Commentary

Theranos Saga Reminds Us Reporters Can Also Be Heroes

Layoffs at publishers and digital media companies like Gannett, HuffPost and BuzzFeed are a grim indication of business realities. That’s why it’s nice to see the occasional reminder that editors and reporters can be heroes, too.


This week brings two documentaries about the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her failed blood-testing startup Theranos. On January 23, "Nightline" aired a special preview of the feature documentary “The Dropout,” while ABC Radio launched a six-part podcast with the same title. Yesterday, "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley" premiered on opening night of the Sundance Film Festival.

Plus, a dramatized version of her story, starring Jennifer Lawrence as the Stanford dropout who became the youngest self-made female billionaire before her allegedly “massive fraud” was exposed, is also in the works.

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The movie is based on the book “Bad Blood” by Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, whose dogged efforts to expose the hidden rot at Theranos were heroic.

Granted, he wasn’t heroic in the sense that he bravely dodged gunfire to issue dispatches from war-torn hot spots in Syria. As I can attest, pencil-necked, latté-sipping business journalists need to grab all the glory they can get.

Carreyrou’s reporting was completely contrary to the hype that surrounded Holmes — and possibly saved lives from her company’s irresponsible behavior. Carreyrou revealed that Theranos's blood-testing equipment didn't work and that Theranos was lying about using it.

Forbes, Fortune, Inc. and T: The New York Times Style Magazine put Holmes on their covers. Time in 2015 named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in a fawning profile written by former U.S. Secretary of State and a Theranos board member Henry Kissinger.

Conde Nast’s Glamour named her “woman of the year” and Vanity Fair put her on its “new establishment list” that same year.

Everyone wanted to believe the story of a young woman — yes, gender politics were more central to the narrative than breakthrough blood science — who had smashed Silicon Valley’s glass ceiling. She was a role model for millions of young women who have suffered professional indignities.

The fairy tale was too good to be untrue.

One of the most fascinating parts of Carreyrou’s reporting is the tremendous effort that Holmes and her boyfriend, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, a Pakistani-born Silicon Valley entrepreneur, put into maintaining the Theranos fiction.

They hid the company’s defective technology from scrutiny under the broad legal cover of “trade secrets,” and hired "super-lawyer" David Boies to intimidate and terrify Carreyrou’s sources, who included former Theranos employees.

Carreyrou said Boies threatened to sue the WSJ in a 23-page letter, a claim the lawyer denied in an interview with The New York Times. If every hero needs an arch-villain for dramatic effect, a cowardly profiteer like Boies fits the bill. If there's any justice in the universe, Boies will be misdiagnosed as being healthy and then be completely forgotten after dying an awful, painful and humiliating death.

The fee-chaser said his efforts helped to suppress certain facts in Carreyrou’s reporting, such as Holmes’s romantic relationship with Balwani.

Apparently, even pencil-necked, latté-sipping "super-lawyers" need to grab all the glory they can get.

Holmes even managed to lure Rupert Murdoch, the seasoned newspaperman and media mogul whose company publishes the WSJ, as an investor in Theranos.

To his credit, he didn’t interfere with the newspaper's reporting, even though the startup's eventual collapse led him to write off his $125 million investment. He still has a net worth of at least $19 billion.

The journalist-as-hero has been a central character in countless movies, such as “All the President’s Men,” “The Killing Fields” and “Spotlight.” Perhaps the movie version of “Bad Blood” will be the next entry in the pantheon.

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