The New York Times’ Fawning Profile of Elizabeth Holmes Did Not Need to Exist
If you find yourself having fallen from grace in the public eye because you allegedly committed colossal fraud for years, as Elizabeth Holmes did, fear not: the New York Times is ready to dedicate 5,000 fawning words to you.
Whenever a piece of writing elicits an online backlash, it’s good to keep an open mind and read it for yourself. This is especially true of long-form journalism, which at its best can communicate nuance and inform readers about the complexities of difficult or contentious subjects. It’s all too easy to tweet a passage, paragraph, or headline out of context and use it to bludgeon a writer unfairly or harvest cheap engagement with bad-faith dunks.
All of which is to say that I dove into the New York Times’ recent profile of disgraced Silicon Valley charlatan Elizabeth Holmes, entitled “Liz Holmes Wants You to Forget About Elizabeth,” ready to be surprised. Written by author and reporter Amy Chozick, probably best known for her 2018 book Chasing Hillary — a memoir about covering Hillary Clinton in 2016 that is currently being adapted into a drama series for HBO Max — the piece offers a snapshot of Holmes as she awaits incarceration following her conviction last November.
In sum, the whole thing is pretty bad — taking roughly five thousand words to serve readers the jejune thesis that Elizabeth Holmes, whatever her crimes and deceptions might be, is ultimately a land of contrasts. Here’s how it opens:
Elizabeth Holmes blends in with the other moms here, in a bucket hat and sunglasses, her newborn strapped to her chest and swathed in a Baby Yoda nursing blanket. We walk past a family of caged orangutans and talk about how Ms. Holmes is preparing to go to prison for one of the most notorious cases of corporate fraud in recent history.
Save the exposition and endless chin-stroking that follows, this opening stanza more or less captures the essence of the piece. Chozick was clearly going for moral nuance, but her implicitly sympathetic fascination with Holmes — manifest in both the profile’s accompanying album-art style photos and its author’s insertion of herself into the proceedings — leaves the effort remarkably short of insight. Fundamentally, she aspires to show us the human being behind the multibillion-dollar fraud: the new mother of two in a loving relationship who takes her young children to the zoo and goes to Burning Man; the erstwhile twentysomething billionaire who doesn’t watch R-rated movies and is possessed of ordinary human foibles.
What Chozick neglects to consider is whether such an exercise is either interesting or even justified. Taking both as axiomatic, she basks in the ostensibly relatable normalness and quiet charm of someone who spent more than decade promoting a supposedly groundbreaking new blood-testing method that did not and could not actually function.
By occasionally nodding to her subject’s criminality and penchant for deception — in one instance recounting how an amused Times editor told her she’d been duped by Holmes in the past — Chozick gets to have her cake and eat it too. The result is a portrait heavy on trivialities and indefensibly lacking in moral gravity.
We briefly hear about a woman who testified at Holmes’s trial that a fraudulent Theranos blood test wrongly told her she was having a miscarriage. Then, a few paragraphs later, we are treated to a day-by-day summary of Chozick’s encounters with Holmes as she was counting down to her prison sentence:
Day 44: the afternoon we ordered in Mexican food at their quaint rental home near the Pacific.
Day 43: the morning we went for breakfast and Ms. Holmes breastfed her baby, Invicta (Latin for “invincible”) and sang along to Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” on the loudspeakers (“This is the first album I ever owned.”).
Day 42: the time we had croissants and berries and Mr. Evans made coffee and we walked the couple’s 150-pound Great Dane-mastiff mix, Teddy, on the beach.
Lots more chin-stroking ensues, much of it delivered in a tone of implicit affinity:
Ms. Holmes’s defenders, stretching back to childhood, said in letters to the court, and in conversations with me, that the feverish coverage of Ms. Holmes’s downfall felt like a witch trial, less rooted in what actually happened at Theranos, and more of a message to ambitious women everywhere. Don’t girl boss too close to the sun, or this could happen to you…
“There’s an unspoken lesson for female executives: you’re allowed to be successful but not too successful,” Jackie Lamping, a Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sister of Ms. Holmes at Stanford, wrote in a letter to Judge Davila, who oversaw the trial.
This is not Chozick’s own view, but it’s allowed to pass without substantive comment, and its inclusion is difficult to ignore. It elides the basic fact that Holmes hasn’t drawn public ire or legal action for being too successful, but because she oversaw a massive defrauding of investors and consumers. Theranos’s supposed innovation — underwritten by countless media puff pieces and fawning profiles — was scientifically impossible, and the result was more than just a few rich people being embarrassed or losing their money. Its fake testing erroneously led one woman to believe she had HIV. Another woman was led to believe she had an autoimmune condition.
There are plenty of similar stories in the same vein, to say nothing of the fact that the company’s chief scientist, Ian Gibbons — who was fired, then rehired and demoted, after raising questions about its entirely fictitious technology — was sent into a mental health spiral and ultimately committed suicide (something his widow blames on Holmes). This episode, incidentally, goes entirely unmentioned.
Chozick does temper passages like the one above with acknowledgement of Holmes’s self-delusion, though even this is mostly in the service of representing her deceptions as tragic flaws:
She maintains the idealistic delusion of a 19-year-old, never mind that she’s 39 with a fraud conviction, telling me she is still working on health care–related inventions and would continue to do so behind bars. […]
If your head is exploding at how divorced from reality this sounds, that’s kind of the point. When Ms. Holmes uses the messianic vernacular of tech, I get the sense that she truly believes that she could have — and, in fact, she still could — change the world, and she doesn’t much care if we believe her or not. “Liz is not a natural born leader; she is more of a zealot than a showman,” Mr. Evans wrote to Judge Davila.
Rather than interrogating the structures behind the con or giving much attention to its victims, the author instead revels in how much she herself may have been taken in by Holmes’s aura.
Notwithstanding the various problems that stem from what appears to be the writer’s excessively tender fascination with her subject, the real issue with Chozick’s piece is that it did not need to exist in the first place. As Avi Asher-Schapiro noted in a 2019 essay for the New Republic, coverage of Holmes has tended to emphasize the personal dimensions of her fraud at the expense of wider social and political ones. By this point, any interesting writing left to be done about the Theranos case needs to abandon shallow nuance-mongering or issues of personal psychology and approach its fallen CEO less as a subject of inquiry than an occasion to probe deeper into the entire complex of fawning journalism and credulous investors that gave rise to her.
If the story has a wider valence beyond its central figure’s lies or her painfully affected baritone voice, it’s to be found in what collective investment in the soylent-soaked mythos of Silicon Valley enables. The whole thing ultimately stands not only as an indictment of one individual fraud, but also an entire elite culture at the top of American capitalism and its equally fraudulent myths of bootstrap success. As Asher-Schapiro put it:
[A]lthough Holmes may have displayed some bewitching eccentricities, it was her connections, a brazen willingness to deceive, and an economic climate that rewarded such qualities, that made Theranos a success. She was childhood friends with the daughter of billionaire Silicon Valley investor Tim Draper, who helped her raise a million dollars, and lent credibility to the project from the outset. Through her father, she met Don Lucas, an early investor in Oracle who later became chairman of the board. According to Carreyrou, Holmes and Lucas had brunch every weekend. Lucas, in turn, brought in Larry Ellison, another Silicon Valley brahmin, who sits on the board of Tesla. The circle of investors grew to include a who’s who of American plutocrats: Rupert Murdoch, the Walton Family, and the DeVos family. Naturally, these wealthy patrons were interested in a chunk of the multibillion dollar blood testing market, which was dominated by two clunky firms.
Since such myths generally go uninterrogated, even disgraced former members of the billionaire class are still assumed to be axiomatically interesting: sophisticated people afflicted by a chaotic messianism but nevertheless worthy of lengthy and empathic psychological profiles in legacy publications. In this instance, and in plenty of others involving would-be tech geniuses, we should probably assume that the inverse is true and that there is actually no mystery behind the curtain.
If Holmes is indeed as normal as Chozick wants us to believe, we might consider the possibility that her zealous drive and Promethean ambition are, in fact, simply byproducts of banal human vices like vanity and greed — and that a system that so regularly produces enterprises like Theranos might be just as boringly immoral.