The Making (and Unmaking) of Goldman Sachs Whistleblower Greg Smith

You know something has gone terribly wrong when Goldman Sachs is complaining about fair play. But when it comes to

You know something has gone terribly wrong when Goldman Sachs (GS) is complaining about fair play.

But when it comes to Greg Smith and the “Why I’m Leaving Goldman Sachs” meme started by The New York Times in March, the investment bank has got plenty to gripe about. According to the Times’s own research, almost all the claims made in Smith’s incendiary Op-Ed–about Goldman Sachs’s moral bankruptcy, toxic culture and love of ripping off clients and referring to them as “muppets”–turned out to be “curiously short” on evidence.

Sure, Goldman went on an all-out PR blitz to make sure we knew this, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As the company put it on Twitter this week, the Times took Greg Smith and “made [him] famous,” then, a few months later, exposed him as a fraud.

The trajectory of  this “viral op-ed,” as The Guardian called it, embodies so many of the ills of the media today.

The New York Times created a narrative so powerful that it generated millions of page-views, became a trending topic on Twitter and scored a seven-figure book deal for Smith. Then, months later, the paper saw no conflict in publishing an equally popular story that dismantled that narrative–without the paper having to issue a retraction or admit to any error in judgment.

Of course, the Times doesn’t have to endorse the viewpoints of every guest op-ed, but by giving space to a particular author, it is saying, “‘this person is worth your time.” It is now clear from the Times’s own research that it doesn’t believe Smith was.

Did this happen because the Times and the rest of the media failed to police themselves? No, they were having their cake and eating it too. Despite its pretensions, the Times is a traffic-hungry monster like any other publisher, and polarizing stories move the needle. Outlets will do whatever it takes to get them–whatever makes the most money–even if it means creating the rumors, myths and chatter that they later shoot down.

Publish Greg Smith and get a bunch of people riled up. (Don’t vet his credibility pre-publication, of course, because then you might not be able to run it.) Then publish an article–with plenty of help from Goldman Sachs’s crisis PR department–that accuses Greg Smith of acting from ulterior motives … and, what do you know? People are riled up again. How nicely (and lucratively) that works out!

The data justifies it. The Times is surely aware of the study of its own articles by the Wharton School of Business that found unequivocally that the No. 1 predictor of “virality” is how angry a New York Times piece makes readers.

People have criticized Tina Brown for her trolly Newsweek covers, but the reality is that all journalism today is corrupted by trolling. From Gawker to The New York Times, the game is about publishing whatever will get us to click–not about getting to the truth. In their own way, it’s almost impressive how artfully these sites can do it. Attack Goldman Sachs? It’s a perfect target, because the public has been hoping for dirt on the “evil” financial industry. Once that narrative gets stale, what’s next? Tear down the hero it built up as a vehicle for the first story. Next!

And the rest of the web blindly follows the agenda, publishing its own iterations of whatever the hot story of the moment is. Nine months ago, Goldman Sachs was the villain. Today, it’s Greg Smith. It’s all theater, and the only sincere reaction in town comes from naive readers who don’t know they’re being played.

Until the economics of the business change, we’re stuck with a model in which the press will build people up and tear them down. Our main job as readers–and frankly as human beings–should be to resist the urge to bite.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers.

The Making (and Unmaking) of Goldman Sachs Whistleblower Greg Smith