Illustration: Zohar Lazar
One of the crucial elements of Sam Bankman-Fried’s great scam was his co-optation of the press, which turned out to be very easy for him. Manipulating journalists was child’s play – so few of us actually know how to write about anything crypto-related – and it threw money all over a notoriously cash-strapped industry. Now every member of the begging media who has ties to him or helped whitewash his false philosophies is acting sheepishly, pointing fingers or insisting they barely knew the guy.
Fortune magazine put SBF on its cover this year asking, “The next Warren Buffett? Now the author of this story, Jeff John Roberts, confesses, “I was charmed by his nerdy affect as an SBF, scruffy in a T-shirt and bushy hair, as he twirled a fidget spinner. and raved about everything from M&A strategy to macroeconomics to the importance of trust in business transactions. It was bullshit, of course, and I didn’t see it straight. (Fortuneeditor-in-chief Alyson Shontell says she has no regrets put it on the cover.)
SBF knew how to play reporters. He gave a good quote and he didn’t oversell, acting like he too was a little skeptical of all of crypto. This posture contrasts with the way most crypto evangelistic cranks talk to journalists. As Bloomberg’s Matt Levine (one of SBF’s favorites) wrote“A true wild-eyed crypto believer is not the person to operate an exchange.”
Journalists covering crypto were desperately looking for someone in this world who wasn’t a cowardly con artist. “People in the media wanted it to be the crypto guy actually doing the right thing, and he was supposed to be allied with the regulators, supposedly on the good side,” says Web3 media consultant Davis Richardson, “but he is actually the same crap that everyone does in the industry.
And SBF was different from Elizabeth Holmes. She used legacy media and her flashy connections to scam people into giving her money for something that didn’t exist. He made his money first, through real trading, then used it to score flashy hookups and legacy media praise. A media outlet that took an investment from SBF says, “If you were fundraising for anything in the first half of 2022, you would obviously talk to him.”
Vox Media, owner of this magazine, received a grant from its family foundation for a reporting project. And he invested in Semaforwho reported that he tried to buy his favorite bloggers, Matthew Yglesias and Nate Silver, for a Substack-like publication he wanted to launch.
“If he had a relationship with me, it was purely parasocial,” says Yglesias. He says they went for mocktails exactly once, at Doi Moi on 14th Street in DC, and adds, “I feel like Semafor is the real media organization that he actually invested in and which started, which somehow seems more important than the idea of hiring your favorite people on Twitter for a post without a business plan.
But SBF Is have a particular fondness for Yglesias-types, those Twitterholic pundits and progressives who looked fondly at (and could translate to readers) the lofty philosophy – effective altruism – that was supposed to be the source of his fortune as a a billion dollars. As Yglesias wrote in May, “SBF cryptocurrency businesses only exist to fund effective altruism.” While Bloomberg and Fortune gave him the reputation of being an eccentric League of Legends-playing the disheveled Buffett genre, it was the craziest voices in the progressive media that fueled the narrative that he was also an exceptionally decent billionaire. The nation‘s Jeet Heer in mid-November slammed Yglesias, accusing him to “launder a transparent crook”.
Zack Seward, editor of CoinDesk, the industry publication that first sparked fire on SBF with Ian Allison report exposing the folly of SBF’s balance sheets – said that, above all else, SBF “simply craves mainstream legitimacy by any means necessary”. Others who knew him tell me he became obsessed with the press and the glowing image of himself it reflects. A senior media official who dealt regularly with SBF explained it this way: “He is a very young person who, until two years ago, had never had any interaction with the press, any notoriety, didn’t understand what it meant to be a public figure. Then he did this big personal publicity tour, and he fell for it. But he didn’t understand the cardinal rule: what the press builds, the press tears down.