I recently read this Washington Post Article (archive.org) titled Caroline Ellison wanted to make a difference. Now she’s facing prison. After the first read-through I was incredulous at the sympathetic presentation in the biography. It reads like a resume, like a “it all spun out of control!” story about someone who got in over her head. I tweeted:

Lol how do you get such a sympathetic bio after stealing billions of dollars @GerritD

I thought I’d elaborate on my reaction to the article, and what I think is wrong with the approach. First, it puts a nice gloss on Ellison’s CV and her stated motivations. Regarding herself and Sam Bankman-Fried:

Both were children of accomplished academics, studied math at prestigious universities and touted the importance of giving money away to make the world a better place.

This is the first thing we learn about Caroline Ellison, in the second paragraph of the article. That’s before we even learn that she’s pled guilty to lying to investors. Combine that with the headline. If you didn’t know who she was, the headline and first two paragraphs read like a story about a political activist tripped up by a justice system that opposes what she’s trying to do.

Are the paragraphs factually accurate? Yes. She “touted” effective altruism. I think the paragraph also implies that she believed in effective altruism; I don’t think there’s evidence for that, and I don’t think the article interrogates her touting of it, contrasted with her actions.

After a few paragraphs about her and Gary Wang’s guilty pleas, we get into the part that really got me going: The math whiz. We get six paragraphs about this bright rising star who learned to read early, got into top universities, did internships at Jane Street. What relevance does this have to why she’s facing prison? What does it tell us about wanting to make a difference? If you want to write about a crypto criminal, you should do it the way NPR did Dread Pirate Roberts. You write about the crimes first. You give us the person’s history in the middle end, and you don’t make it sound like a yearbook bio.

More paragraphs. About how exciting it was to run Alameda Research. About how rich she got. About how she promoted effective altruism. (At no point does the article present evidence of charitable giving or its lack.)

Over 3/4 of the way through the story, we finally get a mention that “FTX was allegedly breaking the law.” The only crime mentioned is that Ellison, Wang and Bankman-Fried lied to investors about “Alameda’s practices.” There’s ample evidence that the crimes are substantially more serious - not that customer funds were used to pay back loans, but that customer funds were likely embezzled and used to pay for that mansion in the Bahamas and the rest of the executives' luxurious lifestyle.

So, there are two or four paragraphs that directly address the crimes she’s pleaded guilty to, and over 20 that discuss her early life, rise to wealth, etc in fairly glowing terms. If I get nicked for up to 110 years of crimes, I hope I’ll get such gentle treatment.