Sam Bankman-Fried and the Media’s Love Affair With T-shirt CEOs

Sam Bankman-Fried and the Media’s Love Affair With T-shirt CEOs
Sam Bankman-Fried speaks onstage during the first annual Moonlight Gala benefitting CARE, Children With Special Needs, in New York City on June 23, 2022. (Craig Barritt/Getty Images for CARE For Special Children)
Charlotte Allen
Less than a month ago, in the adoring eyes of the establishment media, 30-year-old Sam Bankman-Fried was the “crypto emperor” (New York Times) and the multibillionaire with the monkish lifestyle who wanted nothing more than to “give his fortune away” to altruistic causes (Bloomberg Markets).
That was before it was revealed that Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency exchange FTX had allegedly lent billions in customers’ funds to a trading company he also co-founded, Alameda Research. In short, FTX was allegedly bankrolling Alameda’s risky bets on the volatile digital-currency market using other people’s money, unbeknownst to them or anyone else. The Bahamas-based FTX collapsed overnight in a liquidity crisis after a customer run, and Bankman-Fried’s wealth fell from an estimated height of $26.5 billion in March to zero (although he may have assets parked somewhere). Amid reports that the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the financial-crimes unit of the Justice Department had launched investigations, Bankman-Fried resigned as FTX’s CEO on Nov. 11, and the company filed for bankruptcy restructuring.

Most damning of all was the report that John J. Ray III, an insolvency specialist hired as replacement CEO, filed in bankruptcy court on Nov. 17.

“Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here,” Ray wrote.
He identified (pdf) such bizarre management practices as a lack of financial records for several FTX units; inappropriate bookkeeping for FTX’s digital assets; apparent use of corporate funds to buy homes in the tax-haven Bahamas for FTX employees; and a shambolic expense-reimbursement system that operated via chat site with disbursements approved via emojis.

The media obviously got bamboozled—or, more accurately, willingly bamboozled itself—with one puff piece after the other over the past year or so about Bankman-Fried’s supposed Midas touch when it came to crypto. How else to account for the August/September 2022 issue of Fortune magazine, its cover completely devoted to a blown-up photo of Bankman-Fried’s famously stubble-shadowed face, with a headline inside speculating he might be “the next Warren Buffett”?

The answer is pretty simple: the T-shirts. Over and over, the establishment media have proved themselves suckers for CEOs in T-shirts. Wear one, preferably baggy and wrinkled, instead of a coat and tie, to a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos (May 2022)—or to moderate a digital-currency event at an exclusive Bahamas resort with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair as panelists (April 2022), or to appear twinned with supermodel Gisele Bundchen in a four-page New Yorker magazine advertising spread (June 2022): “Because we share a passion for creating positive change”—and you will be lionized in the media.

Journalists like to think of themselves as social-justice protagonists, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. In fact, most are celebrity-worshipping herd animals all chasing the same identical story, as Evelyn Waugh noted as early as 1938 in his satirical novel “Scoop.” Comforting the comfortable is their stock-in-trade. So the idea of flouting conventional business dress codes tugs at their rebel-wannabe heartstrings. Mark Zuckerberg’s gray-T-shirt uniform is iconic, to the point where the media faithfully follow whether he has switched from short sleeves to long sleeves or back. His sartorial predecessor was Steve Jobs of the perennial informal black turtleneck, and then Twitter’s Jack Dorsey with his Rasputin beard. Before them all came Albert Einstein with his flyaway hair and penchant for cable-knit sweaters instead of jackets. Einstein was a genuine mathematical genius who could get away with that kind of thing—but that hasn’t stopped intellects of lesser exaltation from taking him as their role model.

Bankman-Fried was an ultimate distillation of the sartorial-rebel-genius ethos. He didn’t just wear a T-shirt, but a T-shirt that looked as though he had slept in it. And sometimes he literally had. A favorite photo circulating before his downfall shows him getting shut-eye in his T-shirt while lying on a beanbag on the floor of his office while his FTX minions tend to their screens. And it wasn’t just a T-shirt, but shorts, sneakers, and rumpled socks—the outfit of a toddler who has outgrown his stroller—coupled with a thatch of unkempt hair that looked as though he had last washed it when George Washington crossed The Delaware.
The media couldn’t get enough of this. “A Crypto Emperor’s Vision: No Pants, His Rules,” read a New York Times headline in May 2022. The article congratulated Bankman-Fried for living “modestly”—even though his actual dwelling consisted of a 12,000-square-foot penthouse in Nassau’s most exclusive neighborhood that has been listed for sale for nearly $40 million. That was about the same amount that Bankman-Fried donated to Democratic Party causes during the 2021–2022 election cycle, making him the party’s biggest donor after George Soros. He was also a promoter of “effective altruism,” a utilitarian philanthropy craze among progressives that holds that it’s morally superior to donate to a climate-change foundation focused on the “long term” than to a children’s hospital that tries to treat cancer-stricken youngsters right now. Vox called him an “uncannily sharp altruistic billionaire.”
All that is ancient history right now. Although maybe not. Bankman-Fried is still technically on the speakers’ roster for a New York Times-sponsored “summit” on “change” scheduled for Nov. 30 that will also feature fellow T-shirt CEOs Zuckerberg and Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine and another media darling. Charge for attending: $2,499. Bankman-Fried might have met his Waterloo, but the media’s love affair with flouters of sartorial convention shows no signs of cooling.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Charlotte Allen is the executive editor of Catholic Arts Today and a frequent contributor to Quillette. She has a doctorate in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America.
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