Last week, like Sam Bankman-Frieds crypto exchange, FTX, imploded, a journalist from Forbes sent him an email. A year earlier, the magazine had put Bankman-Fried – or SBF, as he is known – on the cover of its annual Forbes 400 number and hails him in a profile as “the world’s richest 29-year-old.” He was worth $22.5 billion. Now, Chase Peterson-Withorn, who co-authored the story, Bankman-Fried wrote to inform him that the publication planned to remove him from the rankings, given that he had lost almost all of his money in a matter of days, amid a liquidity crisis after FTX allegedly spent billions dollar value of client assets to fund bets by Alameda Research, a sister trading firm.
“He hadn’t really talked to anybody,” Peterson-Withorn told me. “Probably he worked hard to save FTX and FTX US and Alameda and all that money from his investors and his client user funds.” That’s why the journalist was surprised to get an email back about this comparatively trivial matter. Bankman-Fried said he could not “certainly dispute” that he was no longer a billionaire, as he was “not completely clear” on his net worth at the moment. This was two days before FTX, once valued at $32 billion, was set to file for bankruptcy. “He speaks up when other people wouldn’t,” Peterson-Withorn noted.
In fact, even now under federal investigation, Bankman-Fried can’t stop talking. A few days later he was on the phone after midnight with New York Times Reporter David Yaffe-Bellany. And a few days after that he DM’d Vox’s Kelsey Piper, another proponent of effective altruism, 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 the total was until the end,” Bankman-Fried wrote at one point. (At another: “damn regulators.” Hours later, he tried to walk back some of those comments.)
Bankman-Fried’s rapid rise played out through the media — and now the same is happening with his fall. A few months ago, he graced the cover Fortune alongside the question “The Next Warren Buffett?” Jeff John Roberts, who wrote the cover story, noted this past week how “it felt weird” to now write about the possibility of his subject going to jail. 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 did not insist on them.”
The dissolution of one of the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges and the shattered mythology of its leader has already prompted scrutiny from the media, which has previously grappled with criticism for supporting past business or technological marvels, such as Theranos’s. Elizabeth Holmes. And coverage of Bankman-Fried extended well beyond the business section as his stature grew in Washington — not just as one of the biggest Democratic donors, but as a voice in Capitol Hill policy discussions about crypto regulations. Journalists don’t just face questions about past coverage; the Times where the accused this week for not pushing Bankman-Fried hard enough during Sunday’s interview, in which Gizmodo called the article a “bizarre softball.”
Frank Chaparro, editor 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 the NFL star Tom Brady, who participated in an ad campaign for the company. “It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly what it was that created this legitimacy in the beginning, but once it snowballed, I mean — people trust Tom Brady. People trust CFTC commissioners. People trust Fortune the newspaper,” Chaparro said.
The extent of the damage is just beginning to come into focus. The first detailed look at FTX’s operations 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 could be affected. More revelations are sure to follow. (Bankman-Fried has argued that FTX did not directly invest client deposits, and in the Vox interview he blamed FTX’s losses on “sloppy accounting.”)
“Along the way, a lot of people believed in him, and the media portrayal of him is a reflection of that,” said ForbesPeterson-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, at the time Forbes put him on the cover. “When everyone else is on board,” he said, “that’s when it starts to take off.”
Journalists may not have invented Bankman-Fried, but he seemed irresistible to profile writers and TV bookers (and apparently writers, who Michael Lewis spent the last 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 bean bag chair in the office, when not in the penthouse in the Bahamas he shared with about 10 roommates) and a penchant for wearing shorts and playing video games. There is a telling moment in such a profile, published in Times in May, where Bankman-Fried’s colleague recalled how he once suggested that the FTX founder get a haircut before a TV appearance, to which Bankman-Fried reportedly replied: “I think it’s important for people to think I look crazy out.” Knowing how to use the media to his advantage, Bankman-Fried also donated to the non-profit investigative agency ProPublica and invested in newly launched Semafor – while reportedly trying, unsuccessfully, to woo journalists Matt Yglesias and Nate Silver for a Substack competitor.
For all her 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 in early 2018, before anyone knew who he was,” the reporter said Ian Allison, whose story on Alameda’s balance sheet for crypto news site Coindesk led to the collapse of FTX. “I remember him talking very fast and being full of passion for trading techniques, much of which was beyond me,” but “he struck me as a decent fellow, and also kind and patient, explaining things to me, etc.”
Peterson-Withorn said that Bankman-Fried “at least gave the impression of being very accommodating,” noting how “you can help shape the story if you’re someone who’s always answering the phone.” He would engage with reporters live and on air, talking about everything from politics to Meet the press to crypto regulation and Russian oligarchs on CNBC. “There was such a degree of flexibility in what he would be interested in prognosticating about that got him in front of a lot of people, a lot of journalists,” Chaparro said. “Once he became a multi-billionaire, I always wondered, why is he still doing this? Why is he still talking to reporters literally every day? Shouldn’t he be running the company?”
It’s not that no one asked questions; already in 2019, Chaparro pressed Bankman-Fried on potential conflicts of interest between Alameda and FTX. “But COVID and the period of go-go momentum that resulted from that created the perfect opportunity, in my mind, for someone like this to rise to the top unchallenged,” Chaparro told me. In an April interview that has been circulating in recent days, Bloomberg Opinion columnist Matt Levine suggests that Bankman-Fried is “in the Ponzi business,” and he strongly disagrees.
When I asked Alyson Shontell, Fortunes editor-in-chief, about the media’s handling of Bankman-Fried, she referred me to a newsletter she wrote defending the cover in August. “The best covers visually capture a moment in time and create a cultural icon that depicts the leaders and trendsetters of that moment — even if their success is fleeting or their triumphs end in disaster,” she wrote. “I’m proud that we had the foresight to catch SBF at his peak.” In an email, Shontell noted that the paper had not called Bankman-Fried the next Warren Buffett — as had been suggested by a longtime crypto insider — and that the cover had included, under the provocative question, how Bankman-Fried could still “crash and burn.”