On September 8, 2013, the Wall Street Journal published one of the first national press profiles of the now infamous Elizabeth Holmes. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Rago, the article referred to Holmes’s company, Theranos, as a “breakthrough of instant diagnosis,” “revelatory,” and a rare adherent to the principle of “self-transparency.” Soon after, Holmes rocketed to superstar status with both the technology and general press, while Theranos rapidly achieved unicorn status. Elizabeth Holmes, or at least the idea of her, grew into a preternatural figure, unrestricted by the conventions of business leadership, due diligence, and even science itself. Who, after all, could argue with the superhuman image staring back at them from the cover of Fortune?
In September 2018, Theranos announced its dissolution just months after Holmes was charged with “massive fraud” by the Securities and Exchange Commission and nine felony counts by the Department of Justice. In a stroke of irony, Theranos’ precipitous decline is largely attributed to the investigative reporting of John Carreyrou, a long-time journalist for the Wall Street Journal.
While arguably very few companies exhibit a Theranos-level of disconnect between fact and reality, the media phenomenon surrounding Elizabeth Holmes and her eventual unmasking begs an important question: is the tech press unintentionally engaged in Silicon Valley kingmaking?
The discussion surrounding the impact of technology on the speed, practices, and mediums of modern journalism is generally quite robust. What is more often left opaque is the increased symbiosis between the technology industry and the journalists and publications dedicated to its coverage. Perhaps most visibly, large technology companies are extending their business models and vast resources into the sphere of traditionally independent news outlets. Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post, for example, or the flipping of The New Republic by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes give reason to seriously consider the level of editorial control and independence afforded to even the largest publications. Meanwhile, Facebook’s role as the “partner-competitor-savior-killer” of the press makes clear that potential conflicts of interest are built directly into modern content distribution models.
For smaller and more niche press outlets that lack the clout of America’s media mainstays, money and power from Silicon Valley companies can pose a threat that verges on existential. Despite its growing notoriety in the investigative and political journalism spaces, BuzzFeed, as one example, is largely funded by technology venture capitalists and faces serious critiques for its use of corporate-sponsored posts and articles, which can undermine the credibility of opinions rendered on individuals and companies alike. Even as early as six years ago, a contributor to the technology news site TechCrunch responded to criticism of what readers perceived as an influx of high-volume, lower-quality, and marketing-esque content by asserting, “If we didn’t have to shovel this stuff into your constantly grinding maw, we’d have a lot more time to write 4,000-word reviews of Atheros chipsets.”
While BuzzFeed and TechCrunch soldier on, the now-defunct Gawker Media exemplifies the risk of antagonistic tech industry coverage. Gawker was by no means an exemplar of journalistic craft, but its sharp criticisms of, and general attitude of skepticism toward, Silicon Valley and the elites of American society pushed narratives that more mainstream outlets could only approach with caution. That Gawker was shuttered after a lawsuit brought by wrestler Hulk Hogan and bankrolled by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel only adds to the concerns that the tech industry exerts too much control over its own coverage and public image. Thiel’s personal involvement in the Gawker suit effectively sets a precedent for other tech magnates to silence media elements that threaten their personal and corporate personas.
When asked what both the press and consumers of the press should take away from the collapse of Theranos, John Carreyrou remarked:
“It’s not just the media and consumers of media – it’s really American society at large. We’ve come to deify these young college dropouts who found these startups in Silicon Valley and attract a lot of funding…I think the lesson is that these are, in the end, just young kids and we’ve turned them into these icons and heroes…I think the Theranos scandal should make us re-evaluate this whole value system.”
To Carreyrou’s analysis, one can add that we must also question why this type of deification is occurring on a cultural level – is it because these individuals are simply so far above the rest in intellect and charisma? Or does a sycophantic narrative arise organically when those on whom we rely to ask the hard-hitting questions are pressured into throwing only softballs?