Gweek 061: Trust Me, I'm Lying

Gweek 061 600 wide

Click here to play the podcast. In this episode of the Gweek podcast I interviewed Ryan Holiday. Ryan’s the author of Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. He's a media strategist who started his career as an assistant to Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power and is currently the director of marketing at American Apparel.


Bonus! Here's an excerpt from Trust Me, I'm Lying [UPDATE] Irin Carmon responds on this essay she wrote for Salon, "Did I ruin journalism?".

NewImageIrin Carmon, the Daily Show and Me: The Perfect Storm of How Toxic Blogging Can Be, by Ryan Holiday

"Most crucially, that machine, whether it churns through social media or television appearances, doesn’t reward bipartisanship or deal making; it rewards the easily retweetable or sound bite–ready statement, the more outrageous the better."

-- Irin Carmon, Jezebel

In the first half of my book, I give reader the inside on how to manipulate blogs. There are fatal flaws in the blogging medium that create opportunities for influence over the media—and, ultimately, culture itself. And if I were writing this book two or three years ago, it would have ended there.

I did not fully understand the dangers of that world. The costs of the cheap power I had as a media manipulator were hidden, but once revealed, I could not shake them. I had used my tactics to sell T-shirts and books, but others, I found, used them more expertly and to more ominous ends. They sold everything from presidential candidates to distractions they hoped would placate the public—and made (or destroyed) millions in the process.

Realizing all this changed me. It made it impossible for me to continue down the path that I was on. The second half of this book explains why. It is an investigation not in how the dark arts of media manipulation work but of their consequences.


In 2010, I oversaw the launch of a new line of a Made in USA, environmentally friendly nail polish for American Apparel. Although American Apparel typically manufactures all of its products at its vertically integrated factory in L.A., for this product we’d collaborated with an old-fashioned family-owned factory in Long Island, where even their ninety-year-old grandmother still worked on the factory floor. Shortly after shipping the polish to rave reviews, we noticed that several bottles had cracked or burst underneath the bright halogen lights in our stores.

It didn’t pose a risk to our customers, but to be safe rather than sorry, we informed the factory that we’d be pulling the polish from store shelves and expected immediate replacements. We’d discussed the plan in-depth on a weekly conference call with our relevant employees. A confidential e-mail was sent to store managers informing them of the changes and asking them to place the bottles in a cool, dry place in the store until instructions for proper disposal were given. The last thing we wanted, even with environmentally friendly nail polish, was to throw fifty thousand bottles of it in trashcans in twenty countries.

A Jezebel blogger named Irin Carmon somehow received this innocent internal communication and e-mailed me at 6:25 a.m. West Coast time (Gawker is in Manhattan) to ask about it. Well, she pretended to ask me about it, since she signed her e-mail with the following:

Our post with the initial information is going up shortly, but I would be more than happy to update or post a follow-up. Thanks so much. Irin

By the time I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, the post was already live. When I saw it, all I could feel was a pit in my stomach—and, frankly, that surprised me. I knew how blogs worked, was plenty cynical, but even then I sensed that this would be awful.

The headline of Jezebel’s piece: “Does American Apparel’s New Nail Polish Contain Hazardous Material?

To settle Jezebel’s reckless conjecture: The answer is no, it doesn’t. Unequivocally no. For starters, the leaked e-mail specifically says the problem was with the glassware and mentions nothing about the polish. But Carmon wasn’t actually interested in any of that and she definitely wasn’t interested in writing an article that addressed the issue fairly. Why would she want an actual answer to her incredibly disingenuous question? The post was already written. Hell, it was already published.

As I had not intended to discuss the nail polish bottles publicly yet, it took about an hour for me to get a statement approved by the company lawyers. During that time dozens of other blogs were already parroting her claims. Major blogs, many of which had posted positive reviews of the nail polish on their sites, followed her bogus lead. The story was so compelling (American Apparel! Toxic polish! Exploding glass!) they had to run with it, true or not.

Within about an hour I e-mailed the following statement to Carmon, thinking I was taking her up on the offer for a follow-up to her first post:

After receiving a few reports of bottles breaking, we made the internal decision to do a voluntary recall of the bottles on both a retail and public level.

We chose this small US manufacturer to produce our nail polish because we support their business model and have a fondness for [the] family who runs it. However, one of the realities of all manufacturing is first-run glitches. We worked all last week with the manufacturer to make the improvements necessary for the second run. Another reason we sought out a US-based company is so we would be able make changes, and now we can investigate what went wrong as quickly as possible. We still believe in the factory we’re working with and the new polish will be in stores within the next two weeks.

We will offer an exchange of two new bottles or a $10 gift card for anyone who brings in a unit from the original run or a receipt.

On another note, one thing we’re taking very seriously is the disposal of the bottles we had in the stores. Even though our polish was DBP-, toluene-, and formaldehyde-free, we don’t want our stores just tossing it in the trash. We’re using our internal shipping and distribution line to arrange a pickup and removal of the polish to make sure it gets done right.

I felt this was a great—and ethical—response. But it was too late. Carmon copied and pasted my statement to the bottom of the article and left the headline exactly as it was, adding only “Updated” to the end of it. Even though the statement disproved the premise of her article, Carmon’s implication was that she was mostly right and was just adding a few new details. She wasn’t—she’d been totally wrong, but it didn’t matter, because the opportunity to change the readers’ minds had passed. The facts had been established.

To make matters worse, Carmon replied to my last e-mail with a question about another trumped-up story she planned to write about the company. She ended again with:

By the way, just FYI—I’d love to be able to include your responses in my initial post, but unfortunately I won’t be able to wait for them, so if this is something you can immediately react to, that would be great.

The controversy eventually meant the undoing of the nail polish company we’d worked so hard to support. Had these blogs not rushed to print a bogus story, the problem could have been handled privately. The massive outcry that followed Carmon’s post necessitated an immediate and large-scale response that the cosmetic company could not handle. No question, they’d made mistakes, but nothing remotely close to what was reported. Overwhelmed by the controversy and the pressure from the misplaced anger of the blogger horde, the small manufacturer fell behind on their orders. Their operations fell into disarray, and the company was later sued by American Apparel for $5 million in damages to recover various losses. As the lawyers would say, while the nail polish company is responsible for their manufacturing errors, if not for Carmon’s needless attack and rush to judgment—the proximate cause—it all could have been worked out.

Carmon is a media manipulator—she just doesn’t know it. She may think she is a writer, but everything about her job makes her a media manipulator. She and I are in the same racket. From the twisting of the facts, the creation of a nonexistent story, the merciless use of attention for profit—she does what I do. The system I abused was now abusing me and the people I cared about. And nobody had any idea.


Did you know that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart hates women? And that they have a long history of discriminating against and firing women?

Sure, one of its cocreators is female, and one of its best-known and longest- running correspondents is a woman, and there really isn’t any evidence to prove what I just claimed, but I assure you, I’d never lie.

This was the manufactured scandal that Jezebel slammed into The Daily Show in June 2010. Irin Carmon’s piece blindsided them just as her Jezebel nail polish story had blindsided us. It began when Carmon posted an article titled, “The Daily Show’s Woman Problem.”

Relying on some juicy quotes from people no longer with the show, Carmon claimed that the show had a poor record of finding and developing female comedic talent. She was also determined to make a name for herself. In order to accomplish this, she didn’t actually speak to anyone who still worked for The Daily Show. It was much easier to use a collection of anonymous and off-the-record sources—like an ex-employee who hadn’t worked there for eight years. As you should expect by now, the article was a sensation.

The cluster of stories that followed were read more than 500,000 times.

The story was picked up by ABC News, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, E!, Salon, and others. In a memo to his staff, Carmon’s boss and the publisher of Gawker, Nick Denton, commended the story for getting the kind of publicity that can’t be bought. Denton wrote, “It was widely circulated within the media, spawned several more discussions, and affirmed our status as both an influencer and a muckraker.” Jon Stewart was even forced to respond to the story on air. The New York Times rewarded Carmon and the website with a glowing profile: “A Web Site That’s Not Afraid to Pick a Fight.”

For a writer like Carmon, whose pay is determined by the number of pageviews her posts receive, this was a home run. And for a publisher like Denton, the buzz the story generated made his company more attractive to advertisers and increased the valuation of his brand.

That her story was a lie didn’t matter. That it was part of a pattern of manipulation didn’t matter.

The women of The Daily Show published an open letter on the show’s website a few days after the story hit.3 Women accounted for some 40 percent of the staff, the letter read, from writers and producers to correspondents and interns, and had over a hundred years’ experience on the show among them. The letter was remarkable in its clarity and under- standing of what the blogger was doing. They addressed it, “Dear People Who Don’t Work Here” and called Carmon’s piece an “inadequately re- searched blog post” that clung “to a predetermined narrative about sexism at The Daily Show.”

If I hadn’t experienced the exact situation myself, the letter would have made me hopeful that the truth would win out. But that’s not how it works online. The next day the New York Times ran an article about their response. “ ‘The Daily Show’ Women Say the Staff Isn’t Sexist” the headline blared.

Think about how bullshit that is: Because the Jezebel piece came first, the letter from The Daily Show women is shown merely as a response instead of the refutation that it actually was. No matter how convincing, it only reasserts, in America’s biggest newspaper, Carmon’s flimsy claim of sexism on the show. They could never undo what they’d be accused of— no matter how spurious the accusation—they could only deny it. And denials don’t mean anything online.

Kahane Cooperman, a female co–executive producer at the show, told the New York Times: “No one called us, no one talked to us. We felt like, we work here, we should take control of the narrative.” She didn’t know how it works. Jezebel controls the narrative. Carmon made it up; no one else had a right to it.

The day after the story ran, but before the women of The Daily Show could respond, Carmon got another post out of the subject: “5 Unconvincing Excuses for Daily Show Sexism,” as she titled it—dismissing in advance the criticism leveled by some concerned and skeptical commenters. It was a preemptive strike to marginalize anyone who doubted her shaky accusations and to solidify her pageview-hungry version of reality.

In the titles of her first and second articles, you can see what she is doing. The Daily Show’s “Woman Problem” from her first post became their “Sexism” in her second. One headline bootstraps the next; the what-ifs of the first piece became the basis for the second. Her story proves itself.

When the New York Times asked Carmon to respond to the women of The Daily Show’s claim that they were not interviewed or contacted for the story (which restated the allegations), she “refused to comment further.” Yet when The Daily Show supposedly invoked this right by not speaking to Carmon it was evidence that they were hiding something. A double standard? I wouldn’t expect anything different.

Did Carmon update her piece to reflect the dozens of comments released by Daily Show women? Or at least give their response a fair shake? No, of course not. In a forty-word post (forty words!) she linked their statement with the tag “open letter” and whined that she just wished they spoken up when she was writing the story. She didn’t acknowledge the letter’s claim that they actually had tried to speak with her and neglected to mention that it’s her job to get their side of the story before publishing, even if that’s difficult or time-consuming.

How many Jezebel readers do you think threw out their original impression for a new one? Or even saw the update? The post making the accusation did 333,000 views. Her post showing the Daily Show women’s response did 10,000 views—3 percent of the impressions of the first shot.

Did Carmon really send repeated requests for comment to The Daily Show? A major television show like that would get hundreds of requests a week. Who did she contact? Did she provide time for them to respond? Or is it much more likely that she gave the show a cursory heads-up minutes before publication? In my direct personal experience, the answers to these questions are appalling. No wonder she wouldn’t explain her methods to the Times. All I have to go on is my personal history with Carmon, and it tells me that at every juncture she does whatever will benefit her most. I’ve seen the value she places on the truth—particularly if it gets in the way of a big story.

There is something deeply twisted about an arrangement like this one. Carmon’s accusation received five times as many views as the post about The Daily Show women’s response, even though the latter undermines much of the former. There is something wrong with the way the writer is compensated for both pieces—as well as the third, fourth, or fifth she managed to squeeze out of the topic (again, more than five hundred thou- sand pageviews combined). Finally, there is something wrong with the fact that Denton’s sites benefit merely by going toe-to-toe with a cultural icon like Jon Stewart—even if their reports are later discredited. They know this; it’s why they do it.

This is how it works online. A writer finds a narrative to advance that is profitable to them, or perhaps that they are personally or ideologically motivated to advance, and are able to thrust it into the national consciousness before anyone has a chance to bother checking if it’s true or not.

Emily Gould, one of the original editors of Gawker, later wrote a piece for entitled “How Feminist Blogs Like Jezebel Gin Up Page Views by Exploiting Women’s Worst Tendencies” in which she explained the motivations behind such a story:

It’s a prime example of the feminist blogosphere’s tendency to tap into the market force of what I’ve come to think of as “outrage world”—the regularly occurring firestorms stirred up on mainstream, for-profit, woman-targeted blogs like Jezebel and also, to a lesser degree, Slate’s own XX Factor and Salon’s Broadsheet. They’re ignited by writers who are pushing readers to feel what the writers claim is righteously indignant rage but which is actually just petty jealousy, cleverly mar- keted as feminism. These firestorms are great for page-view-pimping bloggy business.

Let me take this to its natural conclusion. Writers like Irin Carmon are driven more by shrewd self-interest and disdain for the consequences than they are by jealousy. It’s a pattern for Carmon, as we’ve seen. She’s not stopping, either.

Just a few months later, needing to reproduce her previous success, she saw an opportunity for a similar story, about producer and director Judd Apatow. After spotting him at a party, she tried to recapture the same outrage that had propelled her Daily Show piece into the public consciousness by again accusing a well-liked public figure of something impossible to deny.

The actual events of the evening: Director Judd Apatow attended a party hosted by a friend. Carmon attempted to corner and embarrass him for story she wanted to write but failed. Yet in the world of blogging, this becomes the headline: “Judd Apatow Defends His Record on Female Characters.” It did about thirty-five thousand views and a hundred comments.

Carmon tried to “get” him, and did. I guess I have to give her credit, because this time she actually talked to the person she hoped to make her scapegoat. But still, you can actually see, as it happens, her effort to trap

Apatow with the same insinuations and controversy that she did with Stewart. In the interview, Carmon repeatedly presented criticism of Apatow’s movies as generally accepted fact that she was merely the conduit for, referring to his “critics” as though she wasn’t speaking for herself.

From the interview:

Q: So you think that’s unfair that you’ve gotten that criticism?

A: Oh, I definitely think that it’s unfair. . . . But that’s okay.

Q: I wonder if you could elaborate on your defense a little bit. A: I’m not defensive about it.

Q: Do the conversation and the criticism change the way you work?

A: I don’t hear any of the criticism when I test the movies and talk to thousands of people. I think the people who talk about these things on the Internet are looking to stir things up to make for interesting reading, but when you make movies, thousands of people fill out cards telling you their intimate feelings about the movies, and those criticisms never came up, ever, on any of the movies.

In other words, there is nothing to any of her claims. But the post went up anyway. And she got paid just the same. Notoriety from events of 2010 and 2011 worked very nicely for Carmon—in the form of a staff position at and a spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list.

Honestly, her tactics may have once impressed me. I have no problem when people get their piece of the profits—particularly when the whole scene is such a farce. The problem is when they get too greedy. The problem is when they stop being able to see anything but the need for their own gain.

Today, I’m not impressed anymore. I am depressed. Because the corrupt system I helped build is no longer in anyone’s control. The manipulators are indistinguishable from the publishers and bloggers—the people we were supposed to be manipulating. Everyone is now a victim, including me and the companies I work for. And the costs are incredibly high.

Buy Trust Me, I'm Lying on Amazon

See also: Man punks journalist


  1. Meh, the excerpt makes the book sound like one long, whinging ode to Holiday’s apparent butthurt over a Jezebel writer.  No thanks.

  2. I’m not defending the practice of media manipulators, but let’s face it, they’re always going to be out there, just as trolls are, only much more serious because they seem so credible. So how do you deal with someone who flat-out lies or insinuates in order to ruin your reputation?

    Here are some ideas off the top of my head:

    1. Stop waiting for lawyers to approve messages. Does your fear of getting fired by your company outweigh the certainty that a bad message about your company gets out there? If so, then frankly, it’s not your problem.

    2. You (or your company) might be able to sue for libel, or otherwise sic lawyers on them, but that only further enriches the lawyers and does damage to you or your company anyway, perhaps even more than the original post, right? So maybe you could co-opt your own media manipulators to counter the story. Juice it up a bit to make it as interesting and controversial as the original. Put a big notice on your website, and call them out by name: “Tibbledy Piddlesey’s Comments about Exploding Garbage Cans are Laughable (click to read more)” Respond fast, and respond prominently. The game is to discredit the manipulator as much as they discredited you, because either you can stay silent, or wait and lose the initiative, or take the initiative.

    3. ???

    4. Profit!

    5. What other ideas can you think of?

    1. America’s psychopathic obsession with making a buck over all else is incompatible with that ideal. Horrible people are financially rewarded for their ruthlessness and lack of ethics, and financial worth has become just plain old worth. For all the bleating about occupy Wallstreet, every ordinary American still wants to be rich above all else.

      1.  no doubt. capitalism is orthogonal to human worth. it’s no surprise that a system that does not recognize the value of people (or the environment or happiness) does little to foster them (except as a means of making more money). It seems like that should have been obvious since its inception, and I don’t think people today are any greedier than there forefathers (um, slaves?). Maybe the social contract expired?

  3. “outrage world”

    Well, this is how Fox News and talk radio operate too, the manufactured “War On Christmas” angers up the blood and brings in viewers and ad revenue, but it’s based on people trying to be polite by saying the non-sectarian “happy holidays” to strangers who’s faith is an unknown.  In other words they took something harmless (in fact, people trying to do no harm) and turned it into “war.”

  4. Wow Jane Doe … it is incredible how quickly you found justification sufficient for completely dismissing everything the author wrote.

    1.  Actually, reading the excerpt took a whole 10 minutes out of my day that I won’t get back.  I wasn’t inclined to similarly waste everyone else’s time with a long screed about how unappealing I found this piece of self-aggrandizing, overly obvious marketing. 

      1. Here’s the problem. For the most part, I respect Salon, and I expect them to follow standard journalistic practices. Now I’m being told that they’ve hired a former Gawker Media blogger with a documented history of posting what is essentially dramatic fiction, rather than journalism, for the purpose of getting page hits.

        Not only does that lower the credibility of what Irin Carmon writes; it lowers the overall credibility of Salon, since they decided to hire her and give her an outlet.

        So it’s more than just an issue of “butthurt,” as you so flippantly describe it.

      2. I was going to express my disagreement with your comment with what I fancy to be a subtle, catty and dissy comment. 

        Then I looked at your Twitter login profile, read a page or so of your comments and agreed with most if not all comments I saw. Plus your self-description sounds like  more than a few of my friends. 

        Anyway,  I didn’t find the excerpt nearly as bad as you did — I found it interesting and it describes a pervasive problem with not only blogs but media in general. 

        The excerpt did not especially read as butthurt. Irin Carmon should be more responsible and her employers are arses for not holding her accountable.

      3. I find it odd  that you thought it was more important to whinge about Ryan’s tone than comment on the actual subject of the excerpt — the Jezebel writer’s journalistic ethics.

        1. He’s not saying anything particularly new or interesting or that hasn’t been covered by dozens of others, so what is there to comment on aside from Holiday’s obvious attempt to capitalize on a system that he claims ownership to?

          And if her ethics are the _actual_ subject of the excerpt, I will eat my hat. The entire excerpt is an SEO arrow aimed right at getting her back for his butthurt by making his accusations show up on any search of her name. I’m sure he’s thanking you for printing it.

          1. It’s new to me. Could you cite some other of the “dozens” of examples of this kind of blog media criticism that you’ve read. I’m interested!

        2. This is actually a reply to your comment below, because we hit the end of the threading.

          Really?  You’ve never heard anyone do this kind of media criticism before?  I suggest you google “yellow journalism” and start there.  

  5. Is there really no recourse for slander like the dross Jezebel slings around? Especially if other news corpse pick up the story, journalist need to be at least partially responsible for what they write. Or has that gone away now too? 

  6. Personally, I thought the Daily Show’s response should have been, well, more childish.  It’s a fake news comedy show, known for mocking, amongst other things, the news media and it’s lack of journalistic principles.  And then a member of the “new media” shows a lack of journalistic principles and attacks them… hell, it’s like they were setting themselves up as a target.  Screw the Streisand effect, run on air bits mocking Jezebel and this blogger in particular.  Maybe they get a few more pageviews, but I guarantee The Daily Show would earn a lot more off their advertising than Gawker would have from covering these non-events.  Hell, make that part of the response – compare the small stack of ones (not unlike a stripper might earn, hmm?) to the huge pile of gold bars they just made while covering each other. 

  7. Part of the issue, to me, is the laziness of nsps and cable news in scanning blogs for news items and assuming due diligence has been performed. It’s easy for an Anderson Cooper to say “There’s a controversy on the web about blah blah blah…” and suddenly, it gains traction and truthiness. 

  8. Did Mark Twain say “A good lie can be in the next county before the truth gets its boots on”?

    I think he said that.  I read it on the internet once.

    Every time there’s been a new advance in communication… telegraph, telephone, radio, television, communication satellites, internet… people have rhapsodized about how much closer this brings us all together and how all our mutual understanding will be furthered.

    And then it turns out to be just another way for people to be jack asses to each other.

  9. “Oh, I know Hamlet. And what he might say with irony, I say with conviction: What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”

  10. It’s an interesting topic but I’m disturbed to see Boing Boing offer a platform for a hit piece against another blogger.

    1. “Hit piece against another blogger” implies that the points he makes are unfounded or exaggerated.  Can you provide evidence of such?  I am genuinely interested because he seems to back up his claims adequately. 

      1. I don’t think I’m disputing the facts of the events. It’s the selective interpretation of those events. I was just uncomfortable that one blogger was singled out (the entire excerpt and the title is about her) for some reason. It seemed like payback more than a simple illustration of the points he’s making. He obviously has a personal stake in it, as evidenced by his account of the events. He’s had more than one encounter with her Of all the bloggers out there, I’m not sure why Irin Carmon deserves to be the poster child of media manipulation. I’ve read other things by her and this didn’t seem characteristic of her work. It comes off as an attack, intended or not. I don’t argue his right to do that. I just never thought Boing Boing would be a place that would devote so much time and space to something so shrill and bordering on ad hominem. Equally problematic is his singling out of the “feminist blogosphere.” Speaking of “outrage world,” even my own initial reaction after reading this was to be angry that Irin Carmon would stoop to such levels. Then I actually read the post and remembered her other work. Perhaps she’s had her missteps and indulged in the hyperbole that a great number of bloggers (particularly political ones) do but this excerpt is just as much an exaggeration as anything she’s accused of doing (and not all that different from criticism typically leveled against mainstream journalists). Again, something I usually don’t see on Boing Boing. But I’ll just chalk it up to diversity of thought and the free market of ideas.

  11. I’m not surprised to read any of this. Jezebel is obviously insanely sensationalized, but it’s sad to see how deluded she seems about it. At least this guy can own up to and articulate what he’s doing

  12.  The military industrial complex has funded a generation of professional lairs, hacks who will spew anything they think will please the fat cats.

    The whole get paid per page view, regardless of the veracity of the content, is the moral bottom line here.

    The well is poisoned.  Have a nice day.

    1. The military industrial complex has funded a generation of professional lairs, hacks who will spew anything they think will please the fat cats.

      Chief, did you even listen to the interview. This kind of B.S. journalism has been happening since the Spanish-American war. The only difference nowadays is the world of blogging has accelerated this kind of “tool man”-ship, but the same basic patterns still exist.

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