NY Times, CBS, others fix stories that featured fake expert Ryan Holiday

Forbes | Jim Romenesko | CJR

Corrections machines at various outlets got a workout after Ryan Holiday burned multiple news organizations by posing as an expert on various topics.

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.

All but the Manitou Boats site have been fixed. (The Reuters piece appears to have been unpublished; it's still available here.) A sampling of editor's notes:

• "This story was updated on July 18, 2012, after we received new information about one of the sources" (CBS).

• "Editor's Note: The original published text of this story began with an anecdote about a man who claimed to suffer from insomnia. ABC News has deleted that portion of the text after learning that the subject was not who he represented himself to be, leading to concerns about the truthfulness of his statements" (ABC)

• "Correction: An earlier version of this story included an interview with a source who later admitted he fabricated his story. His comments have been removed." (Today)

Holiday's victims found him through a site called HARO, which connects reporters with sources. "I wanted to prove that HelpAReporterOut embodies so much that is wrong with online journalism," Holiday told Jim Romenesko in an email.

So I went out and tricked close to 2 dozen reporters — and was shocked to also find the NYTimes, Reuters, Today Show, everyone fell for it. In some cases, I didn’t even do it. I just had an assistant pretend to be me on the phone or over email. Not ONE person bothered to notice that I have a book out about media manipulation.

Romenesko includes an apologetic email Holiday sent to New York Times reporter Roy Furchgott, who quoted him in a piece about record collectors, which is now adorned with this editor's note:

An earlier version of this article included quotations from Ryan Holiday of New Orleans discussing why he preferred vinyl records. The reporter reached Mr. Holiday through a Web site that connects reporters to sources on various topics.

Mr. Holiday, who has written a book about media manipulation, subsequently acknowledged that he lied to the Times reporter and to other journalists on a variety of subjects, fabricating responses to their online queries. (He says he does not own a turntable.)

In a piece published Monday, Holiday explained the philosophy behind his assaults on trust:

If a random blog is half as reliable as a New York Times article that was fact checked, edited and reviewed by multiple editors, it is twice as easy to get coverage on. So manipulators (myself included) play the volume game. We know that if we can generate enough online buzz people will assume that where there is smoke there is fire…and the unreal becomes real.

These and other themes are discussed in Holiday's new book, "Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator." In a story published Thursday on the Columbia Journalism Review website, Holiday elaborates on the economic incentives and structural problems he says are destroying trust in online journalism:

I’ll be very blunt: A system where top media executives and owners explicitly acknowledge their preference for money over a quality product is a manipulator’s dream. ...

Audiences don’t consume blogs like by subscription, they consume them just like they consumed yellow papers -- whichever one catches their attention at that moment. A quick look at the traffic sources for blogs confirms this: Referral sources like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other aggregators combine to dwarf the direct traffic that sites get.

Those problems might be beyond the scope of workaday journalists to solve. But Holiday's media manipulation also points out a problem that's easily fixed at ground level: Casting about for expert quotes. A decade ago, Christopher Newton lost his job as an Associated Press reporter after editors there learned he'd fabricated dozens of quotes from seeming experts. Writing about Newton's lies at the time, Jack Shafer said their blandness was as much of a problem as his untruths.

Every day, thousands of reporters pad their stories to fit the stock news formula. Like casting agents, they phone around looking for the precise quotation their story needs to appear "balanced." They lead their witnesses with language such as, "So would you say ...?" or asking the question five different ways until they get the right quotation to fit their predetermined thesis and complete the formula. If it's a journalistic crime for Christopher Newton to invent characters who mouth empty but passable clichés, what's the name of the offense when respectable reporters deliberately harvest the same worthless clichés from bona fide sources?

Here's some of Holiday's work on boat readiness:

Boating enthusiast Ryan Holiday of Northern California suggests these tips for winter maintenance:

• Change all spark plugs – Spark plugs are cheap and easy to replace, so taking this precaution can save you time and money once boating and fishing season actually starts.

• Check and tighten belts if needed, especially the alternator belt – A belt that’s not tight will wear faster. The belt should fit snugly in the pulley grooves. If not, the belt is worn and needs to be replaced.

• Change the fuel filter, making sure the fuel line is not cracked – We were lucky in California. The winters were not extremely cold. But, for some other climates, the combination of cold weather and several months of dryness can crack the fuel line. The fuel filter should be changed yearly as a precaution.

The rest of his tips are similarly eye-glazing and unlikely to raise any red flags for an editor.

It's all a hell of a rollout for Holiday's book, isn't it? There's a release party for "Trust Me, I'm Lying" Thursday night in New York. "SEXY" attire is required.

Related: Wall Street Journal intern fired for fabricating sources

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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