The culture of lying in our news media threatens not just businesses but our democracy
Carlos Watson only ever called me when he wanted something. So when the founder of Ozy Media reached out ahead of CES in 2019, I should have guessed that was the case.
Usually he wanted coverage of his latest Ozy initiative — an interview show on YouTube or some new traffic milestone. When Watson first set out to launch the site, which he described as a youth-oriented news source that would tell you the news before it became news, he asked if he could follow me and my COO around for a few days. He came to TheWrap newsroom in 2013 and did just that.
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This time he wanted to meet for lunch, he said. Would I make time? We met at a Las Vegas hotel and he asked if he could buy TheWrap. With what money, I asked? Undeterred, Watson mentioned that Ozy was making $20 million in revenue that year. And he was curious how much money we were losing.
“None,” I replied. He looked shocked. I never heard from him much after that, not until 2021, when TheWrap picked up the New York Times expose in 2021 which revealed him to be a fraud and a liar.
But here we are: We live in a culture of lying.
I say this with sorrow and a fair amount of confusion. When did this country morph into this unrecognizable hellscape of constant lying? Wasn’t George Washington’s inability to tell a lie the mother’s milk we all drank in grade school?
I mean, yes, I was raised on the lies of Richard Nixon. That soured my childhood political ideals if not my actual childhood, but at least Nixon was rejected by the establishment for his deeds in Watergate and resigned the presidency.
Nope, not anymore. Now the culture of lies that was personified by the Lying Liars of the Trump era and the Eventually-It-Might-Be-True Liars of the Unicorn Start-up Class (Adam Neumann, Elizabeth Holmes) are followed by the fraudsters of news media.
The stunning examples that have emerged in recent weeks — one by the small digital media company Ozy Media, the other by the biggest cable news network in the country, Fox News — illustrate the spread of our unabashed, grow-fast-and-break-things, fake-it-till-you-make-it culture into news media. In the case of Fox, maybe it’s fake-it-till-you’re-caught.
Watson was arrested last month and indicted for securities and wire fraud for a host of shocking lies, including impersonating a YouTube executive and doctoring contracts and financial plans. (Congratulations to the Times’ then-columnist Ben Smith whose investigative work was the reason this was exposed.)
The company shut down last Wednesday. Among the litany of lies that the federal prosecutor unveiled in his 42-page indictment included Watson texting his deputy Samir Rao, who was impersonating a YouTube executive on a fund-raising call with Goldman Sachs while Watson listened in.
Rao was impersonating the YouTube executive in the first place because he and Watson both lied about Ozy’s actual web traffic.
Then more lies: when the Times wrote about the call, Watson had the audacity to assert that Rao was suffering from a mental breakdown, and tried to shame the newspaper for writing about someone in a medical crisis.
Rao wasn’t in a medical crisis. He was in a moral crisis. At that point he stopped lying and spilled all of it to the feds.
Not so for Watson. Even now, despite all the texts and documents and confessions by his colleagues, Watson insists, “I am not now and have never been a con man.” But that’s exactly what he is. Maybe he’s so turned around that he doesn’t even know what that means.
Meanwhile the political-media class across the country is still processing the stunning revelations that Fox News executives and on-air hosts knowingly deceived their viewers, decisions driven by concerns over a decline in ratings and profit after the 2020 election when the network failed to initially back Trump’s lies about election fraud. (Congratulations to Dominion Voting Systems whose defamation lawsuit against Fox News was the reason this was exposed.)
Most shockingly, Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch admitted to it under oath, observing that his hosts were spouting views that he knew weren’t true. And that he could have done something at the time but chose not to.
He wasn’t the only one, though of course he set the mold. The New York Times last weekend reported on Suzanne Scott, the network’s chief executive, saying that Fox ratings suffered because the election desk called Arizona for Biden: “If we hadn’t called Arizona, our ratings would have been bigger.” (So. What.) Meanwhile host Bret Baier seemed shaken by the fact that Trump was furious that Fox had called Arizona for Biden. He suggested reversing the call. Not because it was wrong. But because it upset Trump, which upset their viewers.
And on it went, as Fox hosts invited election deniers onto their shows, while many of them mocked those very deniers in their private communications. This week, Tucker Carlson seems to be baiting Dominion, airing segments that revise history by saying the insurrection was essentially some gentle sight-seeing.
The culture of lying was bad enough among the unicorn disasters of recent years like Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, or Adam Neumann of WeWork or Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX. These were fast-talking entrepreneurs who looked around at the culture of exaggerated valuations, tortured projections and irrational exuberance and when the chips were down — Holmes and Bankman-Fried took that sharply into outright criminality. (Neumann has not been accused of any crimes.)
And on the political front, George Santos has created a whole new definition of lying — everything from his education, to his work background, to his name, to his mother’s origin, to a dog charity. It tips into absurdity — but the man is in Congress.
When this poison seeps into our news media, the implications are even more far-reaching. This normalized culture of lying in our news media threatens not just businesses (Ozy is gone, Fox News faces a $1.6 billion lawsuit), but our democracy.
Trust in media is already at an historic low. The revelations at Fox News leave no fig leaf to journalists who work there or indeed any of those who work for Murdoch’s Fox Corporation. The owner is an admitted liar about the very substance of what his company does — reporting news.
What does that mean that viewers and readers should believe? At what cost to our news culture is the profit imperative at Fox?
And I can’t but think that the next news media entrepreneur may face a lot of skepticism in the wake of Carlos Watson’s wreckage. Good luck raising money. It cannot be good for underrepresented entrepreneurs who already face huge hurdles raising capital.
Even those of us who sensed Watson was an operator managed to get taken. That time that he invited me to lunch, Watson checked his watch after about an hour and said he had to run. And oh — he’d forgotten his wallet. Would I mind picking up the tab?
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly included Adam Neumann among entrepreneurs who’d been accused of criminality. TheWrap regrets the error.
Sharon Waxman, is the founder, CEO and Editor in Chief of TheWrap. She is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, and was a Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times. Twitter: @sharonwaxman