A couple of weeks ago, a tweet I unfortunately lost pointed me to an op-ed piece on Forbes.com. Written by Ryan Holiday, self-proclaimed media manipulator, it described the public threats posed by, well, media manipulation.
Sure, there’s irony in a former manipulator turning the media equivalent of state’s evidence, something the tweet noted. Holiday has a book out, so there may be some pressure to market the title before the media gets manipulated by a busy election cycle.
In his post, Holiday is somewhat unclear about what he means by media manipulation. A good deal of his argument centers on what third-party actors, Holiday included, do to the media:
“At top of the pantheon of the media manipulators, of course, sits the late Andrew Brietbart. “Feeding the media is like training a dog,” he once said, “You can’t throw an entire steak at a dog to train it to sit. You have to give it little bits of steak over and over again until it learns.””
But Holiday also talks about the way that the media manipulates itself to serve its own ends:
“Everyone is in on the game, from bloggers to non-profits to marketers to the New York Times itself. The lure of gaming you for clicks is too appealing for anyone to resist. And when everyone is running the same racket, the line between the real and the fake becomes indistinguishable.”
In this latter sense, Holiday harkens back to a remark made by Linda Holliday (different spelling, no relation) during her Tools of Change closing address in February: “If you’re not paying for access to content, then you’re the product.”
At one point, Holiday makes the claim, “The media was long a trusted source of information for the public. Today, all the barriers that made it reliable have broken down.” I understood his argument as such: the abundance of media options has increased the likelihood of manipulation and filled the marketplace with incomplete and inaccurate information.
Concentrating on the declining reliability of “content”, Holiday might have been better served invoking Understanding Media (1964). In the book, Marshall McLuhan claimed that “it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.”
McLuhan offered the observation as part of an effort to debunk David Sarnoff, who had said, “We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them.” McLuhan argued instead that sequential media, like newspapers and perhaps some early uses of television, had given us a false sense of understanding the whole. But even in 1964, that world was changing:
“Is it not evident that the moment that sequence yields to the simultaneous, one is in the world of the structure and of configuration? … Specialized segments of attention have shifted to the total field, and we can now say, “The medium is the message” quite naturally.”
This leads me to the conclusion that media manipulation isn’t new; it is just more decentralized. The sense that we “knew” the world by reading the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, or by watching the evening news on one of three networks, was never valid. We knew what had been presented, but it was never the world, and it truly never could be.
Now, we have access to a wider array of touch points, McLuhan’s world of the simultaneous. Some actors have found ways to exploit that wider array to their own ends. That doesn’t invalidate the media, old or new. It argues that we should be developing and giving users access to tools that restore their ability to see “the total field.”