A fascinating view from an ironic source. Vanity Fair’s short article tags the buildup of Theranos and its founder/CEO Elizabeth Holmes to a purposefully gullible Silicon Valley Tech Press and their moneymaking conferences. While not naming specific publications, it cites TechCrunch’s Disrupt as an early builder-upper of Ms Holmes (drawing blood onstage, how daring!). The operating thesis here is that the tech press vetted her with uncritical and fawning coverage, which led to profiles and shiny articles in the New York Times, the New Yorker and ….Vanity Fair, which also featured Ms Holmes at their 2015 New Establishment Summit. It’s a classic PR strategy to me, one that any skilled marketer has in their playbook (Ed.–it also works in reverse, having mainstream press vet a technology sold B2B), and one that evidently worked.
One would think that writers and editors with some biotech and science knowledge would raise more questions. The author, Nick Bilton, critically outlines the ‘Game of Access’ underpinning the tech press and blogger business model: you say nice things and play ball, you get a preview of the latest gadget or a sitdown with the CEO. If you don’t, you’re shut out. So writers don’t ask tough questions, probe hard enough, or tell the truth about where the facts are leading them, because if they do, there goes the access and the sponsorships, as well as your job. While the former doesn’t apply to your Editors, many of us who write also hope that we uncover a technology that benefits people, or is even revolutionary. We like a bracing story.
However, Mr Bilton, perhaps mindful of the cart he rode in on, doesn’t scoop an equal share of blame onto the ‘mainstream’ press. To this Editor’s mind, the Ken Auletta profile in the New Yorker should have been stopped by the New Yorker’s EIC and sent back to Mr Auletta with a blue-penciled “DIG DEEPER”. This excerpt is from the VF article:
Auletta acerbically noted that the technology behind Theranos was “treated as a state secret, and Holmes’s description of the process was comically vague.” She told him, for instance, that one process occurred when “a chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction with the sample, which is translated into a result, which is then reviewed by certified laboratory personnel.”
Say wot? Sheer gobbledygook. For the WSJ investigative reporter John Carreyrou, who read this and eventually blew the lid off Theranos, this was caviar on toast too delicious to pass up. (Vanity Fair, on the other hand, was too busy making Ms Holmes one of its New Establishment, but investigative reporting has never been one of their strong points. Another reason why this article is an interesting read.)
A side note: Ms Holmes kept on refusing to disclose, even to VCs, the blood analysis process as a technology too secret to share, even with fellow researchers to get verification and validation. And that led to very few truly major VCs investing in the formerly $9 bn valued company, a point Mr Bilton relishes.
The final revelations in the article–truly the lead–should scare anyone who values a free press. They are the bullying tactics taken by Theranos’ legal team led by that new governing board member, David Boies, to intimidate both Mr Carreyrou and the WSJ from their investigative reporting. Mr Bilton’s source describes the team marching into the WSJ office in June, threatening legal action on the proprietary information Mr Carreyrou supposedly had (he did have internal documents). After repeatedly denying all requests for an interview with Ms Holmes, the WSJ went with the story in October, and the rest is history. Mr Boies now has his hands full elsewhere with other types of letters: CMS, SEC, DOJ and FDA. And Ms Holmes is no longer making herself available to the media, even to her former friends in the tech press. The Secret Culprit in the Theranos Mess