s in decisions they make or don’t make. I focus on the “who” behind the headlines. I look at their finances, at their spouses, I go through the public records, and then begin working the phones. I try to learn about how people actually are. There is often a huge disconnect between the public profile and the private self. This is where much of my work gets its power.
The media typically operates in packs on Twitter. They’ll be friends that promote one another’s work and advance one another’s career. I use Twitter to monitor this group activity. I map out the relationships. I also have spies on various listservs and I pay people for information, whether that’s in the form of more information, nice dinners, or cash, I leave up to the seller. Usually you’ll notice the attack on someone happens all at once. If you can find the origin point you can map the entire relationship network.
Trading up the chain is important but what’s more important is to control the mind of your critics, to live in their heads.
Traffic to your site is relatively small. You have a sizable number of Twitter followers, though not near other news figures and bloggers. Yet you seem to exert an immense amount of influence over certain news stories—often through the same media outlets that probably wish they didn’t have to follow your lead. Is this trading up the chain? How does this work?
I measure traffic to dollar spent rather than just traffic. In that comparison I’m actually doing very, very well. I’ve never seen traffic [as] the be all and end all of influence. And everyone knows that people lie about traffic figures all the time. The traffic numbers are designed to get the attention of advertisers but there are ways to make money independent of traffic numbers. On Twitter I’m told that I have one of the most viewed but least followed accounts. This is one of the hidden variables that determines how popular an account is.
I understand how Twitter works a lot more than my critics who don’t seem to know what open protocols are. Trading up the chain is important but what’s more important is to control the mind of your critics, to live in their heads. I think I’ve figured out how to do that repeatedly and this is actually a very lucrative trick. I’m not interested in spending my brain cells on how to create an ad that you’ll click on to sell you hair products. That’s not my comparative advantage. Of course I don’t much mind ads because they provide another revenue stream.
The reason I published Michael Brown’s Instagram and Twitter feed is that it directly contradicts the media narrative that he was a gentle giant. He was anything but. I helped end that narrative rather quickly.
I’ll be honest: I just don’t get some of the things you seem to have very passionately latched on to. What does it matter if Obama is gay? Do you care? What do the pictures in Michael Brown’s instagram account matter? To an outsider, it seems that you often focus on issues of race, gender and so forth as a wedge. What would you say to that?
I’m interested in taboos. One of the successes of the Obama years was how he made certain inquiry into his past forbidden. I suspect part of that was the fascination that many people had with the novelty of a black president. In essence, the media gave a monopoly to enterprising journalists. As time grows on that monopoly has begun to crack. I’ll publish more things when Obama is out of office. He is easily one of the most fascinating cons ever perpetrated on the public. However you feel about his politics—and I’m not a fan—there’s a lot that isn’t known about him and should be.
First thing Obama did when he went to Occidental is join the gay club on campus. This was in 1979. His mentor at Occidental was Larry Goldyn, a very prominent gay man. He lived with gay men in New York. None of the women he is reported to have dated—and there are only two—describes having had a sexual relationship with Obama. He has told several contradictory stories about how he met his wife. Large chunks of his first book have been discredited. I’m fascinated by all of this Obama past. I don’t care if he sleeps with men but I do think it’s interesting that in 2015 we can’t have a black, gay president. Why not? I suspect we’ve had other gay presidents in the past and yet Obama seems to be off limits because we want to believe the narrative about his family life even though we know Michelle Obama once tried to divorce him.
The reason I published Michael Brown’s Instagram and Twitter feed is that it directly contradicts the media narrative that he was a gentle giant. He was anything but. I helped end that narrative rather quickly. I don’t believe in publishing conventional material because that’s not where my comparative advantage is. Most people in the media all do the same thing and then wonder why they are paid so little. The answer is that they’ve made themselves redundant.
Race is the biggest taboo in America because our regime is grounded on the idea that we’re all naturally equal and that anyone can achieve the American dream. And yet we observe that blacks, on average, still do poorer than other ethnic groups. At a certain point I stopped believing the cultural argument as serious. Why, for example, do Asian-Americans and Jews consistently out earn whites? I started learning more about the differences that exist in IQ between racial groups and about how genetically we are actually quite different from one another. I learned about the MAO-A gene and its theoretical effects on violence. It’s my view that as we become a more information based society and that people reap bigger and bigger gains according to their IQ that this inequality will increase, rather than decrease. This development will have all kinds of interesting effects on our politics and society as time goes on.
People actually find it cathartic to violate certain taboos. I try to give them the truth that explodes those taboos. I suspect this is why they keep coming back. That, and they love solving puzzles and exploring and finding out the truth for themselves.
In that vein, is there is anything that is off limits? Anything that should be off limits? I hate getting asked “where do you draw the line” because the line is often private, and usually varies from case to case. But do you struggle with this?
I do have limits but I’m not prepared to discuss them at this time. I do struggle with it but not as often as you would think.
You were upfront with me about your having autism. How does that impact what you do?
I’m not sure and I’m not sure I’m the best person to say. I have always been told that I have high IQ and low empathy but it’s hard to say what effect this has on my work or on me.
When I wrote Trust Me I’m Lying, it was because I hated where I saw political and cultural discourse going. I basically wanted no part of it. Yet, you seem to have read the book and seen what I’ve seen, and love it. You take this world like a fish to water, don’t you?
Yes, I think it’s a manual for living in the 21st century. I no longer believe in persuading people but in using taboos and playing with them to get issues highlighted that would otherwise be ignored. I think there’s nothing wrong with it if it’s done for the right reasons.
What do you wish more people knew about you? What do you wish they knew about what you do?
I think there’s this view about me in certain circles that has more to do with status signaling than it does any real contempt or insight. I wish some people knew how deliberative I am and how I regard this as a chess game. It isn’t so personal.
Finally—why are you even talking to me? I know why I’m talking to you: Because why not? There’s no reason that people, especially if they disagree with each other based on what they’ve read online—shouldn’t connect and have a conversation together.
I tend to be friendly to people who approach me and assume good faith on my part. I like to talk to people and I like to learn new things.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumphs and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.