Great moments in journalism: the liar who became a star “expert” in the media

Why am I not surprised?

Details:

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.

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