Within a week of starting at TTAC, I’d learned to acclimatise myself to Bertel’s management style; our morning phone calls turned into one-hour mini lectures on various facets of the industry, touching on sales, marketing, engineering, product development and some of the more arcane subjects of the business (including some that aren’t repeatable here). One of the maxims that Bertel hammered in to me was to look past the cars. “It’s always about the people,” is one of his guiding principles. I’m infinitely fortunate to have not just Bertel, but the other editors and contributors to help provide context and fill in the gaps, but one of the biggest influences is a name you won’t see on our masthead.
Ryan Holiday has recently written a book about his career as a PR exec for some major brands, including American Apparel, and how he was able to manipulate some of the biggest blogs in the world to disseminate the message that would benefit his clients. The book is called Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, and delves deep into the inner workings of blogs, and how the incentives built into the world of online, like pageview-metric-based advertising model, hurts the quality of news and information we consume.
One of my goals at TTAC has been to write a piece with Ryan’s help, but it’s difficult to get anyone to go on record. With Bertel’s encouragement, I sought out anyone willing to comment on the topic, but nobody was willing. Auto execs will complain about sloppy reporting or a lack of fact-checking, but they’re ultimately reluctant to criticize a great source of free publicity. Bloggers will complain to me in private about the quality of the work they sometimes must deliver to meet their targets, but criticizing the system in public would put their careers in jeopardy. Even so, it’s easy to make the connections; erroneous reports of baby Porsche roadsters, Korean luxury brands and unsold LFAs, reported as fact and then retracted, are all a byproduct of the cycle of fake news that is created to feed the content mills of the automotive world
Ryan and I have had a long standing correspondence related to our respective lines of work, and we’d discussed the pitfalls of blogs for some time; the clickbait headlines, the re-hashed press releases masquerading as news, the futile rush to “be first” with a bullshit “exclusive” or “scoop”, even if it meant writing articles that were simply incorrect or untrue. In my naivete, I’d hoped to enhance the quality of content at one of my previous positions, improving the “signal to noise ratio”, but discussions with Ryan helped me realize that it was a futile task. As Ryan put it
“The correct measure of any system is not where it is successful, but where it fails. For example, the housing market worked quite well for investors and homeowners and made many of them a lot of money…until 2007-2008. Then it became clear that it wasn’t a market at all so much as it was a collection of hustles, frauds and delusions. We can look at blogging the same way. Yes it has made some investors wealthy and yes it generally gets us the news quickly and entertainingly. But when it fails, it fails massively and shows us how broken it is.
Take 2010, when the Internet and national media were in a frenzy over reports of unintended accelerations in Toyota cars. We now know that basically everyone who reported about this was utterly wrong. Toyota has been largely exonerated, after a full investigation by NASA, no less. Many of the cases of computer issues supposedly causing unintended acceleration were dismissed entirely, and most were found to be caused by driver error. Drivers had been hammering the accelerator instead of the brakes! And then blamed the car! In other words, the scandal that Toyota was so heavily criticized online for had been baseless.
As journalist Ed Wallace wrote for BusinessWeek in an apology to Toyota, “[A]ll the reasons why the public doesn’t trust the media crystallized in the Toyota fiasco.” Yet, what, if any changes have we seen to how blogs report on scandals? Are they more cautious? Or do they still report iteratively? Does the headline still trump all?
This will not change because the incentives make it so. Bloggers don’t LOSE money when they get a story about Ford or GM wrong. No, they get a SECOND story out of it. Bloggers aren’t penalized when they write a biased or unfair review. They’re rewarded because the angry comments it generates means more pageviews and links. Getting it first is better than getting it right. Getting it wrong is cheaper than getting it best.
The complicated, risky, this-needs-some-serious-investigating are the stories blogs are basically incapable of getting right. So what do they do instead? They focus on press releases, gimmicky slideshows and other marketing BS. Manipulators like me know this and so we game the system, getting fawning press for our clients. We have to because we know that at any moment a bogus story like the Toyota one can happen. How much whitewashing is Toyota going to need to do to make up for the unfair coverage it got over the last 2 years?”
Although Ryan isn’t a “car guy”, he’s been available round-the-clock as an invaluable resource to help us meet our mandate of delivering The Truth About Cars, whether it’s providing background information about GM and their Facebook advertising program, helping us refine our media criticism articles or furthering our understanding of how to deliver quality content in a space the prizes quantity and expediency above all else.