Inside Ozy Media's Meltdown: Carlos Watson's 'Fake Crying,' Staffers Say 'Everything Is Up in the Air' (Exclusive)

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TheWrap

Inside Ozy Media’s Meltdown: Carlos Watson’s ‘Fake Crying,’ Staffers Say ‘Everything Is Up in the Air’ (Exclusive)

The disgraced leader addressed his staff this week while they still wait for answers on digital media site’s future

Ozy Media CEO Carlos Watson appeared to be in tears as he addressed staffers in a company-wide meeting a day after a devastating The New York Times exposé that has led to massive fallout for both Watson and his 9-year-old digital media company, TheWrap has learned.

But people on the call said Watson’s crying appeared “fake” and “theatrical,” an individual with knowledge of the meeting told TheWrap. Ozy insiders — both staff and contractors — told TheWrap that they were stuck in limbo on Friday, instructed to fill out time sheets without clarity on whether they still had jobs.

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One contractor, who has not worked since the Times report came out on Sunday, said, “Everything is up in the air.”

Another staffer echoed the uncertainty. “It doesn’t seem like it’s going to survive, but stranger things have happened,” the individual said.

All spoke to TheWrap on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared for their jobs or other retaliation.

Watson called an “all hands” Zoom meeting a day after the explosive Times report, which accused the company of inflating its online traffic and video viewership and revealed that now on-leave COO Samir Rao had impersonated a Google executive on a fundraising call — sparking a potential FBI investigation.

“He said he was going to fix this,” former Ozy editor at large Eugene Robinson told TheWrap.

But another staffer said that few people believed Watson, calling for someone to step in and save the company. Regarding Watson, this staffer said: “It’s all spin.”

Robinson, a nine-year veteran of Ozy who was fired in June for refusing to shut down his Substack that he said he got approval for months before launching it, added: “You got to realize that people are just not going to believe” Watson’s assurances.

Watson shared publicly the memo he sent to his staff of about 60 people. But insiders said some of their colleagues had already resigned, or changed their LinkedIn profiles as they began looking for new employment.

The ripple effects of the Times story have been dizzying. In less than a week, a digital media company thatraised a reported $83 million since 2012 is being abandoned by employees, senior executives and investors, including respected TV journalist and producer Katty Kay, investors Laurene Powell Jobs, Ron Conway and Marc Lasry, who resigned this week as chairman of the board just weeks after he assumed that title.

On Friday, Watson resigned from National Public Radio’s board of directors and on Tuesday stepped down as the host of this year’s News and Documentary Emmy Awards.

Ozy’s implosion shows how swiftly a digital chain reaction can be set off with a single piece of information. And the fate of the company, and of Watson remain unclear as an outside law firm has been brought in to investigate Ozy’s “business activities.”

Reps for Watson and Ozy did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Ozy, which billed itself as a modern media venture that was “ahead of the curve,” has faced a daily onslaught about its questionable business practices. Since Ben Smith’s initial report in the Times, Ozy has faced accusations that it falsely claimed Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne were investors and produced a Watson-hosted TV talk show while falsely claiming to guests and corporate partners that it would air on A&E. The company then claimed that “The Carlos Watson Show” was Amazon Prime’s first talk show; later, that it had been “sold” to YouTube Originals. Reps for A&E, Amazon and YouTube have all refuted those claims.

In a Monday interview with TheWrap, Watson called the Times piece “a bulls— ad hominem attack” and defended its handling of Rao for impersonating a YouTube executive on a call with Goldman Sachs and inflating its metrics on traffic and audience.

Robinson said he had no knowledge of the impersonation fiasco but admitted suspicions about the company’s rosy portrayal of its audience. When he questioned some of the numbers Ozy was peddling to outsiders — such as its 50 million readership — Robinson recalled that Watson would brush off the optimistic numbers as “placeholders,” and that this practice happens all the time in Silicon Valley.

“It’s amusing to me that (Watson is) accusing other people of lying,” said Robinson, noting that Watson had accused him of lying about the fact that he had permission to launch Substack. “It’s pretty clear he and Samir need to go.”