Did Anyone Bother To Fact-Check The Boss?

Last week, the sports journalism world was aflame with anguish when it was revealed that the storied legacy brand SPORTS ILLUSTRATED had deteriorated enough so as to embrace AI techology to its fullest extent.  The week before, FUTURIST’s Maggie Harrison dropped this bombshell about some recent findings and confessions that sent their human staff into a frenzy of anguish and disbelief.  Not to mention an awful lot of fellow journalists who lamented that this was another sign of the media apocolypse.  Witness this lamenting editorial piece that the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES whipped up in the wake:

There used to be a time when newspaper journalists had to scroll through countless microfiche reels and dig through clips to find old articles for background material for their stories.  Electronic archives, along with the internet, have made our lives easier and restructured the way we disseminate the news and how audiences consume it.  That’s how it should work. Technology should help media workers do their jobs, not impersonate them or actually carry out the tasks of a real human hired to dig for facts. We at the Sun-Times Editorial Board concede reporters aren’t perfect. They can make mistakes, too, and when those happen, corrections are issued immediately in print and online.

All well and good, and noble in its defense of the majority of reporters who are a) human and b) principled.  But an awful lot of other media companies seem to devalue these qualities these days, and continue to empower those most egregiously connected with questionable ethics to oversee it.

Which is why when this news broke about who it turns out was the head puppeteer of this SI sham, while to many this was all news, for me, it was yet another former colleague of mine being given his walk of shame. Per THE WRAP’s Benjamin Lindsay and Sharon Knolle (actual humans, I am told):

The publisher of Sport (sic) Illustrated and The Street, Arena Group, fired CEO Ross Levinsohn after ongoing fallout over its use of artificial intelligence on the site.

“Today, the board of directors of The Arena Group Holdings, Inc. (NYSE American: AREN) met and took actions to improve the operational efficiency and revenue of the company,” a statement from the publisher read. “The board terminated the employment of CEO Ross Levinsohn, and named Manoj Bhargava as interim Chief Executive Officer, both effective today.”

The company claimed the reports and fake profiles of the “writers” associated with them were licensed content from a third party company called AdVon Commerce, who had reassured them that the authors were humans.

Nice pivot, pointing fingers beyond one’s own team.  Had it come from someone with a somewhat less checkered past that Levinsohn, it might have been believable.

But when one looks at the track record of this executive, it’s evident that despite the impressive list of companies he has been associated with this century, just about every single one of his stints resulted in some sort of failure or screw-up–or worse.

Wikipedia documents it all, and I had a front-row seat for his first stop on his personal gravy train:

From 2001 to 2005, Levinsohn was senior vice president and general manager at Fox Sports Interactive Media, a division of News Corporation.[9] In late 2004, he was named president of Fox Interactive Media and oversaw a controversial, and arguably fraudulent, acquisition of MySpace for $580 million.[10]

I interacted with Levinsohn on several occasions at the urging of my boss, who was personal friends with him.  When the idea of any sort of study to look at the progress of the then-nascent FOX Sports digital business, particularly in comparison to ESPN, which frequently studied their content and users, Levinsohn literally laughed in my face.  “I don’t need any sort of report card from our users.  Let ESPN spend money chasing that validation.  As long as we’re profitable, that’s all my management gives a (blank) about. ”

Levinsohn resigned from News Corp. in November 2006 and was replaced by his cousin.[11]

For the record, that’s Peter Levinsohn, still a trusted senior distribution executive for NBCUniversal.

Ross Levinsohn next emerged at Yahoo!, where he briefly led the company as interim CEO before Marissa Mayer was recruited from Google for his job.  Considering it was under Mayer’s watch where Yahoo! Sports dramatically overpaid for the rights to a single Bills-Jaguars London pre-season game and then tried to convince otherwise clueless human journalists that a unique view was the same as a viewer, overstating their actual audience by several multiples until a few astute competitors set the record straight, Levinsohn gets a relative pass.  By then, he had moved on, but his Midas touch continued:

In 2014, Levinsohn became executive chairman of Scout Media, a sports digital media network.[20] The firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2016, seeking approval to sell what remained of the business at auction.[21][22] Levinsohn and (James) Heckman were named as defendants in a shareholder lawsuit filed in 2017, in federal court.[23

But that didn’t stop Levinsohn from re-emerging yet again, this time at another storied brand where, once again, my old boss played a role in giving him yet another chance for retribution:

On 21 August 2017, Levinsohn was named the publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times by tronc, replacing Davan Maharaj.[24]

The Los Angeles Times newsroom filed for a union election in December 2017, four months after Levinsohn was hired, and held a union election on 4 January 2018.[25] The staff cited concerns with the company’s “nascent plans to establish a network of non-staff contributors to produce stories outside the main newsroom.”[26]

Levinsohn was placed on unpaid leave in January 2018, after reports of two sexual harassment lawsuits, ‘frat house’ behavior and questionable decisions on the job from interviews with 26 former colleagues and associates.[27][28] A law firm hired by Tronc to investigate the sexual harassment claims found no wrongdoing after a three-week investigation.  In June 2018, the Los Angeles Times was sold to billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong,[30] and Levinsohn was shifted into a new role as the CEO of Tribune Interactive.[29] Levinsohn left Tribune Publishing in 2018, when his job was eliminated.[31

And apart from his Sports Illustrated dalliances, Levinsohn had aggregated other legacy titles with impressive histories and reimagined them for a digital world:  Among those in his portfolio:  Parade Media, publisher of Parade magazine, and digital assets of Men’s Journal, Men’s Fitness, Surfer, Poweder, Bike, SKATEboarding, Snowboarder and NewSchoolers.   

Seen Parade inside any Sunday newspapers lately?  Right, neither have I.

One would assume that actual human beings signed off on Levinsohn at some point, certainly when he promoted to the head of Maven, the company that his longtime business partner that Heckman (remember him?) headed.  Maybe that’s more than a bit wishful thinking in this day and age, much like the belief that the reporting of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED staffers is something this industry respects and reveres as much this century as it did when it started up nearly 70 years ago.

To sum it up, the 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.

Can any human reporter be surprised this has happened?  I’m not.





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