Taxpayer Dollars Flowed to Media Company Now Under FBI Investigation

Ozy Media took donations from Ford Foundation, Laurene Powell Jobs, Charles Koch Institute

Carlos Watson (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for HISTORY)
September 28, 2021

The taxpayer-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting and several progressive billionaires have partnered with a digital media company now under FBI investigation for attempting to defraud investors.

Ozy Media is accused of trying to defraud executives from Goldman Sachs earlier this year, the New York Times reported this week. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2018 gave the media company a $500,000 grant to produce a documentary series featuring interviews with liberal celebrities. Ozy has lured in other wealthy investors, including Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Marc Lasry, the hedge fund billionaire whose son is running for Senate in Wisconsin, is Ozy's board chairman. Lasry organized a $35 million investment round for Ozy in 2019.

Founded in 2013, Ozy bills itself as a "modern media company" with a knack for spotting rising stars in entertainment and politics. According to the Times, Ozy cofounder Samir Rao represented himself as a YouTube executive and touted Ozy's viewership statistics on the video platform. Rao also hyped the leadership of Ozy's president Carlos Watson. According to the Times, Ozy has vastly overstated its traffic numbers for years. Google, which owns YouTube, contacted the FBI about Rao's scheme. Federal agents have contacted Goldman Sachs, the newspaper reported.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting partnered with PBS and the left-leaning Ford Foundation on Ozy's 12-part documentary series, according to a press release of the partnership. Watson interviewed a number of liberal public figures for the series, including Comedy Central host Trevor Noah, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), and Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Congressional Republicans have for years called for cutting funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, citing a perceived liberal bias in the organization's programming.

The Ford Foundation gave Ozy $1.95 million in grants in 2016 and 2017, according to its grants database. The foundation supports a number of left-wing causes, including a journalism center at Howard University that will be led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project. The foundation also awarded a $50,000 grant to Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a controversial proponent of critical race theory.

The Ford Foundation has received effusive praise from Ozy in the wake of its contributions to the media startup. Earlier this year, Ozy's Watson hyped Ford Foundation president Darren Walker during an interview for the Carlos Watson Show, which aired on Ozy's YouTube channel. Watson called Walker "one of the biggest, boldest thinkers in the world." The Ford Foundation's earlier funding for Ozy was not disclosed in the 23-minute program.

The Charles Koch Institute, the think tank funded by billionaire libertarian Charles Koch, paid $500,000 to Ozy in 2018 as an independent contractor for media services, according to tax filings.