A Sam Bankman-Fried Media Reckoning Is Underway

Last week, as Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto exchange, FTX, was imploding, a journalist from Forbes sent him an email. A year earlier, the magazine had put Bankman-Fried—or SBF, as he’s known—on the cover of its annual Forbes 400 issue, hailing him in a profile as “the world’s richest 29-year-old.” He was worth $22.5 billion. Now, Chase Peterson-Withorn, who coauthored the story, was writing Bankman-Fried to notify him that the publication planned to drop him from the ranking, given that he had lost nearly all of his money in a matter of days, amid a liquidity crisis after FTX allegedly used billions of dollars’ worth of customer assets to fund bets by Alameda Research, a sister trading firm. 

“He hadn’t really been talking to anyone,” Peterson-Withorn told me. “Presumably, he was hard at work trying to save FTX and FTX US and Alameda and all this money from his investors and his customer user funds.” Which is why the journalist was surprised to get an email back on this comparatively trivial matter. Bankman-Fried said he couldn’t “confidently dispute” that he was no longer a billionaire, as he was “not totally clear” on his net worth at the moment. This was two days before FTX, once valued at $32 billion, would file for bankruptcy. “He’s talking when other people wouldn’t,” noted Peterson-Withorn. 

Indeed, even as he’s now under federal investigation, Bankman-Fried can’t stop talking. A few days later, he was on the phone past midnight with New York Times reporter David Yaffe-Bellany. And a few days after that, he DM’d Vox’s Kelsey Piper, a fellow effective-altruism proponent, to try to explain himself, leaving Piper “appalled by much of what he said.” “Each individual decision seemed fine and I didn’t realize how big their sum was until the end,” Bankman-Fried wrote at one point. (At another: “fuck regulators.” Hours later, he tried to walk some of these comments back.)

Courtesy of Fortune; Cover photograph by Spencer Heyfron.

Bankman-Fried’s swift rise played out through the media—and now the same is happening with his downfall. A few months ago he graced the cover of Fortune alongside the question, “The Next Warren Buffett?” Jeff John Roberts, who wrote that cover storynoted this past week how “it felt odd” to now be writing about the possibility of his subject going to prison. When later asked on Twitter what he would have changed about his approach, Roberts replied: “Always easier in hindsight but…I would have pushed harder for documents. I asked but didn’t insist on them.”

The unraveling of one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges and the shattered mythology of its leader have already prompted scrutiny of the media, which has previously wrestled with criticism for propping up past business or tech wunderkinds, like Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes. And coverage of Bankman-Fried extended well beyond the business section as his stature grew in Washington—not only as one of the biggest Democratic donors, but as a voice in Capitol Hill policy discussions about crypto regulations. Journalists are not only facing questions about past coverage; the Times was accused this week of not pressing Bankman-Fried hard enough during Sunday’s interview, with Gizmodo calling the article a “bizarre softball.”

Frank Chaparro, editor-at-large at crypto news firm The Block, said the media played a role in validating Bankman-Fried “as a serious, honest market participant,” along with major players publicly linked to FTX—from top venture capital firms (Sequoia, SoftBank) to blue-chip investors (Alan Howard, Paul Tudor Jones) to NFL star Tom Brady, who starred in an ad campaign for the company. “It’s very difficult to exactly pinpoint what it was that bred this legitimacy in the beginning, but once it started to snowball, I mean—people trust Tom Brady. People trust CFTC commissioners. People trust Fortune magazine,” said Chaparro.

The extent of the damage is just starting to come into focus. The first detailed look at FTX’s business came in a bankruptcy filing on Thursday, in which newly appointed CEO John J. Ray, who has overseen large-scale bankruptcies, including Enron’s, said he had never seen “such a complete failure of corporate controls.” Hundreds of thousands of people may be impacted. More revelations are sure to follow. (Bankman-Fried has maintained that FTX did not directly invest customer deposits, and in the Vox interview, he blamed FTX’s losses on “messy accounting.”)

“Along the way there were a lot of people who believed in him, and the media portrayal of him is a reflection of that,” said Forbes’s Peterson-Withorn, adding that “the media didn’t invent Sam Bankman-Fried. There were all these investors throwing big money behind him and lavishing praise, and celebrities doing high-profile ads with FTX,” by the time Forbes put him on the cover. “Once everyone else is on board,” he said, “then it starts to take off.” 

Journalists might not have invented Bankman-Fried, but he appeared irresistible to profile writers and TV bookers (and apparently authors, as Michael Lewis spent the past six months or so embedded with him). His quirkiness was emphasized in various profiles (including one commissioned by Sequoia for its website)—a vegan crypto mogul with unusual sleeping habits (on a beanbag chair in the office, when not in the Bahamas penthouse he shared with about 10 roommates) and a penchant for wearing shorts and playing video games. There’s a telling moment in one such profile, published in the Times in May, in which Bankman-Fried’s colleague recalls how he once suggested that the FTX cofounder cut his hair before a TV appearance, with Bankman-Fried reportedly replying, “I think it’s important for people to think I look crazy.” Bankman-Fried knew how to use the media to his advantage, and he was also donating to nonprofit investigative outlet ProPublica and investing in newly launched Semafor—while reportedly trying, unsuccessfully, to court journalists Matt Yglesias and Nate Silver for a Substack competitor.

For all his eccentricities, Bankman-Fried was also personable and seemingly sincere, which surely helped charm the media. “I interviewed SBF at Coindesk’s Consensus event in NYC back in early 2018, before anyone knew who he was,” said reporter Ian Allison, whose story on Alameda’s balance sheet for crypto news site Coindesk prompted FTX’s collapse. “I remember he spoke very rapidly and was full of passion about trading techniques, much of which was beyond me,” but “he struck me as a decent chap, and also kind and patient, explaining things to me, etc.” 

Peterson-Withorn said Bankman-Fried “​at least gave the impression of being very forthcoming,” noting how “you can help shape the narrative if you are someone who always answers the phone.” He’d engage with reporters directly and on air, talking about everything from politics on Meet the Press to crypto regulation and Russian oligarchs on CNBC. “There was this degree of flexibility in what he would be interested in prognosticating on that got him in front of a lot of people, a lot of journalists,” said Chaparro. “Once he became a multibillionaire, I always pondered, Why is he still doing this? Why is he still literally talking to reporters every day? Shouldn’t he be running the company?” 

It’s not like no one was asking questions; as early as 2019, Chaparro pressed Bankman-Fried on the potential conflicts of interest between Alameda and FTX. “But COVID and the period of go-go momentum that resulted from it created the perfect opportunity, in my mind, for someone like this to rise to the top without being questioned,” Chaparro told me. In an interview from April that’s been recirculating in recent days, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Matt Levine suggests Bankman-Fried is “in the Ponzi business,” and he doesn’t totally disagree. 

When I asked Alyson Shontell, Fortune’s editor in chief, about the media’s handling of Bankman-Fried, she directed me to a newsletter she wrote defending the August cover. “The best covers visually capture a moment in time, creating a cultural symbol that depicts that moment’s leaders and trendsetters—even if their success is fleeting or their triumphs end in disaster,” she wrote. “I’m proud that we had the foresight to capture SBF at his peak.” In an email, Shontell noted that the magazine hadn’t dubbed Bankman-Fried the next Warren Buffett—that had been suggested by a longtime crypto insider—and that the cover had included, below that provocative question, how Bankman-Fried could still “crash and burn.”