By the time I get Ian Urbina on the phone Wednesday afternoon, he’s ready to tell his story. He picks up on the first ring and makes quick work of the pleasantries. “So, if it’s okay with you,” he says, “my inkling would be to start with kind of its origin story? You’re welcome to record.” Sure, I say, and away he goes.
It’s not hard to hear the edge of unease in his voice, the anxiety of a veteran newspaperman who has had a hand in crafting many narratives and has spent the last five days watching his own spin decisively out of control. To be fair, his particular crisis is one that a Pulitzer Prize–winning former New York Times reporter could scarcely have imagined unfolding even a few years ago. It’s a distinctly 2021 scandal, and one he’s figuring out how to navigate on the fly.
The week before had started out actually quite well for Urbina. On Sunday, November 28, the New Yorker published his 10,000-word opus about Libya’s renegade coast guard militias, a piece that landed him a spot on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes and NPR’s All Things Considered. But then, on Thursday, came something unexpected. A musician and YouTuber named Benn Jordan posted a 20-minute video entitled “How A NYTimes Reporter Collects Royalties From Hundreds of Musicians” that accused him of engineering an elaborate swindle in an entirely different line of business. Urbina was signing up artists to make music for a side project by promising them huge exposure that never materialized in exchange for collecting half the revenue. The case laid out by Jordan was strange, outrageous, and not entirely accurate —and triggered a swift Twitter pile-on.
It was at this juncture that Urbina made a questionable tactical decision. He went on the attack. Instead of engaging with the charges, he tried to crush them, blocking Jordan on Twitter along with anyone else who criticized him. He posted a statement on Medium calling Jordan’s video a “mass trolling.” And he shut down journalists trying to report out the story. When Inputmagazine reached out to him, Urbina declined to answer questions, nor did he respond when Rolling Stone asked for comment.
The results were not good. “Folks were making death threats,” Urbina tells me.
“You’re getting death threats?” I ask.
“Not a lot of them. But yes, we’ve gotten, you know, it’s just — you would be amazed.” Then he catches himself, and I feel the weird hall-of-mirrors effect of interviewing someone who is very experienced at interviewing others and therefore very aware of how his words sound and how they might be used. “But, you know, I don’t know if I should say that on record, because it could be like, ‘Oh, look, he’s complaining and he’s trying to play this.’ And I’m not doing that.”
He presses on, explaining in a clear, steady cadence what happened and why. It’s all a misunderstanding, he says; and where Jordan sees a scam, Urbina describes a plan to expand the reach of his journalism to a new audience. The case he makes is mostly compelling, but there are gaps. Continue reading New York: Ian Urbina’s Perfect Storm: Did a journalist get into the music business to help the oceans or help himself?