And Here’s To You, Mr. Levinsohn

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When news broke last month that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was found to be increasingly reliant on AI-generated content, even creating deep-fake profiles of non-existent journalists in the process, I, like many of those who immediately empathized with the human reporters who uncovered this behavior, laid the blame squarely at the feet of the man in charge, CEO Ross Levinsohn.  In the piece, which ran on our site exclusively, I took particular aim at Levinsohn, who is an executive that I have some previous experience with.  And in the daily course of running a business, the buck does, in theory, stop with the CEO.  When the news broke, Levinsohn was fired from his position, and I jumped on a bandwagon that rattled off a series of incidents at several of Levinsohn’s previous stops that eventually resulted in short-term tenures and acrimonious parting of the waves.  My summative penultimate paragraph was, I believe, hand-tipping in how my personal feelings have been:

(T)he person who got let go is someone who literally honed his craft where the concept of “fake news” was invented, and has continually curried favors from more powerful executives who seem impressed with the brand names on his resume, perhaps not paying attention to–or minding–exactly what transpired at almost every stop along the way.

But based upon the even more upsetting news of yesterday, what I neglected to observe is that even CEOs have bosses.  And that person arguably created an even more horrific news cycle.  Per THE WASHINGTON POST’s Ben Strauss:

Much of the staff of Sports Illustrated — and possibly all remaining writers and editors — received layoff notices Friday, which could spell the end of a publication that for decades was the gold standard of sports journalism.

The union of the staff tweeted Friday that it would continue to fight for the publication of the magazine but that its future is now in the hands of the magazine’s owner, Authentic Brands Group.

But it was not that entity that informed the humans who populate SI’s mostly virtual corridors of their impending fate.  Rather, at the ASSOCIATED PRESS’ Joe Reedy and David Bauder reported, that came from the management of the company Levinsohn ran, ultimately from his replacement and that entity’s founder:

In an email to employees Friday morning, the Arena Group, which operates Sports Illustrated and related properties, said that because of the revocation, “we will be laying off staff that work on the SI brand.” 

In a statement on Friday, the Arena Group said it was negotiating with Authentic about the license, “with plans to sustain our commitment to delivering quality content throughout the ongoing discussions.”

Arena admitted that it had failed to make a quarterly payment of $3.75 million and Authentic had put it on notice that it intended to end the licensing agreement. As a result, Arena announced Thursday it would make a “significant reduction” in its workforce of more than 100 people.

As Strauss added, the person responsible for that action is the man who hired Levinsohn in the first place.  And his resume is, let’s just say, nowhere near as impressive as Ross’:

Manoj Bhargava, the founder of 5-hour Energy, is the largest shareholder of the Arena Group after making an investment in the company last year and is leading its strategy.

Bhargava made billions curating and aggressively marketing a bitter-tasting swill that purports to offer the same uplifting benefits as coffee without the side effects of caffeine.  In tech bro culture, where the longer you can work the more you make, that’s a godsend.  What’s also central to that world is finding ways to make more with fewer and fewer actual humans doing your bidding.  Ask Elon Musk.  Ask Mark Zuckerberg.  Ask Jeff Bezos.

So perhaps, in 20/20 hindsight, Levinsohn’s missteps in this particular case was not what he was doing, but rather what he was being ordered to do somehow going public?  Spoiling the desire of Bhargava to better fit in with his fellow oligarchs?

What’s also central to that world are short tempers and large egos.  Both clearly present in the reaction to Bhargava’s non-payment, which human journalist Strauss (still, for the moment at least, a Bezos employee) offered:

“If a company doesn’t pay me, I breach,” Jamie Salter, the CEO of ABG, said in an interview with The Washington Post on Friday, adding that Bhargava has sought to lower the licensing fee. “He’s trying to negotiate with me, and I told him to f— off. He tried to change the agreement. When you sign a deal with us, you live by the deal.”

Salter added that he could sell the license to other interested parties.

“I mean, it could be good,” he said. “I could end up with a really strong media partner.”

Salter left open the possibility that Arena Group and ABG could continue in business together. He said Arena Group still has five days to make the $3.75 million payment or the licensing agreement is terminated.

“He’s going to [pay], or we’re going to terminate him,” Salter said. “Who’s going to cry first? I ain’t going to cry.”

After this story was published, Dan Dienst, executive vice chairman of tactical opportunities for ABG, corrected Salter, saying the period to pay had passed and the license had been terminated.

So perhaps Levinsohn, a success but certainly not a billionaire, merely got caught up in the crosshairs of a cockfight between other billionaires, who as a species are driven by money first and foremost?

A rethinking perhaps shaped by the news coming from the entity that Levinsohn previously headed, one having its own issues with journalists that came to a head yesterday.  Per the ASSOCIATED PRESS:

Guild members of the Los Angeles Times walked off the job Friday to protest what it says are imminent layoffs, the first newsroom union work stoppage in the newspaper’s 143-year history.  The paper’s journalists and their supporters rallied in an LA civic center park, chanting and waving signs that read, “Don’t Cut Our Future.” The guild said members would also protest in other cities.

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a biotech billionaire, acquired the Times in 2018, returning it to local ownership two decades after it was sold to Tribune Co. The purchase raised hopes after years of cutbacks, circulation declines and leadership changes.  Last week, Executive Editor Kevin Merida abruptly left after a 2 1/2-year tenure. In June, more than 70 positions — about 13% of the newsroom — were cut.

And as THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Jason McGahan reproted in a lengthy piece dropped yesterday in the wake of these walkouts, it’s not just Papa Patrick who has agendas:

Some sources point to friction with Soon-Shiong’s 30-year-old daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who in recent years has apparently appointed herself the paper’s unofficial ombudsman, publicly upbraiding journalists when their politics don’t fall in line with her own progressive thinking.

The most recent clash – and the one that might have been the last straw for Merida – involved the paper’s coverage of the war in the Middle East. According to insiders, a group of senior editors approached Merida to express outrage that more than three dozen Times reporters had signed a Nov. 9 statement severely critical of Israel’s invasion of Gaza but barely mentioning the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel launched from the Hamas-controlled territory. Insiders say Merida initially was reluctant to insert himself into the matter but decided to restrict, for 90 days, signers of the petition from participating in future coverage of the conflict. That decision reportedly did not go over well with Patrick Soon-Shiong, and couldn’t have thrilled Nika, either; she has made her pro-Palestinian views clear on her Twitter feed, where she has pinned a picture of the Palestinian flag and posted instructions to journalists to refer to Israel as an “apartheid state,” and even followed (and frequently “liked”) Quds News Network, a news agency often accused of being affiliated with Hamas.

As it happens, Nika isn’t the only member of the Soon-Shiong family who’s been meddling in the Times’ content. Her mother, Patrick’s wife, Michele, has also shown an interest in its editorial direction, although in her case it had more to do with food than social justice politics. Right before the pandemic, she urged her husband to build kitchens at the Times to test recipes for the paper’s cooking section. More recently, Michele has reportedly been pushing for Patrick to sell the newspaper, seeing it as a gigantic money suck.

These are who Levinsohn had to work for when the company that had hired him, the mockingly rebranded Tronc spin-off from the bankrupt Tribune media conglomerate, took the Soon-Shiong blood money offer and gave these people a pulpit to preach their ideologies and agenda journalism endeavors.  And as long as Rong-Gong and the Hyphenates and the First Daughter have their say, it sure appears Papa Patrick could care less about anything and anyone else, lest it get in the way of all of his vaccine research.

So let me open up wide and chomp down on a huge hunk of humble pie.  I can’t speak for all of the allegations and missteps in Levinsohn’s career, and the ones I personally observed, while perhaps not what I would hoped he would have done, were hardly as damage-inflicting as the ones he’s been given credit for more recently,  But unless you’re actually where the actual bucks not only stop, but come from, you may not necessarily have a choice in what you do.

I suppose that’s the real reason tech billionaires are so much in love with AI.  It’s not just the cost-efficiency.  It saves them the need to actually have accountability.  And makes it easier to throw folks like Ross Levinsohn under the bus.

So, FWIW, my apologies, Mr. Levinsohn.  Any thoughts about investing in a couple of blogs?

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