Article About the New, ‘Ethical’ Ozy Media Appears to Have Been Written by a Fake Journalist

The embattled media company is attempting to restore its credibility, but it’s struggling to shake its reputation for misrepresenting the truth.

Feb 14 2022, 5:40am

Carlos Watson, the embattled CEO of Ozy – a digital media company that was recently embroiled in a series of scandals involving allegations of fraud, executive misbehaviour and misrepresentation of business metrics – last week shared an extremely positive article about the site’s alleged resurgence. Here’s the catch: it was written by what appears to be a fake journalist.

“OZY is getting redesigned! Read all about the new look here,” Watson tweeted on Wednesday, alongside a link to a Tech Bullion article titled “Ozy Media CEO Carlos Watson Says a Fun Redesign Is on the Horizon.” That article – now deleted but archived – ​​was written by a journalist with the suspicious name of Hugh Grant, who quoted Watson at length and paid extensive lip service to the future vision of so-called “Ozy 2.0,” while conveniently omitting the many controversies that continue to beleaguer the company.

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Grant, according to his author bio on Tech Bullion, is “a technology researcher who is always staying up to date on the latest tech news, trends and innovations.” He has published at least 19 articles on the site, and appears in his bio image as an affable young Anglo man with facial hair and glasses.

A reverse search of that image through Google Lens, however, reveals at least half a dozen people sporting the exact same headshot – including the author of a fawning review for blue light lenses; a co-founder of Zambia’s Ministry of Commerce and Trade; and three of the eight directors from Matthew McConaughey’s Just Keep Livin foundation. In short: It’s a stock photograph.

Craig Silverman, a reporter from ProPublica who has written about Ozy’s PR controversies in the past, highlighted the article and the less-than-credible credentials of its author on Twitter. Other journalists have since joined the thread to flag other suspicious details. 

Paris Martineau, a reporter at technology business publication The Information, noted that “the going rate for a post on techbullion can be anywhere from $120 a post to $2000 for a year of publishing privileges.” Jon Christian, the managing editor of science and tech publication Futurism, traced Grant’s email address – which is linked in the TechBullion article – back to the contact information for “a PR dude who blatantly sells media placements.”

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VICE World News approached the owner of that email address for comment, but did not receive a response.

Watson has gone some way towards addressing the issue, claiming in a tweet that he “gave an interview” with “the expectation the interview would be published in a mainstream business news outlet.”

“It wasn’t and the author used a pseudonym,” Watson wrote. “The content is all true. Great content, wrong delivery.”

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Both Silverman and Christian replied to the tweet asking for more transparency – including whether Watson or anyone affiliated with Ozy paid for the interview, and whether the interviewer was a real journalist or a PR person – but didn’t get a reply on the public thread. VICE World News reached out to Watson and Ozy Media directly with these and other questions, but have yet to receive a response.

To appreciate the significance of this, it’s important to understand Ozy’s chequered history as a media company – particularly with regards to transparency and alleged manipulation of the public narrative.

Ozy Media launched as a modern, millennial-focused digital magazine and daily newsletter in 2013, and quickly accumulated millions of dollars worth of funding as well as partnerships with prestigious media brands like National Geographic, the New York Times and Wired. The company continued to garner financial backing throughout the 2010s, and in January 2021 Watson claimed that the company had reached profitability for the first time. By that point, however, Ozy’s claims about audience size and influence had started to draw scepticism.

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In 2017, Silverman – then writing for Buzzfeed News – revealed that Ozy had been among a number of publishers buying web traffic from “low-quality sources” in an apparent bid to impress investors. According to ad industry standards, Silverman reported at the time, a huge swathe of the traffic visiting certain articles on Ozy was fraudulent. 

Then, in September 2021, the New York Times published damning revelations that Samir Rao, COO and a co-founder of Ozy, had impersonated a YouTube executive during a formal meeting with Goldman Sachs in an attempt to secure a $40 million investment. YouTube later confirmed to Goldman Sachs that no executive from their company had participated in the call, prompting Goldman Sachs to pull out of the deal, while Google, YouTube’s parent company, referred the matter to federal law enforcement.

There are other examples of Ozy Media seemingly paraphrasing, misattributing or misrepresenting laudatory claims about the company and its founder. A promotional video for the Carlos Watson Show – a YouTube series in which Watson interviews the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci – features a quote attributed to Deadline describing Watson as “The Best Interviewer on TV”. In the original article, that claim was made by Rao, Watson’s colleague and co-founder.

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Another quote attributed to the Los Angeles Times says the Carlos Watson Show is “what true discussions should look like.” That quote was in fact featured in a paid article and made by a YouTube commenter named Taylor Whiteside. 

VICE World News tracked down Whiteside, and can reveal that he has just five subscribers on YouTube. In response to his favourable comment, the administrators of the Carlos Watson Show’s YouTube account ​​invited him to become “an official Carlos Watson Show Ambassador,” promising that “if you share posts about the show on your social media accounts, we’ll give you rewards and even some cash prizes.”

Days after the New York Times published the revelations about Rao’s fake media appearance, which prompted a number of investors and advertisers to jump ship, Ozy Media announced that it was shutting down and a majority of the staff were laid off. Days later, Watson revealed that the company would remain operational in what he described as “our Lazarus moment … our Tylenol moment.”

In the weeks that followed, many former Ozy employees started speaking up publicly about the company.

“I felt like I was killing myself for very little recognition,” one former editorial employee who left in 2019 told Business Insider. “I have never once told someone that I worked at Ozy and they’ve known what it is. Not once. That was concerning to me.” 

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Another former staffer described Watson as someone who “can convince anyone to do anything, which is both a blessing and a curse,” while a third described Ozy as “cult of Carlos.”

In October 2021 a lawsuit accused Ozy of misleading potential investors, and in November the New York Times reported that the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission had opened investigations into the company. Watson reportedly addressed the investigations in an email to investors, where he also flagged that Ozy was hoping to make a full return in 2022, despite past mistakes. Watson further claimed the company had more than $10 million in cash.

In last week’s TechBullion article, which ironically discussed matters of ethics and transparency, Watson was quoted as saying that he was “excited about this next phase” for his company. 

“I know it is not going to be easy, and it starts with rebuilding trust in Ozy Media,” he added. “So I hope that we will do that and a lot more.”

The article later claimed that Ozy had “strengthened its compliance by enhancing the board of directors with a recent hire, a former business intelligence chief, as an adviser to the board.” Watson described it as a “big win.”

“We are trying to make other moves like that, whether it is ethics and compliance training, or we are in the process of hiring new human resources directors,” he said. “I know that none of those things individually will restore trust. But it’s still about whether we can create podcasts that people want to listen to, newsletters people want to read, and festivals you want to attend.”

“We have made a big commitment for a young company to publish our audience data every quarter for the whole world to see,” he later added. “We have incredible things to share about who our audience is, and we want people to see that and hopefully celebrate it and feel like they can believe in it.”

Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.

Tagged:

Fraud, fake news, worldnews, ozy media

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