On December 26, 2022, New York Times reporter Rob Copeland published an article titled, “In the Bahamas, a Lingering Sympathy for Sam Bankman-Fried.” “Residents there [in the Bahamas] have a generous view of the disgraced FTX founder, who has been accused of misusing billions of dollars in customer funds,” Copeland writes. However, rather than convincingly argue his point, Copeland instead relies on the sentiments of (often unnamed) Bahamian citizens, SBF’s philanthropic history, and supposed differences between white-collar and blue-collar crime to manufacture sympathies for the former crypto billionaire.
Deconstructing this piece can tell us a lot about the fraught ways developing countries are presented in elite American media, and what purpose these tropes often serve to these outlets and their readers. Our goal is not to mortally condemn this one piece or this one reporter. It is to examine the missteps in a deeply flawed piece of journalism which still made it into the American paper of record, and ask why such a flawed piece was published at all.
Here are Copeland’s two main thesis points:
- In the United States, the FTX cryptocurrency exchange founder’s status has plummeted to a point where “politicians, investors and cryptocurrency types all but compete to declare most vigorously how little they think of Mr. Bankman-Fried.” However, this hostility is not shared in the Bahamas, especially among residents of New Providence Island, where SBF had lived since October 2021.
- The Bahamian willingness to sympathize with SBF stems from his donating “millions of dollars to a dizzying collection of Bahamian charities, churches and government entities,” a perceived lack of comparability between an alleged multi-billion dollar fraud and “gang violence” on the island, and the unlikelihood that Bahamians were victimized by FTX’s implosion.
If the aim of this piece was to examine opinions outside the United States, Copeland does very little to improve the reader’s understanding of SBF’s arrest from the Bahamian perspective. For starters, Copeland claims he conducted “interviews across the island Mr. Bankman-Fried called home” to draw conclusions about prevailing national sentiments. But New Providence, while housing a majority of the nation’s population, remains just one of the 30 inhabited islands that make up the Bahamas. This fact alone creates a sampling issue which calls the article’s premise into question: how can the people of one island stand in for an entire nation?
To make matters worse, Copeland also solely relies on a few choice direct and indirect quotes from a handful of New Providence residents, only some of whom are named, as the basis for Bahamian sentiment. As such, one can’t help but wonder whether many of the article’s assertions—such as “residents almost universally said that while the white-collar nature of his crimes was troublesome, they were hardly comparable to the gang violence that pervades some corners of the island”—are an accurate reflection of public opinion or editorializing on behalf of the author.
Either way, comparing SBF’s frauds to Bahamian drug gangs’ crimes is a case of comparing apples to guavas. Financial fraud and gang-linked drug-running are two completely different offenses, and both of these activities are illegal in both the United States and the Bahamas. There isn’t a cultural difference between these two nations here.
It’s also unclear whether the particular Bahamians Copeland interviewed have particularly notable views on the subject of financial fraud. They include a school administrator, a delivery driver, and a painter—in other words, they appear to just be whoever Copeland happened to find on the street who was interested in talking to a New York Times reporter. That’s not to say that man-on-the-street interviews are worthless, it’s often refreshing to hear what average civilians think of events in the news. The problem comes from Copeland’s wildly overstated takeaways from these interviews, claiming the handful of Bahamians he happened to chit chat with speak for their entire country.
These kinds of claims rest on exoticizing the locale to which the reporter is dispatched, and the people with whom the reporter speaks. It’s the same error the Times committed throughout the Trump years with its slew of much-maligned “Ohio diner” stories, treating rural and working-class conservatives as a foreign species requiring explanation via folksy anecdotes to the paper’s mostly liberal, coastal, well-educated readership. Reporters conducting man-on-the-street interviews about current events are not anthropologists. Their work has nothing close to the rigor needed to draw broad conclusions about a different culture, and treating a handful of short conversations as representative of an entire nation’s beliefs is insulting to the subjects. (For an example of a really excellent, non-exoticizing man-on-the-street feature, we recommend this piece by The American Prospect’s Jarod Facundo.)
The question of accurate recounting vs. editorializing is most apparent in discussion of SBF’s “connection” to the Bahamas. The word “connection” is doing some Herculean heavy lifting: crypto fraudsters gain material benefits from setting up shop in countries with weaker financial regulatory regimes. Copeland describes SBF as “working to diversify the economy of an island that has long looked to expand beyond tourism” with examples of such hard work including… “organiz[ing] a spring crypto conference that brought in hundreds of well-heeled visitors” (which is still just tourism), construction of “yet-to-be-completed megamansions” (which will probably remain partially built, since SBF is now strapped for cash), and “cover[ing] the cost of a ritzy resort ballroom used for a state reception to welcome Prince William and Catherine Middleton, then the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who were visiting the island” (a visit that was subsequently protested by actual Bahamians…and, again, we fail to see much distinction between “tourism” and “arranging visits.”)
Aside from the glaringly colonial argument that treating a nation as a playground for the ultra-wealthy is a great act of charity, the assertion that Sam Bankman-Fried—the man currently facing a slew of criminal charges ranging from wire fraud to money laundering—is positively regarded for attempting to do so strains credulity. It is at least not self-evident, as Copeland treats it in his article. It would have behooved Copeland to include a direct quote from at least one New Providence resident, or any Bahamian citizen, saying they welcomed SBF’s “investment” in the Bahamas. Yet none were offered. Even the threadbare man-on-the-street interviews provided more backing for his earlier claims.
Implicit in Copeland’s assertion is also the notion that Bahamians should just be grateful for any American dollars coming to their country, regardless of both how they were earned (probable crimes) and for what purpose they serve (mainly treating the country as a plaything for tourism). This is a well-documented neocolonist attitude—hell, something similar was one of the proximate causes of Cuba’s communist revolution.
It speaks pretty poorly to the Times’ editorial standards that they’d publish something like this without so much as a contrasting view, or a moment of consideration of the implicit attitudes at play. Copeland can, of course, argue his perspective—he’d likely be accused of Western chauvinism, but he can express such views if he chooses to—but the Times is under no moral obligation to publish this at all, nor to publish it without some contrasting perspective. It reflects the elitism of which the Gray Lady is often accused.
Look, no one is saying that there aren’t Bahamian citizens willing to commiserate with SBF despite his alleged crimes. That much could have been guessed without Copeland’s one thousand words. However, the extent to which the Times were willing to go to drive home such a banal point is notable.
In a media environment where SBF is routinely (and rightfully) chastised and treated as a villain, Copeland’s piece offered the Times an out; a chance to reassert their firm lack of an opinion, a totem to point to solidifying that they will consider exactly both sides. If anyone, for whatever reason, thought to say that the New York Times’ news section was pushing a biased “fraud is bad and the men who commit it are bad” view, they’d have a link they could point to to say “au contraire!” Is fraud bad? Who can say? The Times sure can’t, and they’ll publish whatever is necessary to prove that they can’t.
However, rather than accurately providing a novel lens to the FTX story, Copeland and the Times instead leaned on colonialist narratives to offer the discredited businessman the benefit of the doubt—grace which is ironically absent for SBF’s former inmates in Fox Hill Prison, and far too often invoked on behalf of elite criminals more generally.
To be clear, Copeland is far from the only reporter to vapidly fawn on SBF. Again, our goal is not to declare this one reporter “one of the bad people,” but to examine a much broader trend in elite legacy media, using his piece as an example. My colleagues Timi Iwayemi and Dylan Gyauch-Lewis have covered how a particularly myopic focus on accounting practices at FTX and SBF’s totally incompetent management obscures serious structural issues inherent to crypto. Copeland, however, does have the distinction of using Bahamian citizens to play interference for a crooked con artist.