One of the most striking things about the collapse of crypto exchange FTX, once counted among the world’s largest, is the extent to which it caught the supposed watchdogs of the tech industry by surprise. How could Sam Bankman-Fried, the brainiac financial visionary, crowned earlier this year the “crypto emperor” by The New York Times, have steered his armada of crypto firms into the rocks so recklessly? With allegations of an enormous, brazen fraud lingering, the first place to look is at the central role of the media in this fiasco. Through an almost endless churn of fawning coverage, the news media turned an inexperienced—and, it seems, ethically deranged—trader into the second coming of Warren Buffett.
Over the past two years, Bankman-Fried cultivated the media lavishly, if not carefully. Drawing on what then seemed like an unlimited pool of cash, SBF (as we’ll call the mythologized version of the real person) dispersed investments, advertising dollars, sponsorships, and donations to key news outlets—including ProPublica, Vox, Semafor, and The Intercept—with extraordinary effectiveness.
Bankman-Fried’s head has filled the frame of the most coveted business news covers in the world, including Fortune (“The next Warren Buffett?”) and Forbes (“Only Zuck has been as rich (23 billion) this young (29)!”). CNBC star Jim Cramer once compared Bankman-Fried, who has been active in crypto finance for only a handful of years, to John Pierpont Morgan, the giant of industry who worked in banking for nearly four decades before striking out on his own.
Remarkably, some major news outlets have continued to round the edges of the SBF myth, even after the discovery of at least a billion-dollar hole in FTX’s books, the assets seeming to vanish into the crypto ether. This week, Twitter erupted in outrage when The New York Times published what many have described as a “puff piece” on Bankman-Fried, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
The Times story on Bankman-Fried, who allegedly funneled FTX customer money into his private hedge fund, Alameda Research, is couched in passive, soft-touch language reflected even in the headline: “How Sam Bankman-Fried’s Crypto Empire Collapsed.” The Times pieces describes Bankman-Fried’s misallocation of funds—which, if true, amounts to mass-scale fraud—in terms that remove active agency, writing: “Alameda had accumulated a large ‘margin position’ on FTX, essentially meaning it had borrowed funds from the exchange, Mr. Bankman-Fried said.” The piece, which describes Bankman-Fried as “surprisingly calm,” lays little to no blame at SBF’s feet, writing that FTX “lent as much as $10 billion to Alameda.” In contrast, business writer Trung Phan noted in a widely shared tweet that “fraud,” “crime,” “stolen,” “theft,” “criminal,” and “hidden,” make no appearance amid the article’s 2,000-plus word count.
But if critics found the recent Times article full of off-the-charts puffery, previous coverage makes this latest, post-FTX collapse piece look like searing investigative journalism. A May 2022 article by the same writer, The New York Times’ David Yaffe-Bellany, titled “A Crypto Emperor’s Vision: No Pants, His Rules,” jump-cuts from rapt audiences “roaring” with laughter at Bankman-Fried’s wit to his penchant for living “modestly” (in a $40 million Bahamas penthouse) to his chummy relationship with Tom Brady that purportedly began with Brady approaching the unassuming Bankman-Fried at a party to talk crypto.
In its flattery, the 3,500-word Times article flipped the famous fable about a naked emperor alluded to in the piece’s headline; rather than showing a naked emperor who thinks he’s elegantly clothed, it paints a picture of a figure we might all consider larger than life but who, by the Times’ account, is just a regular do-gooder whose smarts led him, almost haphazardly, to invent a proprietary money-printing machine.
And now that the ride is over, Bankman-Fried has dropped the mask: Sam Bankman-Fried tries to explain himself.
Exit quote: “I feel badly for those who get fucked by it.”