How puffing destroyed journalism’s credibility.

The inevitable victory. The overnight sensation. The next big thing. The It girl. The visionary. The winner.

These are a special kind of staple in journalism stories: they are advertising for certain people and products as there is no real news embedded in these pieces.

It is not real news. It is not hard news.

These “stories” involve someone who is being crowned king (or to a lesser extent queen or princess), and these are often “profile” pieces. 60 Minutes is very fond of these kinds of stories, instructing viewers who to see as a Great Man. How did the Great Man overcome the obstacles to be a Trailblazing Visionary? These stories are by-the-numbers, and many grifters had the honour of getting this kind of uncritical press coverage. In my book Don’t Believe It!, I dedicate an entire chapter to “The Winner” how these con artists fooled journalists.

Many business tycoons are very good at selling their image. They do not have an “off” button, and they engage in shameless exaggerations. The practice is called puffing, and it has had many different forms. Frank Sinatra’s “screaming fans” were paid a princely five dollars at the time to do it.

It is a practice that continues to this day, and there is a good reason for it: if you convince a group who wish to be “with it” who they ought to talk about and follow, then get the ball rolling yourself. Many movie and book reviews have been planted to give people an idea of what is acceptable reading, listening, or viewing. If you get the right traction, chances are, people will follow the choreographed lead.

As a journalist, I was used to be constant hyperbole. This was the biggest thing, the great thing, the next big thing, the first thing ever, and so on. The person merely wished to psyche me out, hoping I was looking for a “big” story and wanted a “big scoop.”

But I wasn’t playing along.

Yet, every day, we are bombarded with those superlative bombasts. Frighten potential competitors, for instance, and try to dictate the terms of the battle by pretending you are in a position of strength. Patrick Brown is doing it as his people puff that his “internal poling numbers” have him gaining in his bid to be a leader of the party that reviles him. It is an old gambit, and one that has very little credibility. How often have we seen young starlets being displayed as the next A-list Oscar winner, only for them to disappear as quickly as they came?

The press hedges their bets, and plays along. Rarely do these people actually manage to build that momentum to real success. Fake it until you make it, may seem like good advice, but if your foundation is shoddy to begin with, positive press won’t push you over.

With a collapsed journalism industry, that gambit hardly registers these days. People buy their Twitter followers, and get exposed. Numbers do not add up. Sales fall short of expectations. The music industry has played this game for years, including free downloads or free CDs with concert ticket purchase as part of the overall sales of albums. You can puff so much, but when people aren’t buying, they just aren’t buying the story behind the gambit.

But journalists played along, puffing their own power by proxy: if they introduced a hot new commodity first, then they get the bragging rights of being good spotters, having a pulse on the public, and having the power to make or break stars and hits.

When everything is for show, and nothing is what it seems, the lure of such a ruse loses its luster, and people begin to believe the hype less and less.

But then they also stop trusting the judgment of the messenger.

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