If you’re old enough, it isn’t difficult to grasp why Michael Lewis got it so wrong in his book about Sam Bankman-Fried, called Going Infinite. It’s worth rehashing a very specific moment in time from two decades ago to get a deeper understanding.
When the US made the decision to invade Iraq for… reasons — mostly imagined — there was a set of operating procedures for many US journalists: either you embed with US troops, or you’re on your own, and if you get killed, well, then I guess that’s that.
It set an unfortunate precedent for journalism in a war zone: one couldn’t even attempt to report what the enemy was saying without putting oneself in grave danger and the end result was an obedient press corp. This is to say that most journalists weren’t about to report atrocities or discuss the severe character flaws of certain individuals if they were forced to rely on them for survival.
The belief that the fourth estate would fall in line was correct, and coverage of the Iraq War, at least in the initial invasion, was almost exclusively positive. Soldiers inherently understand warfare, combat, positioning, and threats better than a journalist and this put any embedded journalist in a vulnerable position.
Embedded journalism is similar to Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s different: you don’t just empathize with your captor, you understand that without them you are quite literally dead.
Access journalism meets embedded journalism
It’s unfair to compare a literal war zone to what occurred in the Bahamian luxury condominiums for FTX and Alameda Research in the waning days of 2022.
But it’s easy to see that Lewis, and the few allies that Sam Bankman-Fried found himself surrounded by in the end, truly believed that they were being besieged by numerous enemies at the gates: Caroline Ellison, CZ, regulators, law enforcement.
Anyone but Sam Bankman-Fried.
Anyone but the 30-year-old, reckless, sociopathic, gambler sitting there the whole time.
And isn’t that convenient?
Defense team taking notes
From all reporting on the first day — including a wonderful play-by-play in The Verge — it appears as though the defense team for Bankman-Fried is running with a similar unfortunate strategy. Blame anyone and everyone but Sam for the collapse of a crypto empire. How could Sam do this? He drove a Toyota Corolla, his hair was unkempt, he hardly showered, he didn’t even own a yacht, for god’s sake!
The arguments fall short. Dozens of witnesses will be taking the stand — former colleagues and friends — to testify against Bankman-Fried and attest to his knowledge of the intricacies of the fraud. The hill that Bankman-Fried has to climb to prove his innocence appears to be getting taller and taller with each passing day and every passing witness.
Lewis’ theories that Bankman-Fried was a boy genius, that most of the money will turn up, that perhaps everyone in the world has misjudged poor Sam, are also being dismantled more and more with each passing day. But similar to how a mother or father would believe their child would always tell the truth before they’d ever dare to tell a lie, Lewis has put all his eggs in the Bankman-Fried basket.
A cautionary tale for journalists
The one benefit of the slew of reviews lampooning Going Infinite is that it’s a reminder for journalists that access — particularly super tight-knit, in the trenches with the men in the arena-type access — comes at a severe price.
That price isn’t simple objectivity, which is to be expected under such circumstances, but also the ability to zoom out and get the full picture.
In the early aughts it was war journalism that couldn’t find a way to be critical of the US military, today it’s finance and tech journalists getting too close to their subjects and being afraid to not just report critically, but lose friendships and allies. Journalists are getting embedded for access, and ultimately that access costs more than it’s worth to report a story.
There’s a moment at the very beginning of The China Hustle — a documentary about a group of shortsellers who operate by, essentially, spying on Mainland China companies — where the protagonist says, “There are no good guys in this story, including me.”
A story like that — one in which everyone is a bad guy, or at least not good — is probably much closer to the reality of what transpired at FTX and Alameda Research. But that isn’t the story Lewis wanted to tell and it isn’t going to be the story the defense team establishes.
Instead the public is meant to believe in a bigger, broader conspiracy raging against Bankman-Fried from the enemies he accumulated over the preceding years, that the world is truly out to get him, his family, and the entire concept of a successful American-made cryptocurrency exchange.
I wish I could sit down with Lewis and the defense team and explain Hanlon’s Razor to them, that a broad, world-sized conspiracy is less believable than the collective stupidity of the FTX leadership, that Bankman-Fried being a greedy liar is more conceivable than him telling the truth and taking responsibility, and that losing all that money really did happen, really was Bankman-Fried’s fault, and really hurt hundreds of thousands of customers.
But I also know that Lewis and the defense team don’t care about Hanlon’s Razor, the truth, or Bankman-Fried’s intentions. They simply want to tell a compelling story.