The Bad Press Myth

There is no such thing as “bad press”. To change hearts and minds, one must first get ears, and eyeballs.

There are many absurd dogmas in this world. The State, religions, law of attraction, broken mirrors, this list could get kinda long… I don’t spend a great deal of time trying to figure out where they came from, but I am thoroughly perplexed at how they persist throughout the ages. It seems obvious to me that the State is little more than people who threaten violence. That a god can only effect one who believes in it, and even that’s a stretch. Perhaps a positive outlook will have better outcomes than a negative one, but that is likely more due to motivation than some cosmic return from “the universe”. The bad luck of a broken mirror, is cleaning up shards of broken glass, hoping not to step on one in bare feet, and shelling out cash for a new one.

No Such Thing As Bad Press
No Such Thing As Bad Press

Bad Press, The Silliest Superstition

Of all these examples, “bad press” might be the most ridiculous. I don’t believe in bad press, and so bad press does not negatively effect me. Much like a deity, it is the belief that brings the harm – not the existence of the thing one believes in. The thing does not in fact exist, so it can do no harm. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t panic in a corner if I have sex out of wedlock. I don’t believe in bad press, so I don’t make myself look like a fool apologizing or backpedaling when people try to smear me.

Perception Matters

This isn’t to say that we should have no care for how we are perceived in the world. I’ve personally made some attempts in recent history to improve my own public image. For quite some time I was viewed (and largely still am) as a fat, drunken, angry womanizer who focused all his energy on the violent overthrow of the United States Government.

Recently, I stopped drinking, went on a diet, started exercising, began sharing more personal and emotional stories from my life. I’ve used my voice on Free Talk Live to break character and talk more about how I really feel about things as opposed to the exaggerated character I’ve used in the past to draw attention to my message.

None of those perceivably positive things I just mentioned, are why you know me, or why you are reading this post. I made a career out of bad press. That negative public image I’ve recently tried to soften is the character that made this blog popular, and made me a known figure in the libertarian movement. I might well have no public image to soften, if not for “bad press”.

The Desire for Good Press

If bad press is so good, why do I even bother to try and soften the image? Why do I try to make myself look better?

To attract “good press”.

Just because “bad press” isn’t bad, doesn’t mean “good press” isn’t good. I want both. I want people to love me, and I want people to hate me. No political position can work without both angles. The alternative is to have nobody care at all, and that is failure in politics and media alike. If you don’t matter, you get no press. If you matter, people are going to oppose you. This doesn’t seem terribly complicated to me, and so I’m baffled when I see people who don’t understand it.

Bad Press Is Conflict

Let’s face facts, if it bleeds it leads. Conflict is at the heart of all entertainment, and the more hazardous the conflict, the more compelling the content. You never read a book or watched a movie that didn’t have some kind of obstacle for the protagonist to overcome. There would be no story to read without that conflict. Imagine a movie called “John’s Uneventful Day” where everything goes fine and then he goes to bed. Not going to be a big seller. Whether he wants to get the girl, catch the killer, or stop the bomb from going off, John is going to have to have a problem if anybody is going to care what John is doing.

Take Romeo and Juliet, the tragic story of two “star crossed lovers” who (spoiler alert) die under very tragic circumstances at the end. Did human society say “Oh, that’s awful! I never want to see that again!” and reject it to the dustbin of history? Of course not, it became a timeless love classic that will be around long after all of us are maggot food.

Look at the Democratic and Republican parties, or government in general for that matter. There is hardly a moment that goes by where very large numbers of people aren’t saying absolutely horrific things about them, on major media outlets, most of which are true. They lie, cheat, steal, and murder, make no secret of it whatsoever, yet they manage to maintain a stranglehold over the political system anyway. If bad press had any correlation to failure in politics, surely these institutions would have become a thing of the past long ago.

The Catholic Church has been shuffling child rapists around the world covering up their crimes. Everybody knows about it. This does nothing to diminish their power in the world. Take any religion, any one at all, and you will find no shortage of news stories about horrific things carried out in the name of that religion by both leaders and followers. Yet most people in the world still identify as religious.

People talking about you, for better or for worse, makes you relevant. We can say a lot of terrible things about Republicans and Democrats, but we cannot in good faith call them irrelevant. We can say a lot of bad things about religion, but we cannot in good faith say it doesn’t matter. They are right in front of our faces every single day. We’re used to them. They are a part of our lives, whether we like it or not. The Shakespearean tragedies will influence the culture of entertainment for all of eternity.

Bad press is necessary for good press. If nobody dislikes you, there is no story behind people who do like you. Nobody ever saw a Fox News Alert to hear people sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” about some dude who never pissed anybody off. If you want any sort of media coverage for anything you are doing, if you want people to care about your story at all, somebody has to be pissed off about something. Without conflict, there is no story.

A More Recent Example

Cantwell on the Colbert Report
Cantwell on the Colbert Report

Take last night’s episode of The Colbert Report for example. He took us out of context, he made fun of us, he called us assholes, douchebags, and shitstains. The reaction to this has been mixed, but largely negative. A friend from New York even called me and told me he felt bad for me. I replied “Don’t, this is perfect”.

What idiot would sign a waiver for The Colbert Report and expect not to be made fun of? If you disagree with my politics that’s fine, but please, give me some credit here. Comedians make fun of people, I know a thing or two about this. Colbert is a comedian, comedy central is liberal media. Anybody who thought they would portray anything anti-state as positive is the real butt of the joke here.

There was no way that The Colbert Report would have portrayed us positively. Their writers are our political rivals. If they are going to talk about us at all, they have to talk about us negatively. The only alternative is to not be talked about. Sure, some people would prefer this, but I’m in the business of spreading ideas. For one to change hearts and minds, one must first get ears and eyeballs. Thus, if I have to choose between being portrayed positively or negatively on national television, I will choose positively. If I must on the other hand, choose between being portrayed negatively, or not being portrayed, I will quite merrily take the negative attention.

This is not my first time on television, nor will it be my last. It was however, the biggest to date. Over a million people watch the Colbert Report on any given night. Most of these people are not libertarians, nor do I expect hardly any of them to become libertarians at any point in the foreseeable future. They are like most people, largely a mix of Republicans, Democrats, and people without any ideological attachment of any sort.

Most of them would never have heard of me, or Free Keene, or Robin Hooding, if not for that episode. If they didn’t know who we were before, and now they think we’re terrible, that’s better than them not knowing who we are. By opposing us, they will bring us more attention, be it “good” or “bad”. If they didn’t know who we were before, and they don’t remember us today, then we’re right back where we started. If even a few of them decide to see what we’re about, and take an interest, then we may well have created some new libertarians, perhaps even some new activists, and perhaps even the holy grail of New Hampshire activism, some new movers.

If you know somebody who watches The Colbert Report, now you have a reason to talk to them about Robin Hooding, about activism, about the ideas of liberty, about the Free State Project. Imagine you just approached that person about these ideas without that catalyst. They would tell you it was irrelevant to them. Last night it was a memorable moment of entertainment, and so now they are more willing to speak to you about these things.

When Bad Press Results In Bad Outcomes

There is only one way that bad press leads to bad outcomes – when it is handled poorly. If you see some “bad press” and panic, you will make poor decisions. In this case it will not be bad press that did you in, it will be your poor decisions that followed it. When people apologize, backpedal, hide, or change as a result of bad press, their enemy has succeeded in throwing them off their game.

The key is to embrace it, to flaunt it, to enjoy it. Make the most of it, use it to promote yourself. Use the momentum of the bad press to get yourself or your cause featured in some other outlet, which may or may not portray you more positively. Media producers are always looking for interesting things to talk about. So if you make yourself dull to escape bad press, you will fade from view for those who might otherwise have portrayed you positively. Stay interesting, stay relevant, stay consistent, and eventually somebody will come along looking for an alternative perspective.

Bad press makes you matter, good press makes you shine, successful people get both.

Personally, my only disappointment here is that I’m not setting any traffic records today. It is a significant boost though, and I couldn’t have asked for better timing. More people will find out what we’re doing here today than did yesterday, and if I have to be called an asshole, a douchebag, or a shitstain for that to happen, that’s a far lower price for exposure than buying prime time ads on Comedy Central.

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Christopher Cantwell comedian, writer, voice artist, and Patriot.

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