“Fake It Till You Make It”: The Holmes Conviction is an Indictment of Business and Media Practices

(DoD photo/Glenn Fawcett)

The conviction of Elizabeth Holmes in 4 out of 11 counts was a measured verdict by the jury which spent weeks combing through the debris from her epic fall. Indeed, as with other high-profile cases in 2021, this jury showed our system at the best in carefully deliberating and reaching balanced conclusions. The jury saw criminal fraud in Holmes’ dealings with investors while rejecting such claims with regard to patients. (It also hung on three counts). The distinction between the investors and patients was nuanced but principled. What the jury did not consider are those who helped Holmes create her elaborate scam. In many ways, the conviction is an indictment of those in business and the media who helped create the massive fraud that was Elizabeth Holmes.

Holmes was convicted of defrauding investors with false claims that the start-up Theranos company would revolutionize blood testing using a few drops of blood in a so-called “nanotainer.”

The three counts of wire fraud come with a 20-year maximum penalty while a conspiracy count has a maximum five-year penalty. Often courts will have the counts run concurrently, so she would be looking at a horizon of 20 years with an expectation of much less as a first offender. However, that is not a given. Holmes was convicted of a Bernie Madoff sized fraud with hundreds of millions lost to investors. Just under these counts, there was $144 million in losses. She also has denied all of the allegations, including on the stand. That might prompt the Court to consider a more severe framing of the sentencing in the case.

Holmes can expect a long prison stint, but she was able to engage in this fraud to build a counterfeit $9 billion company with the help of equally dishonest business and media cultures.

Silicon Kabuki

The prosecution put a spotlight on the fraudulent practices rampant in Silicon Valley where executives often invoke the rule that, to be successful, you have to “fake it till you make it.” It is often more than a simple adage to be bold and confident. The idea is that you can get away with fraudulent pitches as long as you use the money to make good on the pitch in the end. Under this logic, big frauds are better than small frauds.  If you get billions invested in your company, it is hard not to make something worth selling. Moreover, flaming out on a product is treated as a cost of doing business. Few executives are forced to account for their early pitches when their products flop.

Yet, few flame out like Holmes because she never really had a workable concept, let alone a product.  The case showed how she and her underlings sent out blood to be tested by more conventional means and did not have a working model. What she had was buzz, not a business.

Holmes was the perfect image of Silicon Valley shtick in her Steve Jobs black turtlenecks and child-genius act. This was performance art that followed the kabuki of the Valley for the techno super-wealthy class.

While everyone is focused on Holmes at the trial, they forget that she assembled a who’s who of powerful business and political board members who lent credibility to the scam. That included former U.S. Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and James Mattis as well as an assortment of business and political elite. They furthered the mythology and Holmes was Jobs2.0. William Perry told The New Yorker in 2014 that Ms. Holmes “has sometimes been called another Steve Jobs, but I think that’s an inadequate comparison. She has a social consciousness that Steve never had. He was a genius; she’s one with a big heart.”

Politicians further legitimated Holmes, including then Vice President Joe Biden heralding her work as “the laboratory of the future.” Holmes was bona fide and celebrities lined up to herald the new visionary without a scintilla of evidence to back up her claims.

The Media Myth

Holmes would have been a modest fraudulent enterprise without the help of the media. The image of a young woman leading a multi-billion dollar corporation was “a fact too good to check.” Holmes was showered with attention from being featured by Bill Clinton to breathless features on virtually every network and newspaper.  With dozens of journalists doing puff pieces, virtually none actually looked into her product or the underlying technological claims. The exception was former Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, who laid bare the fraud.

Holmes knew her audience. She was celebrated as the “new generation” of women in business, the brilliant female successor to Jobs.  To even question that narrative was to risk being accused of sexism. After all, would you have questioned Steve Jobs when he was developing Apple?

The answer is yes. Jobs faced huge skepticism over his company’s viability. Yet, Holmes was a fait accompli; she was proof in of itself. After all, she was a beautiful 19-year-old Stanford dropout who dressed like Jobs and spoke in soundbites.

Soon Holmes was on the cover of Fortune, which proclaimed “This CEO’s out for blood.” Glowing cover features would follow with Forbes and Inc. Television hosts cooed and columnists clamored over the carefully constructed image of a “female Steve Jobs.”

The Holmes story is all too familiar in the age of advocacy journalism. Coverage is now often about advancing a narrative and achieving social progress. Reporting has been supplanted by promoting images and messages. As Stanford journalism professor Ted Glasser explained “journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.” Celebrity journalism has many of the same flaws where images transcend the facts. In this case, Holmes was both a cause and a celebrity.

Holmes knew the media would shed the constraints of objectivity in favor of her irresistible story. She was the hero that the times called for, including Time magazine itself. Time gushed that Holmes was “striking, somewhat ethereal, iron-willed, she is on the verge of achieving her vision.” The fact that the vision turned out to be fraud is just another inconvenient fact. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” Neither Holmes nor her tragedy were entirely self-made. It took a collective effort and this verdict should have come with a list of unindicted co-conspirators.

 

115 thoughts on ““Fake It Till You Make It”: The Holmes Conviction is an Indictment of Business and Media Practices”

  1. All of Elizabeth Holmes’ problems would have been swept under the rug if she had had the foresight to appoint Hunter to Thranos’ Board. To be successful in the fraud game, you’ve got to pay off key people in government and business to buy silence and cooperation. This is a well established business fraud model.

  2. We all know this is nothing but political opposition research.

    This Democrat committee is corrupt it its formation, and activities. The committee continues to selectively leak altered “evidence” as a political weapon. People that put any trust in anything from the committee, really need handlers. They are too mentally challenged to function in society.

    1. Yeah I don’t get it…

      It’s a crime to bulk investors on xyz….but it’s not a crime to hide from tax payers xyz? And still have a platform? Does ivermectin work or not? Looks like her peers hide data to get rich…same thing really. Isn’t it at the end of the day just an information deal? Lies…for money? Oh but you can’t lie to make money until you own the system. Her bad.

  3. Cut and paste of propaganda

    We know Schiff edited text messages to totally change the meaning of the message.
    Schiff intentionally edited texts from Jordan to Meadows. And admitted to the edits.

    But Democrats have slit their own throats. They have admitted their goal is to make sure Trump cannot run for President. Since the Constitution forbids congress from criminal investigations, their only investigative powers are for rule making. Their admission strips them of power to enforce warrants and subpoenas.
    Pelosi and Cheney have hit the constitutional wall of Bills of Attainders.

    “The Constitution forbids bills of attainder as “a general safeguard against legislative exercise of the judicial function,” Chief Justice Warren explained in United States v. Brown. Under the British monarchy, such bills were used to punish without a trial individuals accused of disloyalty, treason, or any conduct the parliament found objectionable. The Framers, Chief Justice Warren wrote, “sought to guard against such dangers by limiting legislatures to the task of rule-making.””

  4. Jeff: How would you like it if everytime you tuned in to the good professor’s blog, you saw myltiple and repetitive references to “Lyin’ Silbermans” and “Jeffisms” ad nauseam? Please. Move.On. Thank you.

  5. Breaking News:

    “JANUARY 6th COMMITTEE SEEKS COOPERATION FROM FOX NEWS’ HANNITY AND RELEASES TEXTS BETWEEN HOST AND WHITE HOUSE.”

    https://www.cnn.com/2022/01/04/politics/january-6-committee-sean-hannity/index.html

    Just when you thought Turley’s association with Fox News couldn’t become more embarrassing to his professional reputation, now comes this damning revelation: January 10, 2021, Sean Hannity sent to Meadows and Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan the following text:

    “Guys, we have a clear path to land the plane in 9 days. He can’t mention the election again. Ever. I did not have a good call with him today. And worse, I’m not sure what is left to do or say, and I don’t like not knowing if it’s truly understood. Ideas?”

    Finally, it is revealed that Hannity KNEW that the election was NOT stolen. So much so that he begged Trump to NEVER mention that falsehood again! And yet, he confesses that he is unsure whether he has gotten through to Trump and laments that he does not know how to get through to him nor whether he has succeeded! It is striking to see Hannity’s attitude in PRIVATE versus his PUBLIC commentary!

    Not unlike the MSM ignoring the Hunter laptop scandal, Turley has completely ignored to date the 1/6 committee’s investigation (save one article). But now he simply cannot avoid addressing this humiliating turn of events lest he forfeits what’s left of his intellectual credibility.

    Turley had criticized Hannity once for appearing on stage with Trump at a political rally and, in so doing, crossing the line between reporting and political advocacy:

    https://jonathanturley.org/2018/11/06/covering-or-campaigning-fox-news-anchors-appear-with-trump-at-missouri-rally/

    These texts unmistakably reveal that Hannity has been an adviser to Trump! Talk about *advocacy journalism*! Let’s see if Turley is man enough to condemn Hannity for crossing the line once again. Predictably, neither Hannity, nor Ingraham nor Carlson dared mention these text messages on their Fox programs.

    Will Turley? Or will we hear the all too familiar sound of crickets?

    1. Jeff, you keep proving you are more of an idiot than previously expected. Hannity recognized the political fallout of some of Trump’s rhetoric. That lack of respect of fallout from Trump’s own rhetoric caused problems for Trump. If you can’t get the simplest thing right, How do you expect to get anything right?

  6. This needs to happen with every ‘unicorn’ of the past ten years, they were ALL fraudsters, the Professor nailed that culture. Greed is what made her (and modern Silicon Valley at large), the world went mad with web 2.0. We are now reaping the fruits. Glad there is some karma going around. Zuckerberg and Google are the kings of the entire mess.

  7. She would have been better off to murder someone in cold blood like Alec Baldwin. She wouldn’t even be arrested.

  8. As someone who’s been involved in Silicon Valley and startups since 1989, I can tell you that this article presents a caricature of Silicon Valley. I’ll just share this (among many things I could share) to show what I mean. First, nobody in the medical lab/blood testing industry took Holmes seriously. She was laughed out of all the companies involved in the biz who looked at her or the ‘product’. She didn’t have ANY scientific breakthrough, lol, she just talked a lot. Second, no “smart” VC money went to her – only “dumb” money. No top flight VC had any involvement, she was summarily rejected by all the big shops. She relied on money from bizarre sources.

    As for the newsmedia, I wonder when Prof. Turley will finally understand that they have always been hacks, liars and scammers seeking nothing close to ‘truth’ but rather are all about personal fame and eyeballs, and always have been. Even in the days of paper newspapers. Sensationalism is nothing new. Selling this woman as a Silicon Valley darling is so much easier than researching say Artificial Intelligence and realizing how much hype and dishonesty there is in the entire field? That would take years of study and analysis, why bother with that when some dummy editor will publish a hagiography, particularly of a woman entrepreneur?

    Don’t trust the press – ever. They lie more than the cops and prosecutors do, perhaps even as much as politicians.

  9. JT, this is one of your best posts to date — poetic how you take this case out of Court and show the complicity of the supporting actors in media, academia and government. The inability to maintain standards of excellence in the presence of social justice thinking is the verdict I’m focussed on. We have to do better.

  10. Another pitfall of identity politics.

    Holmes’ gender should not have shielded her from scrutiny. These losses would have been avoided.

    Believe all women is as absurd as believe all men.

    Shoving legitimate questions back with accusations of sexism has consequences. 144 million of them.

    Real justice is treating everyone the same, not granting special privileges.

    No one should have gotten excited about her gender, but rather her proposed product. If the scrutiny was where it should have been, investors and journalists would have had their voir dire.

    1. That’s right. Her sex has no relevance in this context. Her gender, specifically physical attributes, likely played a part in social progress. Hopefully, her gender, her sex-correlated mental attributes, specifically her sexual orientation, did not play a part a la VP Harris, which would confirm and excuse the handmade tale that harms both women and men.

    2. Karen says:

      “Holmes’ gender should not have shielded her from scrutiny. These losses would have been avoided.”

      Exactly! And Trump’s popularity among his followers should not shield him from civil and criminal scrutiny. As you say Karen:

      “Real justice is treating everyone the same, not granting special privileges.”

      Because no one- not even Trump- is above the law. I’m glad we agree.

      1. Mespo727272 says:

        “Such a great play and movie starring the imcomparable Zero Mostel!”

        You got that right! Another fine movie starring Mostel is the somewhat obscure, “The Hot Rock,” which I heartily recommend if you have not seen it.

  11. To the extent Turley is blaming “advocacy media” for Holmes defrauding investors, he is wrong, as is Turley’s comparison to Steve Jobs. At least Jobs had something concrete behind his vision, something Holmes lacked because the entire premise was a fraud from the get-go: that you could take minute quantities of blood and obtain valid results without the need for venipuncture, collecting multiple tubes of blood, sending the samples to the lab and waiting for results. If this concept was something viable, then it would have been as valuable as she promoted it to be, but the entire premise was never viable, and was never going to be viable because you simply can’t get valid results without a sufficient quantity of blood. Yeah, she was “faking it”, but she was never going to “make it”. That concept doesn’t apply to something like this: “faking it” means using hoopla to get attention and credibility, and then leveraging the credibility into success. The entire project was a fraud,. How could investors and media know that she she was lying? To the extent Turley is saying that her claims should have been better vetted, he is right, but didn’t she have fake documentation to back up her claims that the results would be valid? How do you catch this kind of crook, anyway, when they have what appears to be valid back up documentation?

    1. Natacha, can you give us some advance warning about when you’re in a good mood. You’re smart and I’d like to read your stuff but it’s always full of venom and like most folks I can do without that. Maybe another topic like birds, recipes or movies – even sports!

    2. How could investors and media know that she she was lying? To the extent Turley is saying that her claims should have been better vetted, he is right, but didn’t she have fake documentation to back up her claims that the results would be valid? How do you catch this kind of crook, anyway, when they have what appears to be valid back up documentation?

      She and her team were arguing that less blood sample volume can provide as good as results as a regular blood sample volume. Her claim, IIRC, did not pivot around better precision and superior detection. Her claim always struck me as odd because it was not a scientific breakthrough, nor one that provided information that could not already be provided in an alternate means. A finger prick blood sample might be attractive to a few patients, but from a medical scientific perspective, it’s not. Plus she never had a peer review literature support her claims.

      See:

      Stealth Research: Is Biomedical Innovation Happening Outside the Peer-Reviewed Literature?
      https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2110977

      Medical diseases discussed today pivot around inflammation at the cellular and molecular levels. Inflammation is promoted by immune cells at tissue specific sites beyond the reach of blood circulation. Inflammation in coronary arteries, for example, occurs because of various immune cells building up plaque and foam cells due to cellular injury. None of these can be detected with a blood sample. That’s why angiography is done. Detecting inflammation in a blood sample is less than precise. Immune cells fighting a pathogen, an injury, cellular damage, etc, are not doing battle in the blood. They are going at it mano a mano in the brain, the endothelial tissues of organs, lymphatic nodes/vessels, etc, all beyond the blood circulation. We are largely limited today in detecting many diseases like COVID because we rely on blood samples. We need better diagnostic techniques, since waiting for the patient to die to get a sample of their tissue post-mortem is less than ideal.

      1. For my master’s degree in pediatric nursing, my study (required) compared microhemoglobin results with hematocrit results used for screening purposes. See, anemia in infants and young children is prevalent because breast milk and unfortified formula are poor sources of iron. But, at birth, babies have a lot of extra blood cells because in utero they get oxygen from the placenta, via the mother’s blood, and extra cells are needed to meet the infant’s needs. That’s why, after birth when they begin breathing on their own and getting oxygen from the air they breathe, the extra cells aren’t needed and babies sometimes become jaundiced–their bodies get rid of the extra red cells, but their immature livers (that breakdown and process the red cells) often can’t keep up, so bilirubin (a byproduct of red cell death) can accumulate to dangerous levels. Excess bilirubin can cause seizures and brain damage. So, they give the jaundiced newborn extra hydration and put the child under a “bili light’, which helps them break down bilirubin. Then, they go on mother’s milk or formula. They need to be checked for anemia at regular intervals since milk is a poor source of iron. In the public health clinic where I worked, we would do a heel stick and collect blood for a microhematocrit (that measures the percentage of red cells) and also check their hemoglobin via a device called a “hemoglobinometer” (hemoglobin is the chemical on the red cells that binds to oxygen) as screening devices for anemia and blood discrasias. The question for my study is what happens when you get some wild disparity between the two results, which are usually at a consistent ratio (the hematocrit should be about 3 Xs the hemoglobin).

        After reviewing the literature and results obtained from blood I myself drew (in which there were NO wonky results), I concluded that screening tests do not have the same degree of accuracy as full-blown lab tests, but then, they aren’t designed for purposes of medical diagnosis and treatment like regular lab tests are. Screening tests are designed to be cheap and easy to administer, and are intended only for screening purposes, not for medical decision-making or diagnosis. If you get some wonky result–re-test, but be sure that you strictly follow the protocol for drawing and testing the sample, because that can affect the outcome. Even then, the error rate is in the two-digit range–somewhere north of 10%. If you still get wonky results, do something else, like a clinical evaluation and full lab tests. The bottom line is that it has been known for decades that errors with collection of small samples of blood and user techinque and processing the sample can skew the results. Further, it has been known for decades that tiny samples of blood simply aren’t enough to obtain reliable results for medical diagnostic purposes. That’s why I was always skeptical of Holmes and her claims, but I was open to the possibility that maybe some computer genius could come up with some way to extract useful information from small samples. Not possible at the present, and I think she always knew that.

        1. You are much more enjoyable when you are level-headed, so thanks for that.

          I am not sure when you did your MS in Nursing, but recall that fetal hemoglobin (HbF) is not the same as adult hemoglobin (HbA). HbF starts to develop shortly after conception and persists several months after a live birth. HbF has a far higher binding to Oxygen for obvious reasons: the developing baby is dependent on maternal blood for Oxygen levels. Eventually, post-birth, the HbF gives way to HbA where binding of Oxygen to Hemoglobin is far less. HbF is composed of 2 alpha chains and 2 gamma chains where as HbA is composed of 2 alpha chains and 2 beta chains. Those gamma chains make a big difference on the fetal and newborn blood ability to bind Oxygen. Additionally, fetal blood has a higher hematocrit, Hct, than the adult precisely because it needs to bind more oxygen. With a higher Hct, the fetus and newborn have the ability to bind “more” oxygen, which is essential, until she can develop lungs to breathe on her own and have gas exchange. Frankly I find all of this fascinating, which points again and again to the miracle of human life.

          We are arrogant to think we are gods that author, can dominate and determine the worthiness of any human life. As I stated in my initial comment, we really are practicing antiquated medicine with blood tests in that cellular and molecular processes take place at tissues that we have no idea are occurring, much of it deleterious, leading to death. A finger stick of blood sample or multiple test tubes of blood will never capture what is taking place at the tissue site sustaining damage due to various sources, e.g. oxidative stress (the famed “oxidants” addressed by anti-oxidants like red wine, blueberries and chocolate. This is exactly why so few cancers can be detected via blood samples, necessitating invasive procedures, costly biopsies, tissues being excised under anesthesia, etc, so that they can be analyzed by pathologists. This is truly antiquated medicine. We are a long way off from knowing when we have cancer, instead we have to depend on savage butchering procedures. We need better diagnostics. Invent those and then you will be causing a much needed revolution in medicine for good. We are no where near this, unfortunately.

          “Biological markers of oxidative stress: Applications to cardiovascular research and practice”
          A popular approach is the measurement of stable by-products modified under conditions of oxidative stress that have entered the circulation. However, these may not accurately reflect redox stress at the cell/tissue level.
          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3830063/

          1. We need better diagnostics. Invent those and then you will be causing a much needed revolution in medicine for good. We are no where near this, unfortunately.

            And miles to go before I (we) sleep (Robert Frost):

            Endothelial Dysfunction, Inflammation and Coronary Artery Disease: Potential Biomarkers and Promising Therapeutical Approaches
            https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/22/8/3850

          2. The points I was making were: I always questioned the entire premise behind Theranos because it has been known for decades that small blood samples have a higher error rate than full lab tests due just to the low quantity used for testing, plus the fact that errors in drawing and processing the samples can lead to false results (which is true no matter what type of test is done, including full lab tests). For finger or heel sticks, you shouldn’t squeeze the tissue: you should only use free-flowing blood. If you sqeeze, you would get all kinds of other tissue liquid matter besides blood, and therefore an inaccurate results. As an example of errors in collection: everyone knows (don’t they?) that you don’t use an alcohol swab on the skin when you draw blood for a blood alcohol test, because it can cause a false result. That could be a defense to a DUI charge. For a time, we were getting a large number of false positive results with pregnancy tests–turns out the wipes included in the kits were causing the problem: if you squeezed the liquid onto testing media, you’d get a positive test. That’s one reason they no longer use any kind of wipes with collecting urine for pregnancy tests. The reason they did at the time, as I recall, is that by products of certain kinds of bacterial contamination could also skew the results. The bottom line is people at home could make alll kinds of mistakes while collecting samples that would invalidate the results even if the Theranos process worked, which it didn’t. It was always a pig in a poke, and if she colluded with lab people to falsify results, then that is out and out fraud, and she should do a serious stretch in the graybar hotel.

          3. Well, the reason for checking infants and children for anemia in well baby clinics is that anemia can negatively affect their intellectual growth and development. Some theorize that poor children in the past didn’t do well in school because they were chronically anemic, due to poor diet, too much fast food, parental ignorance of proper diet, parental drug abuse or unavailability due to working multiple jobs, and not taking supplemental vitamins. Most brain growth occurs in the first five years of life, during which time good nutrition is crucial. Now, we have school breakfast and lunch programs that help with their nutrition, and for some, the only decent food they will receive all day.

    3. “How do you catch this kind of crook . . .”

      Two words: Due diligence. That diligence means all the way back to the facts on the ground. Too many people get roped into these scams because they rely mindlessly on the opinion of eminent person X, who relied on the opinion of eminent person Y, who relied on . . .

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