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News Flash: Elizabeth Holmes Is Good At Deceiving People
But would you like 5,600+ words explaining how?
Criminal defense attorney(AKA Popehat) once coined the Rule of Goats. It goes something like this:
“If you fuck a goat, even if you say you were doing it ironically, you’re still a goatfucker.”
The Rule of Goats came to mind when I read The New York Times’ latest reputation laundering schem—er, I mean profile of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and CEO of Theranos. In case you weren’t aware, Holmes was convicted of defrauding investors and sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for her crimes. While it’s just that she should suffer some consequences, the crimes she was charged with were just the tip of the iceberg — she actually ruined many people’s lives in various ways (including by allegedly driving one of her employees to suicide).
The profile, written by journalist Amy Chozick, is being dragged online and rightfully so: It attempts to humanize a convicted felon without adding any significant insight into what drove their actions and it credulously repeats that person’s version of events, allowing them to burnish their reputation on an international platform. The profile features an idyllic well-lit beachside photo of Holmes, her partner, and her two children, and provides many details about how Holmes is really just like a normal, everyday mom who loves her family:
I realized that I was essentially writing a story about two different people. There was Elizabeth, celebrated in the media as a rock-star inventor whose brilliance dazzled illustrious rich men, and whose criminal trial captivated the world. Then there is “Liz,” (as Mr. Evans and her friends call her), the mom of two who, for the past year, has been volunteering for a rape crisis hotline. Who can’t stomach R-rated movies and who rushed after me one afternoon with a paper towel to wipe a mix of sand and her dog’s slobber off my shoe.
[Side note: They aren’t, in fact, two different people! People who’ve done evil things are capable of doing good things too! People aren’t just one thing and to imply that normal capable are incapable of acts of evil is journalistic malpractice! I thought we’d settled this a long time ago…]
While Chozick acknowledges Holmes’ crimes, at no point is the following viewpoint ever seriously considered or communicated: Elizabeth Holmes is a dangerous con artist and a convicted felon who has no actually useful knowledge of biotechnology, has hurt countless people through her recklessness, and should probably be in prison by now. In fact, it’s written from the opposite viewpoint — that maybe there are things about Holmes we don’t understand and that we probably haven’t given Holmes enough benefit of the doubt.
I would describe the profile as containing glimpses of self-awareness (but no more than glimpses), such as in this passage when Chozick describes her editor’s reaction to her thoughts on Holmes:
I was admittedly swept up in Liz as an authentic and sympathetic person. She’s gentle and charismatic, in a quiet way. My editor laughed at me when I shared these impressions, telling me (and I quote), “Amy Chozick, you got rolled!” I vigorously disagreed! You don’t know her like I do! But then, something very strange happened. I worked my way through a list of Ms. Holmes’s friends, family and longtime supporters, whom she and Mr. Evans suggested I speak to. One of these friends said Ms. Holmes had genuine intentions at Theranos and didn’t deserve a lengthy prison sentence. Then, this person requested anonymity to caution me not to believe everything Ms. Holmes says.
Perhaps even more bizarre to me than the fact that The New York Times dedicated resources to reporting and publishing this piece are the ways in which people have defended it. Here’s New York Times journalist and host of The Daily, Michael Barbaro, responding to a tweet from Ben Collins ridiculing the profile:
Caustic and misplaced take. It’s a super nuanced profile, deeply self aware of EH’s dishonesty, Ben. Don’t fault a reporter for documenting their own complex feelings and experience. That’s to be celebrated.
Analyst Benedict Evans also weighed in with a take that does a good job of characterizing most defenses of the piece:
Am I the only person that thought that NYT Elizabeth Holmes piece is a masterpiece? It doesn’t quite say that she’s a lovely sweet person - it says she was very good at playing the CEO character and now she’s very good at playing the ‘lovely sweet person’ character. The journalist doesn’t actually say “I like her” - she says ‘this convicted fraudster is extremely good at deliberately and consciously persuading me to like her.’ This is not PR. This is describing a very gifted con artist.
If demonstrating Elizabeth Holmes’ cunning — and how the author of the piece was able to recognize and resist it — was the purpose of the profile, then I think we have to acknowledge that the piece did not hit its mark with its intended audience (Related question: why was this task necessary again? Were the billions of dollars that she was able to extract from willing investors for a totally non-functional product not sufficient evidence? Not to mention the glowing profiles she received from countless media outlets). The problem is that when you spend most of a 91-paragraph profile describing your subject like they’re a misunderstood, complicated friend, then turn around at the end and say “But I finally realized who they REALLY were and I rose above all that,” you…still spent most of a profile describing them in positive, sympathetic terms.
In other words, if you fuck a goat, even if you say you were doing it ironically, you’re still a goatfucker.
Beyond this, it’s worth considering the broader implications of a piece like this. Who gets to have profiles like this done of them? Who gets to be a “devoted mother” or use Baby Yoda nursing blankets or experience love that drives them to have two children (while awaiting a trial that could send them to prison for more than a decade)? In other words: who gets to a be a full human being in our society, according to the media? And is it a coincidence that a conventionally attractive white woman received a profile like this while people of color (who’ve done much less to endanger other people’s lives) are described in considerably less glowing terms? All questions I think the folks at the Times should’ve asked themselves before pushing this one out into the world.
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