When Journalism Fails to Deliver

Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes
Donald Trump










Today one of the most astute chroniclers of all things technology tossed his former fellow tech scribes under the bus for their inability to separate fact from fiction when it came to the scientific claims of one prickly healthcare startup CEO. I’m talking about Theranos of course, and its beleaguered CEO Elizabeth Holmes whose woes just worsened as a result of a piece posted on Vanity Fair’s website by former New York Times “Bits” columnist and “Hatching Twitter” author Nick Bilton.

Lots of PR and journalism-related stuff going on in the Bilton piece including the fact that a legal team, led by none other than David Boies, marched into the Wall Street Journal’s newsroom expecting to derail an impending story by a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner with the threat of a legal action. It didn’t work, and that story by investigative journalist John Carreyrou set the wheels in motion for one of the most precipitous corporate and individual reputational collapses in modern history. (Carreyou retweeted Mr. Bilton’s VF piece today.)

Vanity Fair Special Correspondent and Former NYTimes tech reporter Nick Bilton
Vanity Fair Special Correspondent and Former NYTimes tech reporter Nick Bilton

The second, and perhaps the bigger theme of Bilton’s piece, revolved around the tech press and their inability or unwillingness, as he contends, to have dug deeper into the science behind Ms. Holmes’ finger prick blood testing technology. By not doing so, the author asserts that they played an enabling role in Ms. Holmes deification:

“What the tech press didn’t seem to realize, however, was that by not asking those questions, they became culpable, too, and proved to be an integral factor in creating the currently deflating tech bubble.”

He attributes this lack of journalistic temerity to a fear of having their access restricted, as well as their publications’ inability to fill their lucrative hosted events’ keynote speaking slots.

All well and good, but I’d contend that this failure to dig below the surface to get to the truth is not an affliction that resides exclusively among tech journalists. Rare is the journalist nowadays that actually calls bullshit. Nowhere is this journalistic failure more evident that on the political beat as epitomized by CNN, MSNBC and the Sunday morning Washington talk shows.

Today’s so-called news programs seem to exist to give the candidates a podium to espouse fiction. Hey, why not just sell them the ad space? I was so frustrated one recent Sunday morning, I tweet-shouted at the hosts:

This may seem like heresy coming from a career public relations professional, but I’d much rather have a seasoned reporter questioning my clients than some smarter-than-thou millennial cutting his teeth in this once noble and still very consequential profession. Let’s only hope the fourth estate steps up to the plate as we head into November.

One last takeaway from the Bilton piece: to its credit, The Wall Street Journal did not cow down to Theranos’s high-priced lawyers. It did have the temerity to publish Mr. Carreyou’s meticulously researched piece of journalism. Props to them.


  1. I was so impressed by your article, Peter thank you, because i have never read about this problem. The website constanty procures a number of informative materials on the latest matters. Good job!

  2. Thank you Peter for sharing a great post about the power and possible failures of a profession as good as journalism. I really admire how Mr. Bilton and the journal stood up to the tech giant and shared truth which resulted in quite a bad PR disaster for the company. Kudos to them for upholding the spirit of Journalism!

  3. Hi there! I was born in an age when newspaper was the only reliable source to obtain worldly information from. Times changed and the age of digital and virtual worlds arose. While, I find nothing wrong with that, I feel like journalism is being increasingly lost amidst this chaos of commercial businesses. I loved your post. I look forward to more like these!

  4. This piece gives me hope and fear at the same time. It is always great to read a story like this where the press gets it right and exposes some falsehood, but it is clear that this story is really about the trend of journalists not asking the tough questions because they want the scoop, they want access, they do not want to be on the wrong side of the next press release. In a world where being first to break the story seems to be the most important thing, following up for facts has taken a back seat and the public at large is worse off because of it. I applaud the WS Journal and Mr. Bilton for taking a shot at a tech giant, even when they were aware of what he was working on and threatening him with litigation. I am not fully up to speed on the Theranos scandal, if they have been deceitful I wish them the worst, but if their simple blood test product can actually work and help save lives then I hope in the end they are successful with bringing that product to market. Regardless, this is quite a PR disaster for their brand.

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