Opinion: What a YouTuber’s Interview with Sam Bankman-Fried Can Teach Us About Journalism

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March 29, 2023

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(PHOENIX) — When Tiffany Fong lost $200k in the crypto market, she started a YouTube channel to “share her grief and trauma.” Stuck at home with COVID and nothing to do, she disclosed her dealings with Celsius Network, a bank-like company that utilizes cryptocurrency. 

Last July, Celsius filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and took investors’ money along with it. Fong took to the internet.

“I’m not much of a YouTuber, but I did just get f***ed by Celsius last week,” she says in her first video. Her channel launch was perfectly sandwiched between the end of the mid-term primaries and the beginning of mid-term elections when crypto was making a name for itself in political donations. Most spectacularly, one particular young, firebrand crypto billionaire, Samuel Bankman-Fried, also known as SBF, donated $10 million to an unknown, first-time congressional candidate Carrick Flynn in Oregon. Flynn lost and had all but disappeared from the headlines, but the massive donation did not. 

By November, SBF’s crypto company, FTX, filed for bankruptcy, and SBF himself was under suspicion by federal authorities of fraudulent activities. As a result, the one-time media darling and highly public SBF became elusive to the press.

Fong says her crypto problems sparked her interest in FTX’s bankruptcy, and she contacted SBF for a YouTube channel interview. Much to her surprise, he agreed.

At the time of the interview, FTX’s bankruptcy was overseen by the same regulator who oversaw the Enron debacle, John Jay Ray III. FTX and its founder made headlines daily. Media publications, from Forbes to People Magazine, covered the story, which proliferated on platforms like Twitter, crypto blogs, and YouTube channels. Journalists from all media and beats researched everything they could find on SBF. Political reporters, including myself, looked into his massive political donations. SBF is accused of illegally funneling millions to campaigns.

These mega donations, especially to Democratic candidates, were under scrutiny and great fodder for conservative media, pundits, and Republican politicians alike, despite his contributions to both parties. Even the apolitical watchdog group OpenSecrets.org hasn’t yet exposed all of SBF’s contributions. 

When Fong reached him for the interview, she asked him tough, direct questions about the accusations against him and his involvement in FTX’s failures. Among other things, SBF divulged to Fong that he’d contributed dark money for Republicans because he didn’t want liberal media to know and freak out.

When Fong asked why he chose to talk to her, especially since she readily admits, “It’s not like I’m some big reporter or something.” SBF said she seemed to sincerely care about the story. He said Fong wasn’t using the interview as a show and that she was coming from an intelligent, neutral, and interested point of view. Even reporters who appear to come from a neutral angle need to sell their stories, and boring stories don’t sell, SBF said. Clicks move stories online, and sometimes reporters push for the most provocative question possible. He pointed to being asked repeatedly about alleged polyamorous relationships at the palatial Bahamian island compound known as Albany, where SBF and others who worked for FTX lived.

He maintained his innocence in the interview and on his new substack, SBF’s Substack, in a post titled FTX US Balance Update 2023-01-17. But his continued public conversations may have created more control over his internet use. Now, because of SBF’s unwillingness to stop talking, there is a proposal to change his bail conditions. According to the recently proposed court order, he would no longer be allowed to access the internet except in a very limited capacity. 

Regardless if he is muzzled, overwhelming evidence continues to contradict his claims of innocence, including four new charges to his case in a newly unsealed indictment by the court, filed Feb. 23, 2022.

And the most recent, filed Mar. 28, 2023, is a fifth indictment brought by United States attorney Damian Williams, alleging SBF bribed Chinese government officials for over $40 million to unfreeze certain accounts. 

Even FTX’s former co-founder Nishad Singh pled guilty to fraud, according to numerous reports, and it remains to be seen what, if any, outcome Singh’s plea has on SBF’s position.

Either way, SBF shouldn’t be taken at his word, and I am not holding him up as an example of integrity. However, he clearly saw the value of talking to someone who isn’t mainstream media. And Fong, to her credit, despite feeling in over her head, makes it clear that her objective is to relay his answers to her questions as accurately as possible and that viewers can judge his character and make their conclusions. 

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, and its first loyalty is to its citizens. 

Genuine curiosity for the truth should be the guiding principle, according to the American Press Institute’s essential principles and practices of journalism. Fong, although inexperienced as a reporter, upheld these elements of journalism. SBF saw Fong as free of traditional news judgment. 

Due to her financial loss, Fong may not have been totally neutral, but I would argue that was her strongest asset. Hurt by irresponsible crypto giants, Fong was searching for the truth. She genuinely wanted to know what happened to SBF and the money he was accused of laundering. In her interview, Fong allows SBF to answer, meander, and ruminate out loud, and in doing so, he opens up to her and admits things he hadn’t disclosed to other media. 

Fong may not fit neatly into the parameters of neutrality about whom she was covering. Still, she performs the central pillar of journalism: to hold those in power accountable. She put the floodlights directly on one of the most powerful and influential people in the crypto market and contributed to uncovering one of the biggest alleged Ponzi schemes since Bernard Madoff.

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