Power of the Pen: How Journalism Drove the Rise and Fall of Elizabeth Holmes

At the peak of her career, Elizabeth Holmes—founder of infamous Silicon Valley start-up Theranos—had been dubbed “The Next Steve Jobs.” Holmes claimed that Theranos had devised quick and inexpensive finger-prick blood tests that could scan for hundreds of diseases and health issues with just a single drop of blood. By 2014, she had become the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire, as Theranos’ valuation climbed to $9 billion. In reality, however, Theranos’ technology was fundamentally flawed and Holmes and her team relied on other companies’ machinery to run many of its tests. After a months-long trial in California, a jury found Holmes guilty on four of 11 criminal counts of fraud and conspiracy. Yet as critics and journalists continue to play the blame game as to how Holmes, now named “Convicted Fraudster,” rose so quickly, it is important to identify one key culprit that many overlook: journalists and the media.

Holmes’ claims are nonsensical, and when I look back, I often wonder, ‘how did this not seem strange to journalists/the media in the first place?’ When asked to describe Theranos’ technology, Holmes told “The New Yorker,” “​​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.” Despite this and other clearly questionable replies, reporters never dug into the issue or requested elaboration from Holmes and instead concentrated on article views, pleasing audiences.

Why? Journalists like Nick Bilton from “Vanity Fair” suggest a larger systemic issue is at play, one that effectively prevents reporters from asking hard-hitting questions. In particular, tech and business outlets are strongly encouraged to avoid writing negative articles about certain companies because such outlets often don’t get pre-release versions of the next gadget. “If you hit too hard, you lose keynotes, ticket buyers, and support in the tech space,” writes Jason Calacanis, blogger and founder of Weblogus. Ultimately, while mainstream media’s shameful acceptance of surface-level vagaries enabled Holmes’ lies and aided her in eluding investors and the general public, it’s understandable that tech and business outlets would favor allegiance in the name of continued access to headline-grabbing tech.

I first learned of Holmes in fourth grade, browsing the Internet to decide on a subject for a group presentation on role models. “Elizabeth Holmes and Her Secretive Company, Theranos, Aim to Revolutionize Health Care,” “Fortune” wrote. “8 Women Who Could Own The Future,” “Inc.” claimed. Such impressive headlines were enough to convince us that the woman with the sleek black turtleneck and the steady, confident gaze was special. In this way, the press normalized the lionization of Holmes and ingrained so deeply in my mind the notion of the female Steve Jobs. The fabricated mirage that Holmes—and the media—painted ultimately only served to build on Holmes’ hubris and enlarge Holmes’ unknowing support base.

Ironically, journalism was also the primary driver of Theranos’ downfall. John Carreyrou, an investigative journalist for “The Wall Street Journal,” eventually questioned Holmes’ unusually secretive and vague descriptions. Carreyrou persisted despite countless threats and obstacles from Holmes’ team, eventually launching a full-fledged investigation that included conducting interviews with 150 people, including 60 former Theranos employees. Holmes’ habitual lies, the firing of anyone who even voiced tentative doubts, and the enforcement of a strict code of secrecy were utterly exposed. Catalyzed by the release of Carreyrou’s book, “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” mainstream media outlets—which had portrayed Holmes as one of the most genius leaders in Silicon Valley—turned against her one by one, and Theranos came crashing down.

Watching Holmes’ fall from grace, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of journalism’s duplicity, which enabled both the rise and fall of Theranos. Just as journalists favored the opportunity to sensationalize Holmes’ alleged scientific advancements, they latched onto the opportunity to dethrone the celebrity of Holmes that they spent years cultivating. But what does this say about journalism itself?

For newspapers to retain the journalistic objectivity they promise to the public, commitment to established ethical standards and morality in journalism must triumph over the political games of diplomacy. The systemic pressures of the community drive journalists to stretch the truth, gloss over negative features or consequences, and ultimately abuse the sacred trust they have built with the public. This important endorsement of journalistic ethics will remind me to reflect on my future experiences as a student journalist, to add that little step to each article I write: ensuring that I’ve made the most of each interview, made the most of each source. That, above all, my allegiance is to unveiling the truth.

Editor’s Note: Erin Kim ’23 is an Associate News Editor for The Phillipian.