Journalism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Con Artists and Grifters: A Failure in Serving the Reader

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January 4, 2023

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(LOS ANGELES) — Journalism has many unfortunate tendencies—many of which push the industry to traverse an ethical tightrope. Perhaps none more dangerous than their love-hate relationship with con artists and grifters. Journalism’s toxic obsession with building up and subsequently tearing down these figures represents a stunning failure to serve its readers. 

Accuracy and truth get thrown to the wayside in favor of what garners clicks, headlines, and attention. The need to be first has superseded their duty to truth and accuracy. The cases of Adam Neumann and Sam Bankman-Fried can best illustrate this phenomenon. 

Their media coverage has been akin to a Greek tragedy, undergoing a precipitous rise and a swift decline. Journalists are willing participants throughout this cycle, enthusiastically building them up and tearing them down—all the while expressing a stunning lack of self-awareness in their central role in this phenomenon.

However, more realistic descriptions can be used to describe the work of Neumann and Bankman-Fried. Neumann founded WeWork, a glorified commercial real estate company akin to Regus. Bankman-Fried founded FTX, a cryptocurrency derivatives exchange akin to Binance. The two are not quite the earth-shattering companies that early coverage might have led people to believe. 

Throughout this whole process, journalism does a significant disservice to its most important stakeholder: you, the reader. 

Both Neumann and Bankman-Fried had similar media coverage in their rise, touted as the next big things revolutionizing their field. Their faces adorned numerous magazine and newspaper covers. 

Cover stories waxed lyrical about their perceived genius. Neumann garnered numerous less-than-sceptical cover stories from the likes of Bloomberg Businessweek and Forbes. Meanwhile, Bankman-Fried got the same cover story treatment in the likes of Forbes and Fortune

Neumann was presented as revolutionising “How The World Does Business.” Bankman-Fried was touted as perhaps being “The Next Warren Buffett.” As a result of such coverage, journalism created cults of personalities around Neumann and Bankman-Fried. The warm coverage aided in the ability for any criticism or negative coverage to just roll off them like water off a duck’s back.

Eliot Brown, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and co-author of The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion, described the media environment Neumann rose through as “sycophantic” in an interview for this article. “They were structurally made to sort of pump up the narrative.” Throughout this all, the media’s stunning failure for Brown was its “failure to apply the brakes to the runaway train of optimism.”

Much like Neumann’s growth as start-up culture was enthralling the media, Bankman-Fried rose at a time when cryptocurrencies enamored the media. In an interview for this article, Jacob Silverman, a contributing editor at The New Republic, remarked how much of the coverage of Bankman-Fried “was mostly focused on treating crypto like a bright, shiny object with very little downside.” 

A lot of the coverage ignored the bigger picture at play. Silverman noted that it neglected how this “involved a lot of real money, and that was a thing where a lot of everyday people were losing money.” 

Jeff John Roberts, Crypto Editor at Fortune and author of one of the numerous cover stories of Bankman-Fried, acknowledged his and the media’s failure to “trust but verify” regarding Bankman-Fried in an interview for this article. “I and the rest of the media did not do enough to pin proof for the grand claims he was making,” he said. 

The media were too quick to accept Bankman-Fried’s “compelling narrative that he was smarter than everyone else. But we know at some point people just forgot to ask for proof that this was going on,” Roberts added.

A further problem that persisted was the closeness that reporters had with who they covered. Not only does this result in a widespread lack of skepticism, but it also goes against a founding principle of journalism: to maintain an independence from those being covered. Brown went so far as to suggest that “a certain cosiness existed between many reporters and their subjects.” 

“Journalists generally bought the narrative that VCs were selling. All of our companies are disruptive forces that will shake up incumbents and bring better results for consumers. In reality, they know very well that only one in 10 of their companies will succeed financially,” Brown added. 

Journalism was as complicit in both Neumann and Bankman-Fried’s falls as it was in their rise. Many of the same journalists that covered and precipitated their rise covered their falls too. In the case of Neumann, Brown spoke to the general lack of “contrition” across much of the media, noting an overall trend in journalism when journalists recognize the negative reality of these figures “they are very happy to sort of pile on.” 

“My sense of the general media with WeWork was when other reporters sort of realized that the whole thing was like a façade or a house of cards, they were very happy to start reporting on the reality, maybe even more so than on the way up,” he said.

However, with Bankman-Fried, some journalists responded differently. Some appeared to have genuine contrition and self-awareness of their role in his rise. To his credit, Roberts, author of a cover story on Bankman-Fried, wrote a further piece on “How SBF fooled everyone—including me.” Roberts saw it just as part of his job.

“Just as you make any other mistake, I think you owe it to readers to correct it. I think recounting the process helps the readers understand what happened and also is a bit of a reminder to the rest of the profession that, because yes, I wrote a piece saying how I got fooled by Sam Bankman-Fried but so did absolutely everyone else,” he said.

Roberts noted how the media is behind the cycle that allows “people to get built up and then have the same outlets tear them down.” Despite that, he was still surprised by what occurred with Bankman-Fried: “I’m surprised I didn’t realize he was a sociopathic liar. I wish I’d thought of that, and I wish I’d asked for documents.”

Additionally, Roberts acknowledged that he “obviously would not write that story again,” referring to his original Bankman-Fried cover story.

However, acknowledging the lessons they learned in the process is more critical for journalists than showing contrition and self-awareness in their role in elevating con artists and swindlers to celebrity status. 

Roberts argued that he and the media at large were right to cover Bankman-Fried over the summer, considering “he was the hottest business story.” However, while acknowledging that the media “should be skeptical,” he conceded that, “there are entrepreneurs out there building great companies, and people doing great things. And I think people want to read about that, and those accomplishments deserve coverage.”

Roberts’ key takeaway: “Obviously, you know, we have to be more careful in who we select for coverage.” 

Silverman had a more outsider perspective on the Bankman-Fried affair, one filled with far more skepticism. Given that, he had a different set of lessons he learnt and advice for other journalists going forward. “Don’t be charmed by CEOs or wealth or Utopian promises,” he said. “Ask basic questions that would help at least to pierce some of the veils here.” Additionally, he underscored the tendency for people to be “charmed by novelty.”

Concerning Neumann, Brown always held a healthy level of skepticism, which helps explain the lessons he learned from the whole affair. He learned the difficulty of going against the grain in a bubble. “I would write a bunch of articles weighing critically on WeWork,” he said. “However, it felt like I was yelling into the wind. The broad narrative was still that WeWork was an awesome disruptor.” 

Brown’s key takeaway: “Smart people do dumb things. So, the media should be skeptical. But I don’t know that the public will always listen.”

An interesting perspective to end on is that of an actual grifter. Anna Delvey was the subject of a lengthy piece in New York Magazine that exposed her grift. The article formed the basis of Inventing Anna, a Netflix miniseries based on her con in New York. 

Agreeing with Brown’s point, Delvey admitted to having a coziness with some reporters. “I have a good relationship with certain reporters,” she said in an interview for this article, speaking from her Manhattan apartment. This insight explains the type of coverage she got, most notably the New York Magazine article that elevated her to the status that she has now. 

However, Delvey remains fairly critical of journalism and the media’s coverage of her. She accuses the media of “just following the mainstream” concerning their use of the “fake heiress” label. She claimed to have “never said that” and therefore feels that “her voice in the coverage is being ignored.”

Despite being a convicted con artist, Delvey raises an interesting point that strikes at the heart of the ethical conundrum for journalism in their love-hate relationship with con artists and grifters. 

In covering these figures, journalists have to weigh the importance of serving their readers while striking a balance between coverage that reports the story accurately alongside imbuing some of the voices of those being covered. 

Unfortunately, too many journalists failed to serve their readers. They heavily relied on the narratives presented by the figures they covered. They strove to be first rather than tell the truth.

Ultimately, journalism’s love-hate relationship with con artists and grifters marks a stain on the industry as a whole. As illustrated by the cases of Adam Neumann and Sam Bankman-Fried in particular, journalists are frequently too hesitant to be skeptical of their claims.

What resulted was the elevation of these figures to an almost mythical status that they did not deserve through the coverage they were given. However, when their con was exposed, journalists were quick to accelerate the process of their public downfall. All the while, their duty to serve their readers got lost.

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