Tehee: Lessons learned from a media manipulator

July 17, 2013 

TV station KTVU's airing of bogus names of the Asiana flight pilots is a high-profile case of media manipulation


Ryan Holiday is a media manipulator.

It says so, right in the title of his 2012 book "Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator," which I coincidently finished reading just as San Francisco's KTVU-TV broadcast the names of four pilots supposedly on the Asiana Airlines flight that crashed earlier this month.

The two carry a close connection.

The names of the pilots were racist and a joke — a joke even a third-grader would groan over. It took a commercial break before the station caught on, and by that time, it was too late. Video of the broadcast had gone viral, spreading across social media, tagged with lines like, "You have to see this!" Or simply "WTF?"

The story of how a news station could be so easily and obviously tricked became the talk-radio topic du jour and continues to be fodder for media types — including me.

It also serves as an illustration of the issues at the heart of Holiday's book.

Holiday, a professional media strategist and director of marketing for American Apparel, sees inherent and systemic flaws in how the current media works.

He makes it clear early and often in the book that he has little use for journalists, especially of the blogger variety. He sees them as generally overworked and/or just lazy.

This makes journalists easy to manipulate, he says, and the book is full of stories of how he did just that.

In truth, the pace in a newroom can be daunting and lead to less-than ideal results.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about vegetarian food. It wasn't groundbreaking stuff, but I thought it was apropos. Still, I got a call from a reader who wondered if this is what happens when I don't have anything else to write about.

I can see her point.

I have a column to fill each week, and it can sometimes be a stretch.

I can imagine for bloggers on popular websites that feeling gets infinitely amplified. There is space to fill and content to create.

Which points to a second problem Holiday sees with the system of blog-driven media led by sites like Huffington Post and Gawker. There is so much content being produced that writers have to do more to capture the viral dream. They're constantly looking for stories that can break through the din of available information.

Once you know the elements that will make that happen — and they are outlined in Holiday's book — it's all too easy for those outside the media to affect those inside it.

Which takes us back to the Asiana story.

Or others like it.

A colleague of mine got taken in a similar fashion. He stumbled upon a story that was so weirdly outlandish it seemed tailor-made for viral success. So he chased it. It involved a missing goldfish (that was also blind) and a classified ad. When the story hit, it got mentioned on the Jay Leno Show.

It turned out to be fake, a practical joke one friend was playing on another, a fact the reporter learned well after the story was published and a video was uploaded online.

While stories like these are fun to share and talk about, they aren't particularly harmful. They are something readers and viewers can laugh or simply shake their heads at in disbelief.

But they do undermine an industry that stakes its claim on credibility.

And some stories aren't always such fluff. The coverage following the Boston Marathon bombing comes to mind. Some news outlets reported inaccurate updates on social media in a rush to break news.

These mistakes serve as a reminder to do better.

Getting it right is still more important than getting it done, even in the age of constant media, where news (however you choose to define it) is delivered all the time through Facebook feeds and Twitter posts.

It almost makes you long for the time when you had to wait for your news, when it was delivered just three times a day — with the morning paper and at the 6 and 11 o'clock news.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 44106479, jtehee@fresnoee.com or @joshuatehee on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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