OZY: The World in Our Hands Then...Two Trunkless Legs in the Sand
After 100 hard-driving months at the newest of new media, Employee #1 watched it come crumbling down, chaos and all.
There was something super heady about the last days of the Clinton administration. Post-Lewinsky, pre-9/11, with the comfortable assumption that we’d be looking at a Gore administration and all of what that could possibly mean.
The DNC had descended on Los Angeles where, at the time, I was editor-in-chief of Code Magazine, a monthly fashion magazine for men of color (and anyone else really). We had just had our first profitable issue and everything was looking up.
Moreover we had just scored a major get: Clinton for the cover (remember when they used to call him “the first Black President”? Well, yeah…) and when we got to the hotel for a pre-convention meet and greet, if you ever wanted to know what it feels like when you believe tomorrow belongs to you, this was it.
Andrew Cuomo was there. I believe I spied Anthony Weiner around the periphery. Clinton rolled in rock star late. In describing it and some of the conversations I was having there to a friend who had known me long enough that he had remembered when the company I kept wasn’t so headline worthy he said, “it’s funny. All of the crazy things you used to talk about seem to be coming true.”
And not even 12 months later all of that had started to unravel in the most unexpected way possible: Gore lost, and with it whatever else all of those in attendance had planned for America. On a longer timeline? Cuomo gets rolled, deposed as a creeper, Weiner reinvents himself as “Carlos Danger” and displays a remarkable penchant for making manifest the best kind of nominative determinism for any version of his name, and Clinton is going all Skull and Bones whenever anyone mentions Jeffrey Epstein.
[T]he band called The Minutemen said it best in their song “The Punch Line”: “George A. Custer…died with shit in his pants.”
Seems history is full of Little Bighorn moments. You know, when you crest a hill and discover that the Lakota and Cheyenne were several hundred more than you expected. Subsequent to this the band called The Minutemen said it best in their song “The Punch Line”: “George A. Custer…died with shit in his pants.”
So it goes that the real meaning of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, a monograph on the fall of the mighty, claimed OZY: A Modern Media Company. While OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson, in his rendering, believed the poem was about staying humble, either way the end, while not as conclusive as the poem’s protagonist or Custer’s, would be marked by a stench of grift that…lingers.
Brought about and broken open by a solid piece of reporting by the New York Times’ Ben Smith, OZY saw its COO Samir Rao ostensibly impersonate an executive at Youtube in a reference call with Goldman Sachs, the ultimate prize post-meet? A $40 mil investment. The grift uncovered, the investment never happened, but Ben Smith’s piece did and the world fell apart, most certainly for anyone who had had OZY on their resume.
A spearpoint for other unanswered questions about revenue, real traffic, fake reviews and all manner of Silicon Valley skullduggery ensued and five days later OZY, aswirl in chaos, resignations, and rumors of federal indictments ceased existing. And two days after that? Watson, in an Aguirre-the-Wrath-of-God moment, did the talk show circuit to proclaim a certain kind of innocence a la “mistakes were made” Reagan-era Reagan. OZY, that quickly and easily, existed again.
Watson also embarked on the OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson, Clarence Thomas-two step by reaching out to the chronically underfunded Black media. I guess for cover and comfort. A kind of chutzpah that underscored how he ever got, by some counts, $83 mil worth of VC investment money in the first place.
As OZY’s first employee hired, the first fired, the first re-hired and the first fired twice, the last time for starting this very Substack after being told I could publish my unpublished OZY work here, this past week has been…heavy.
While co-workers past and present have reached out, embracing some version of consonance, and vindication, there’s also been a fair share of distress, and sobbing, along the lines of “what the fuck do I do now?”
[T]here’s no love lost for those that drove the OZY bus into a 100-foot-cliff dive of venal lunacy…
And if Watson is calling the re-birth of OZY, a brand very possibly irreparably damaged, a “Lazarus moment”, what do you do if you just can’t drink the koolaid anymore? This question was asked.
I suggested sort of doing some version of what the Mossad had instructed the Nazi Hunters in The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. to do: stop talking to him. No emails. No phone calls. Because while there might not be any second acts in American lives according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are endless reinventions, and sometimes that’s all you need.
“You must be loving this hunh? Even if you kind of cost us our jobs?”
This is the magic of reinvention where being quoted on the record about the wretched state of affairs as an OZY worker bee, trumps lying about, well, lots/everything even up to and including trumpeting those lies in multimillion dollar ad campaigns. For all to see.
“Mistakes were made.” Uh hunh.
But I couldn’t let this go though since it seemed to serve a belief that snitching was what brought the House of OZY low. So I asked if that was an honestly held belief and the commenter demurred.
Another question needed to be answered though. The first part, and the answer is simple: No. In actual fact, I’m not loving this at all.
As a native New Yorker who might just pride himself on being like the cat Dion from The Belmonts sang about in the ‘50s, a guy who knows, it’s one thing to recognize when you’re being gamed. And something else entirely when you don’t even see it. Like they say in boxing, it’s the punches you don’t see that hurt you.
However, we all sort of saw it (no word whether this “we” includes John McLaughlin, former head of the CIA, and OZY writer, too). So that’s not what’s hurting. What’s hurting is that we saw parts of it, just not enough to right the course. It was all so, to invoke Fitzgerald again, Great Gatsby. That is: doomed.
So while there’s no love lost for those that drove the OZY bus into a 100-foot-cliff dive of venal lunacy, the hours and hours and hours of work driven into creating what was felt to be good work, despite being led by bad stewards, is the saddest thing of all.
Like “say it ain’t so, Joe” sad.
Because like any future HR department worth a damn does when they do due diligence, what happens when they type OZY and your name into Google just to see what comes up? A unilateral, very possibly bilateral, act will have severe multilateral consequences.
I mean how the hell do you explain what happened at OZY while struggling to gain a hold in a labor market that’s readjusting itself around some of the very issues laid bare by the OZY grift?
“In the future when they’re writing about how we pulled this off,” Watson waxed rhapsodic during one pep talk, “they’ll note that it was brown guys that did it.”
Yeah, and that part hurts too. In ways that will resonate as long as many of us are still drawing breath. At the time though I was swept away in a fervor of possibility, which sort of explains my response.
“Yeah. That’ll be cool.”
But it hasn’t been. Not even a little bit.