How This Guy Lied His Way Into MSNBC, ABC News, The New York Times and More
by Dave Thier
July 18, 2012
Ryan Holiday could be called an “expert.” As head of marketing for American Apparel, an online strategist for Tucker Max, and
self-styled “media manipulator,” he can talk social media and modern advertising with the best of them – he”™s done so both online and in print on countless occasions. He is not an expert in barefoot running, investing, vinyl records, or insomnia. But he is a liar. With a little creative use of the internet, he”™s been quoted in news sources from small blogs to the most reputable outlets in the country talking about all of those things.
Holiday, 25 years old and based in New Orleans, mostly wanted to see if it could be done. He had been getting blogs to write what he wanted for years, and had developed a sense of how stories were put together in the internet age. He thought he could push the envelope a bit further.
“I knew that bloggers would print anything, so I thought, what if, as an experiment, I tried to prove that they will literally print anything?” he says. “Instead of trying to get press to benefit myself, I just wanted to get any press for any reason as a joke.”
He used Help a Reporter Out (HARO), a free service that puts sources in touch with reporters. Basically, a reporter sends a query, and a slew of people wanting to comment on the story email back. He decided to respond to each and every query he got, whether or not he knew anything about the topic. He didn”™t even do it himself “” he enlisted an assistant to use his name in order to field as many requests as humanly possible.
He expected it to take a few months of meticulous navigation, but he found himself with more requests than he could handle in a matter of weeks. On Reuters, he became the poster child for “Generation Yikes.” On ABC News, he was one of a new breed of long-suffering insomniacs. At CBS, “he made up an embarrassing office story, at MSNBC he pretended someone sneezed on him while working at Burger King. At Manitouboats.com, he offered helpful tips for winterizing your boat. The capstone came in the form of a New York Times piece on vinyl records “” naturally, Holiday doesn”™t collect vinyl records.
“I could hear hands going up and down the frets, and stuff that they probably didn”™t want you to hear. Which is a nice little surprise,” he told them.
Holiday had a lot of advantages in his experiment – his title as Marketing Director for American Apparel made him seem respectable, and most of his stories were such thorough lies that they came out on the other side of believable. But a quick Google search would have raised red flags for anyone using him as a source. For one thing, he wrote a book called “Trust Me, I’m Lying“. His Huffington Post profile has the word “notorious” in the first line. He”™s repeatedly described himself as a “media manipulator.” He has a checkered reputation online, and his penchant for media stunts is well-documented. He also writes for Forbes, where a few of his big stories have generated more than their share of controversy. I got a leak from him about Tucker Max back in February, and sure enough, traffic ensued.
None of that came up as he shot out story after story to dozens of news sources. Throughout the experiment, he says he received a single fact checking email “” the site sent an email to the same address he had used for the pitch, asking if he was indeed Ryan Holiday. He said yes.
Lying to journalists is nothing new. People have swindled newspapers for free publicity long before tools like HARO even existed. Holiday is probing just how easy it can be in 2012. HARO Founder Peter Shankman notes that anyone abusing the system can be flagged and banned, and ultimately, the service is just a tool, and should be subject to all the same old rules of journalism.
“As a journalist, it”™s always been your job to do your research and check the source, whether you find that source on the street, on Craigslist or on HARO,” he says. “If you”™re not doing that, you”™re not doing your job however you find the source.”
From a reporter”™s perspective, it”™s not hard to see how it happens. I used HARO once, for this story. Tools like this streamline the hectic process that is blogging “” were the situation different, I could see easily myself swindled by someone like Holiday. With each story he was quoted in, there would have been an analog way to get the source – to find an insomniac, call a doctor who specializes in insomnia and ask if any of his or her patients would be willing to go on record. For vinyl records, call a store and ask the owner to put you in touch with his best customer. But oftentimes, it can be hard to justify taking the long way around when news moves at the speed of the internet.
For Roy Furchgott, the reporter from the New York Times, this kind of lie can be hard to catch “” Holiday sounded just like all the other record collectors he had talked to, and it was hard to imagine why someone would lie about something so mundane.
“He gave a fairly credible account in line with what most vinyl record collectors and owners say,” he says. “So I took his word on it, as frequently happens, and you”™re telling me that he suckered me.”
“I”™ve been in the business a fairly long time, and I”™ve seen this happen many times even prior to blogs. I don”™t think this is isolated or terribly, terribly unusual.”
Holiday does it for the attention, the opportunity to point out some of the excesses of the modern blogosphere, and the LOLs. Empires will not fall because he claimed someone once sneezed on him. Still, it gives one reason to stop and think about what the quest for traffic and eyeballs does to news. Depending on how you look at it, stunts like this either erode the trust a reader has in a publication, or point out that it may have been misplaced to begin with. It”™s not a big leap to imagine somebody using those same tools for more nefarious purposes.
“A well made article and a poorly made article both do clicks the same way,” says Holiday. “There”™s no incentive to do good work. We know that quotas make cops do sh***y things, or academic admissions offices do sh**ty things, and they make bloggers do sh***y things too.”
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