Why We’ve Gone Gaga for the Ozy Saga

Why We've Gone Gaga the Ozy
Yinchen Niu/Variety Intelligence Platform; Carlos Watson, AP News

So, who is going to play Carlos Watson in the movie someone is bound to make about the fall of Ozy Media?

Depicting the slow-motion implosion of the former digital-media darling would create the kind of juicy role that wins actors Oscars. The story has been unfolding in excruciating, death-by-a-thousand-cuts fashion since New York Times columnist Ben Smith ripped away the veil in a way that immediately threw the future of Ozy into question.

It’s a future that is taking some unpredictable turns in the short term, with Watson declaring in a TV appearance Monday that his venture’s board of directors had reversed a decision made the previous week to shutter Ozy. He denied all accusations being thrown his way.

Closure seemed an inevitability given the steady drip-drip of news on Watson's associates disassociating themselves from the venture or matching Smith’s disclosures with further evidence of deception at Ozy, which ranged from falsifying audience metrics to the revelation that its COO impersonated a YouTube executive on a call with prospective investor Goldman Sachs.

Honestly, the way this one is playing out, it's not going to be a surprise if there's a second declaration of shutting down Ozy days from now ... and then reopening yet again. It feels that unpredictable at this point.

It's hard not to suspect that Watson's announcement is evidence of the same kind of delusional thinking that probably got him into this mess in the first place.

It's a shame to see scandal envelop what was supposed to be a high-minded digital-publishing venture, appealing to a diverse millennial audience with a content mix packaged to be a progressive salve to an America battered by social issues.

And so all eyes are on Watson, a tarnished golden boy whose house of cards is collapsing all around him. Regardless of whether Ozy manages to continue in some form with or without him, his reputation has been ruined, and from how it looks so far, he has no one to blame but himself for engaging in shady business practices.

By some perverse logic, maybe reopening Ozy now makes some sense from a marketing perspective. The traction this brand simply couldn't get in the marketplace is now coming its way the old-fashioned way: infamy. Ozy is being dragged through the mud, but at least someone is finally talking about it again. It's not unlike the hay Bustle Digital Group was hoping to make out of Gawker, which gained a certain brand mystique from all the notoriety wrought by its legal war and subsequent death.

What’s unknown at this point, and may never come to light, is what motivated Watson and his co-founder/COO, Samir Rao, to wildly misrepresent the sorry reality of their minuscule audience. The cynical but easy assumption to make is that Ozy was simply a vehicle for fraudsters to make their mark.

It will be interesting to see if a more complicated truth ever emerges. Perhaps Watson started out with the noblest of intentions for his business, consistent with the principles that animated Ozy’s mission in the marketplace. Perhaps somewhere along the way he saw that the business wasn’t going to succeed on its own merits, which then triggered his descent into deceit.

It would be almost too painful to bear the possibility that Watson was a charlatan from the start and that Ozy’s honorable agenda was intended to be a smokescreen to hide a strategy that was always a lie.

But there is an obvious question that emerges as the proof of Watson’s misdeeds piles up: If it was evident to so many that the Ozy business practices were so slippery, why didn’t the truth come to light sooner?

Maybe so many were blind to how obviously inflated the hype around Ozy was because the venture was a fantasy projection of what everyone wanted from digital media. The notion that this brand could be a corrective for all that ails U.S. media was seductive in a way that simply hoodwinked investors and advertisers alike. Everyone looked the other way as a means of wishing its success into existence.

And yet the industry Watson fooled isn't at fault here — he is. There's no telling how this saga is going to unfold next, but it's not going to end well for Watson.