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With all of the puff pieces from the press, there was apparently little interest in investigating Sam Bankman-Fried’s web of interlocking firmsLam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Inventing the Crypto King

How the media created the myth of Sam Bankman-Fried

by
Ashley Rindsberg
November 16, 2022
Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images
With all of the puff pieces from the press, there was apparently little interest in investigating Sam Bankman-Fried’s web of interlocking firmsLam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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.

Far from a one-off, the May Times piece was the culmination of a drumbeat of coverage by the paper that, collectively, helped to create the myth of SBF as “an uncannily sharp altruistic billionaire,” as Vox recently described him. A narrative of this scope, especially one that lacks substance to this degree, is never the product of an article or two, or even of a few dedicated news cycles. Rather, it’s the result of sustained, coordinated effort.

A narrative of this scope is never the product of an article or two. Rather, it’s the result of sustained, coordinated effort.

The famously acerbic Times tech columnist Kara Swisher quoted SBF approvingly, noting “Sam Bankman-Fried was right when he pointed to the unbanked and those left out of the system: ‘The [crypto] industry has the potential to improve a lot of people’s lives.’” A July Dealbook interview gave Bankman-Fried free rein to opine on trading crypto derivatives. Another Times piece, which cited SBF’s “penchant for haphazardly tied shoes and company-branded T-shirts,” focused on an FTX Super Bowl commercial featuring Larry David.

With all of the puff pieces from the press, there was apparently little interest in investigating SBF’s web of interlocking firms. A number of high profile outlets best known for investigative reporting took money from Bankman-Fried—in some cases money earmarked to fund investigative journalism—and yet did little, it appears, to investigate the source of those funds.

This was the case with a $5 million pledge to ProPublica from Bankman-Fried’s family foundation, Building a Stronger Future. Vox, which published a March 2021 interview with Bankman-Fried, introduced the FTX founder by praising his “civic-mindedness,” which was guided by an algorithmlike statement of purpose: “Make a tremendous amount of money by any means necessary. Then give it all away by the best means possible.” Perhaps their praise paid off: In a recent article on the fall of SBF, Vox mentions—albeit buried in the form of a parenthetical “Full Disclosure” in the middle of the piece—that they had receieved an undisclosed sum from Bankman-Fried’s foundation. (Vox and ProPublica did not respond to requests for comment.)

Semafor, the new publication led by former New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, similarly received an unspecified investment from Bankman-Fried. Notably, Semafor prominently publicized this information in a piece about Matt Yglesias’ and Nate Silver’s refusal to join a different venture funded by SBF.

SBF possesses a kind of media aptitude that you would not expect to find in a young finance-focused techie, or even in a fairly seasoned media hand—a media canniness Bankman-Fried has displayed again and again, including with his foray into backing, buying, or producing his own media.” In one example, Bankman-Fried interviewed the famous Princeton ethicist Peter Singer about effective altruism, a philosophical movement founded by Singer and philosopher William MacAskill that Bankman-Fried has aligned himself with. The interview received a fairly paltry number of views for a video featuring two big names, but it successfully drove headlines and helped burnish Bankman-Fried’s reputation and image, his connection to Singer cited repeatedly as evidence of his ethical bona fides.

This is the kind of strategic decision-making that top PR firms employ when building the brands of their biggest and best clients. Key to this strategic approach was Bankman-Fried’s exceptional ability to continually create fresh headlines about himself and his company. One of the most important tactics he used to do this was the creation of top-tier brand partnerships that would drive headlines. FTX’s relationships with Mercedes’ F1 team, naming rights negotiated with the Miami Heat, stage-sharing with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (a pair not usually known for their altruism), the launch of an FTX gaming unit, the Larry David Super Bowl Ad—each one represented another PR opportunity that would generate dozens of headlines. With so much news real estate devoted to breathlessly boosting the latest FTX deal, sponsorship, or main-stage appearance, there was hardly room left over for investigations—or even for a critical op-ed.

Perhaps the most ironic moment of media myth-making was Fortune’s “Warren Buffett” cover story from this past August. Despite the question mark included in the copy on the cover—“Is Sam Bankman-Fried the next Warren Buffett?”—the phrase was not a question but a statement. While Buffett and his longtime business partner Charlie Munger have said time and again that their success came with years of patience, Fortune crowned Bankman-Fried the next Buffett seemingly because he’d become so rich so quickly.

Only months before the Fortune cover, another business media heavyweight had put Bankman-Fried on its cover. The 2021 Forbes 400 list annotated its cover image of SBF with an unnervingly prescient quote from Bankman-Fried: “I got involved in crypto without any idea what crypto was.” If there was a single tipping point in the creation of the SBF myth, this was it. Beyond mere inclusion on the Forbes 400 list (the one Kanye West frequently invoked in his recent antisemitic tirades, and which made headlines for reincluding Trump), Bankman-Fried was now the very face of America’s most hallowed symbol of financial success.

The piece included all the usual SBF tropes—the black hoodie, the extreme wealth, the effective altruism. “He’s a mercenary,” Fortune wrote, “dedicated to making as much money as possible (he doesn’t really care how) solely so he can give it away (he doesn’t really know to whom, or when).” SBF had won.

And yet Forbes had also been pulled into the Bankman-Fried money vortex. In February, Binance, another major—but even larger—crypto exchange, invested $200 million in Integrated Whale Media, the Hong Kong-based company that owns Forbes. Binance was also a major holder of FTX’s cryptocurrency, FTT, with at least $580 million worth of the currency banked away.

It was Binance’s $580 million holding of FTT that precipitated FTX’s fall. But crucially, what triggered that sequence of events was not a monthslong investigation by a mainstream news outlet, like the ones Bankman-Fried had invested in or donated to, which employ dozens or in some cases hundreds of investigative journalists. Rather, it was the work of far smaller—and far more diligent—news outlets doing their jobs.

On Nov. 2, CoinDesk broke the news of the connection between FTX and Bankman-Fried’s hedge fund, Alameda Research. This quickly led to a Substack called Dirty Bubble Media questioning FTX’s solvency. The CoinDesk piece and the Dirty Bubble Media Substack in turn led to Binance’s CEO tweeting that the company was dumping its holdings of FTT, triggering a financial domino effect that led to FTX’s swift collapse.

In the space of four days, media participants that lie far outside the highly capitalized mainstream did more investigative work than the entire corporate media had done in two years. Once the bubble—financial and conceptual—was popped, however, the media began whirring into action, manufacturing a new SBF myth, this one as breathless, hyped and sure of itself as the old one, with the Times rushing to tell its readers not about SBF’s misdeeds but about his “surprisingly calm” state of mind. “You would’ve thought that I’d be getting no sleep right now,” SBF tells his worried handlers at the Times. “And instead I’m getting some. It could be worse.”

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