Valley Voice The unbearable limits of journalism

Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes was the rising star of Silicon Valley. Her deep fall also sheds light on the media industry and its uncritical reporting.
Every Tuesday, Handelsblatt technology reporter Britta Weddeling writes about the trends and oddities of Silicon Valley from a German perspective.
The Voice of the Valley

Every Tuesday, Handelsblatt technology reporter Britta Weddeling writes about the trends and oddities of Silicon Valley from a German perspective.

“Fail fast, fail better” – embracing errors, mistakes and defeats has become Silicon Valley’s mantra. At the same time, however, none of the venturesome investors really wants an entrepreneur to fail. Because, obviously, winning is so much better.

This slightly contradictory attitude explains why the tech community is still in shock by the downfall of Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes and her blood-testing startup came under fire when an article in the “Wall Street Journal” raised reasonable doubts about the quality of her product. Additionally, a governmental agency suspects some procedures in the lab to be insecure.

Now the troubled company of the 32-years-old Holmes put out a job offer. It is looking for a writer who “conceptually solves problems through the power of excellent storytelling.” The job description provoked mocking soon enough: Especially journalists expressed their assumption that Theranos wants to gloss over its mess. That might be true.

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However, the same community that now declares moral superiority supported and spread Theranos story for a long time. Elizabeth Holmes was on the cover of both “Forbes” and “Fortune”; “Time” put her on the list of its “100 Most Influential People” of 2015. Venture capitalist Tim Draper and Oracle founder Larry Ellison invested millions of dollars in Theranos that claimed it could lower the costs of diagnosing medical conditions dramatically with using only a single drop of blood.

Holmes said however that her testing method was confidential. Nobody seemed to be able to check if it was working at all. But instead of acknowledging doubts, some media outlets idolized Holmes (“the next Steve Jobs” wrote “Inc.”) and her work (“mind-blowing”, according to “Wired”).

That touches a topic journalists do not like to talk about. How can journalists double-check the complex products of the companies, whether in biotech, robotics or artificial intelligence? Can they at all? The debate about Elizabeth Holmes shows the unbearable limits of journalism. Journalists are no biochemists, not full-time engineers. That is a disadvantage. Their business is doubt, skepticism, opposition. Let’s make it an advantage.

Es gibt auch eine deutsche Version dieser Kolumne.

Britta Weddeling is a technology journalist with Handelsblatt, Germany's #1 business daily, based in San Francisco. She is author of a weekly English tech column called "Valley Voice" and contributes every week to a podcast at a major German radio station (Deutschlandradio,"Was mit Medien").


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