8 min read

Warm Take: a story behind a story

"...like, part of the theatre of that story, or any story, is that it's in The New York Times..." Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Lots of tubes, screens and cords, as in a lab, greys black and whites with red and yellow accents
Spokane Wastewater Tertiary Membrane Filter System Pilot Skid by Eric Shea, CC BY 2.0
This issue originally went out by email exclusively to On Management Supporters. I unpaywalled the post on June 19, 2023.

When “not serious” people have serious money, their decisions have weighty consequences. Money is gravity. Or at least, that’s a takeaway from my last evening of appointment TV with Succession.

So, about those investors who a funded biotech started by a 20-something with one year of college, and no apparent track record as a high school science prodigy. Were they serious people?

Yeah, I’m still thinking about Elizabeth Holmes, heading for prison tomorrow.  

And about The New York Times story I shared last time, Amy Chozick’s celebrity business profile of Holmes. What’s the purpose of business profiles? Who are they for? What is The New York Times for, anyways?

Like a gift from the universe, this week I received a response to my weird Anne Libby musings. Amy Chozick talked to Max Linsky at the Longform podcast about her NYT Holmes profile. I’m not going to lie, I listened several times. I figured out how to pull a bootleg transcript; I read it. Then I read it again, with a highlighter. (Quiet few days before the holiday, lol.)

Formerly a New York Times staff writer, Chozick left journalism a few years ago to become a Hollywood showrunner. She describes her path into reporting this story for her old editors at the Times, kind of a side job, as well as the controversy about the profile.

The Longform interview answered one of my questions: what was the article’s purpose?

For Holmes, according to Chozick, Holmes felt that nobody knew her, or what she felt and thought about Theranos, and the last 20 years of her life. (Outside of court, I guess.)  

After 7 years of media silence, for the NYT, a Holmes interview was newsworthy.

And for Chozick, who no longer works as a journalist, it was the opportunity to do a “juicy” story, adding color and context on her own terms, working with editors she loves. And to offer her perspective for the reader.

“I want to explain to people what it feels like to be around someone who you know, you shouldn't believe, but you can't help believing them because this is what their personality is like when you're with them.”

Amy Chozick, Longform Podcast #535

I had felt that the Times story had (maybe?) positioned Holmes as a sort of Tom Ripley-like character. The podcast added perspective. Maybe Holmes was more like someone I’ve seen before — a favorite yoga teacher, or a Soul Cycle instructor — only made weightier, lent gravity by hundreds of millions of other people’s dollars.

Also, platformed by the media.

Indeed, Chozick notes the difficulty of reporting a story whose subject committed fraud, partly “perpetrated by swooning articles in magazines.”

Linsky and Chozick's discussion also addressed the limitations of any one story. For one, Chozick comments that the Times has covered incarceration elsewhere; it wasn't for her to address motherhood and incarceration.

So, the story also wasn't to talk about what happens when women play in the big leagues, and take a fall that the boys don’t take when they fail, screw up, or break the law. It got me thinking about Martha Stewart’s trip to jail in the early 00s. Notably, Holmes and Stewart both fought in court — neither showed contrition by pleading guilty, in hopes of a lesser sentence. Stewart went to jail for less than a year; Holmes has been sentenced to 11 years. (Which is more than some who participated in the violence on January 6, but I digress.)

The profile also wasn't meant to be be a critique about the machine that made Holmes into a media sensation, platformed by those “swooning articles.”  

Last time, I mentioned Taffy Brodesser-Akner's, um, bananas profile of another controversial female founder, Gwyneth Paltrow. Here's Taffy, on writing her Paltrow profile for the Times.

“…the thing I do is an ironic or absurd play against the thing it’s in. Right, like, to write an emo Gwyneth Paltrow story in The New York Times font is not the same as just writing a Gwyneth -- like, part of the theatre of that story, or of any story, is that it’s in The New York Times. And The New York Times is a place where you can expect serious, in-depth journalism, and not someone who is crying all the time, or has to go to the bathroom, or who is afraid of someone…”

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Longform Podcast #511

Indeed, what is The New York Times for? Well, Adam Neumann expressed his regrets, on stage with Andrew Ross Sorkin at the 2021 NYT DealBook conference. Ahem.

I spend what feels like an abnormal amount of time playing the NYT Spelling Bee, partly because it's become an idiosyncratic family interaction with my sisters and mom. I’m about to replace an old dutch oven with an enameled cast iron Lodge; they’ve tested it at Wirecutter, and I don’t trust certain family members to not screw up the enamel on the more expensive and, according to the NYT, not-appreciably better Le Creuset.

Is The New York Times for product recommendations and online gaming? I guess so! I was thinking about this when listening to WNYC's Brooke Gladstone interview Ben Smith about the bitter lessons learned at BuzzFeed News, link below.

Also of interest, Chozick and her editors at The Times seem to think that billionaires and their families are…really smart? That statemanship could make someone good at…investing in medical devices? Yes, there’s weight, there’s gravity, in money, and in power. But gravity is not intelligence, weight is not competence.

Media portrayals and storytelling about non-fictional characthers have a weight too. It trickles into our lives, and our leadership. Elizabeth/Liz Holmes claims to have gotten lost while playing “…a character I created,” based on inventors and geniuses and Silicon Valley legends.

I’m not sure whose job it is to interrogate how the media interacts with individual people, money, and power. We could use some analysis on the truly bizarre practice of investing huge sums to stand up organizations helmed by inexperienced, not-yet-competent leaders.

As for Chozick's story, the Longform podcast discussion illuminates, even without addressing all of the story’s limitations. After listening, it was enough for me to let the profile be what it was: a "cinematic" character study of a pop-culture icon.

I do not care about the losses incurred by people who who invested millions in Theranos. I do care about the young people who bet their early careers on this rotten venture.

Some of the largely-millennial workforce joining startups in the early/mid 10s believed they were changing the world – a trope created and magnified by the same forces that platformed Holmes, Neumann, and their peers. I also care about people whose working experience didn't, or won't, live up to their founders' storytelling prowess.

As a new generation enters our workplaces, I think about the Gen-Zers in my life, who seem less inclined to buy into stories about sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. This next generation of young people needs managers to lean on more truth, and less narrative.

Millennials now have hard-won experience with the downside of this narrative. My hope is that it positions them to lead, and lead well, as we feel our way into the future we're co-creating.

Thanks so much for reading this Warm Take, so-much-longer than I thought it would be, and I didn't even get everything in there lol. I've been noodling about this all for a while, and more so since I heard the Longform episode. Today's newsletter is going out by email only to supporting members, though I'll probably pull it from behind the paywall fairly soon.

It's likely that I'll fix typos and tighten up some phrasing later on, on the Internet*. Thank you for supporting my newsletter, so much.

For those of you whose families have lost loved ones in all of our wars, my heart is with you.

May you, your loved ones, co-workers, and neighbors be safe, healthy and free,

Anne Libby

*indeed, I substantially edited and updated this post after sending it out.

Showing my work

Everything? much? of what I've written about (media about) Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes:

And more:

Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes - black turtleneck, messy upsweep, unblinking eyes, red lipstick, green juice
Pretty sure The Dropout is the only major Elizabeth Holmes content I did not consume.