Review: ‘Bad Blood’ by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” it’s this: Don’t mess with companies that employ high-priced law firms.

Because as shocking as I found the story of Theranos, the Silicon Valley startup that intended (or so it claimed) to upend the healthcare industry with portable, high-tech blood test machines, what I found just as sobering was what happened when people tried to leave, or author John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who won a fistful of awards for his investigation, tried to dig into Theranos’ story. The company employed Boies, Schiller & Flexner, the law firm of superstar attorney David Boies, to challenge them at every turn.

Now, maybe that’s what your legal counsel is supposed to do, especially when you have allegedly revolutionary technology and your startup is fighting against the vipers of Silicon Valley. But the non-disclosure agreements handed out like Times Square flyers; the intimidating meetings where Boies, Schiller representatives threatened to litigate until people cried uncle; the apparent spying they did on certain Theranos ex-employees and possibly Carreyrou … it struck me that, if this is how business is done, maybe it would have been better for the IT and blood science experts at Theranos to go into, say, public health.

After the initial glow of their entry at Theranos wore off, they probably thought so, too.

By now, pretty much anyone who’s read the business press (or, of late, People magazine) knows that Theranos was the brainchild of Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford at 19 to pursue her dream of a technology company that would make old-fashioned blood draws obsolete – and, by doing so, improve the health of millions. No need to go to a doctor’s office! You could stick your finger with a tiny needle in a drugstore, supermarket, or even at home. Results would be almost instantaneous. You could be alerted to health risks early, and the world would be changed!

Holmes managed to bring along some pretty big names in her pursuit to become the next Steve Jobs (an image she encouraged by wearing black turtlenecks). Her board included former secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, military veteran and soon-to-be secretary of Defense James Mattis, and eventually Boies himself. She was photographed by Martin Schoeller; filmmaker Errol Morris shot promotional videos. Rupert Murdoch invested millions. She made the cover of Fortune magazine.

And why not? Besides the promise of groundbreaking technology, Holmes was media catnip: young, pretty, female, charismatic. She spoke in a surprisingly deep voice (it turned out to be part of the act) and claimed to spend all her time working.

It was, largely, a sham.

Holmes actually had a boyfriend, a bullying executive named Sunny Balwani, who was also her number two. Together, they ran Theranos like their own private kingdom. The miniaturized technology looked amazing but, for the most part, didn’t work – certainly not well enough to change healthcare. Employees came starry-eyed and left defeated within a few years – or a few months. One of them committed suicide. Holmes lied about Theranos tests, claiming success where little or none existed; Balwani was known for his vicious temper. Both were secretive to the point of paranoia.

And yet, for too many years, people – smart people – bought it. Nobody wanted to be left out. Millions were to be made and their only competition was other super-wealthy people.

Carreyrou tells this story in workmanlike fashion. He obviously had terrific sources, and the accumulation of detail is like the turning of a vise. One of his best contacts is Tyler Shultz, a Theranos employee and George’s grandson, who smells something fishy and eventually risks his career to tell Carreyrou. Not even his grandfather, who treated Holmes like a daughter, believed him.

But the book only develops true momentum when Carreyrou himself enters the picture. Before that it’s just a series of chapters about disillusioned employees and failed equipment. With Carreyrou, suddenly it becomes a cat-and-mouse story, with Holmes asking Murdoch to quash the story at the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal and Carreyrou and his editor facing Boies, Schiller attorneys from opposite ends of a conference table. One of them sent regular emails threatening to sue; they all reminded me of a certain president and his henchmen.

One incident, in which Carreyrou met with Tyler Shultz on the Stanford campus, was particularly troubling. Nobody knew they were going to talk – not even Shultz, since the meeting was impromptu – and yet Theranos’ lawyers contacted Shultz’s soon after and said they knew about the meeting. Carreyrou surmises they were followed. Nice work, attorneys. Hope you can live with yourselves.

In the end, Carreyrou’s investigation helped bring about Theranos’ demise. The lawsuits are now aimed at Holmes and Balwani. The company is currently the subject of an HBO documentary and an ABC Radio podcast (neither of which I’ve sampled), and Adam McKay is making a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. All that is satisfying in a “bad guys lose” kind of way.

And yet I was mildly disappointed by “Bad Blood,” because its main characters – Holmes and Balwani – are ciphers. I hate to encourage cocktail psychology, but Carreyrou never tries to figure out what drove Holmes to mount such a huge fraud. Was she blinded by her do-gooderism? Kept under a spell cast by Balwani? Somehow damaged by being raised by a merely upper-middle class family while mixing with the truly wealthy? Simply a sociopath? She’s little more than a strange, smart pretty face, and Balwani is a well-off bully with a somewhat shady past. Neither, of course, gave Carreyrou interviews, and he’s not the kind of guy to speculate. For the most part, I appreciate that, but it still leaves the question: What made these people tick?

Maybe I’ll just have to watch the movie.

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In praise (?) of journalism

“Network’s” Howard Beale, still telling the truth. Image from Warner Bros., via online.

I wrote this yesterday, in response to a Quora post that laid out reasons why the “mainstream media” was rapidly losing its audience. I can’t find the link — so much for searching my Google history — but essentially the poster provided four examples of stories the news media got wrong: BuzzFeed’s story about Trump telling Michael Cohen to lie; the MAGA kids; Jussie Smollett; and Mueller. This was a couple hours before the Barr Letter was released, which prompted a number of pundits to put on hairshirts and Trump backers to crow in triumph. (My ultimate opinion of Mueller, dealt with in No. 4 below, hasn’t changed, though I do think the pundits deserve their hairshirts — frankly, I wish some of them would spend the night on a Catherine wheel. Still, I’d like to see the report, not four pages of carefully phrased summary.)

As you can see, I have little love for the state of much mass media, particularly the cable news networks and the shrillest of the opinion sites (which includes most of them). But though I call myself a “recovering journalist,” I still know many who bust their asses to get things right, even if their boss is the guy who helped polish Donald Trump’s hair. I hope they’re allowed to do their jobs properly, without fear or favor … of ratings and traffic.

My response has been slightly edited … because that’s what you do to, one hopes, make it better.

I hesitate to respond to this answer, because I’m of two minds: as one of many people who call themselves “recovering journalists,” I understand your distrust and cynicism of the so-called “mainstream media.” But as someone who worked among many, many excellent reporters for more than 20 years – both as a free-lancer and then at CNN – I feel I have to defend the profession, even at the risk of “Oh, you’re one of THEM.”

Before taking your examples point by point, one overarching note: the “mainstream media” is a fiction. What has become conflated with that term is what I think of as the “noisy media” – essentially, cable news, the louder and more strident portions of the Internet (Twitter most notably), and the Sunday shows (and, to some extent, celebrity-industrial complex programs like “Good Morning America”) that would rather stoke outrage or coast on celebrity than do the hard work of actually REPORTING on a story. We’ve gotten lost in a morass of opinion – Twitter is little BUT people yelling their thoughts – and I think that, overall, that’s what’s harmed the perception of the news media. (My old employer fills 24 hours a day of television “news” with, probably, 95 percent opinion – including from anchors, which pains me no end. And then it features some of the rants as “stories” online!)

The movie “Network” had it right back in 1976 speaking about television: “Television is not the truth. Television’s a goddamned amusement park. Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business.”

Feel free to extend that to many corners of the Internet.

Now, in response to your examples:

  1. BuzzFeed remains the only outlet that’s reported “Donald Trump essentially told Michael Cohen to lie under oath,” and your use of the word “peddled” falls under the same editorializing issue that affects so much of the news. Did other outlets report BuzzFeed’s story? Yes. Did they do so with skepticism? Many did. Yes, they should have been louder with their caveats, but the best ones said up front they couldn’t confirm BuzzFeed’s story. For their part, BuzzFeed’s reporters are standing by their language, so if they have to eat crow, I hope they do so loudly and publicly. (Jason Leopold is no relation to me.)
  2. The Post and other outlets quickly revised their stories, because that’s what honest news outlets do. You may view such detail as “misleading,” but that’s the nature of news, especially these days — you revise based on the latest information, even if you were wrong at the outset. Do I wish we could go back to the time when news outlets didn’t feel the need to rush to post (and rush to judgment)? You bet. But we live in an instant world, one that looks for instant rushes of emotion. (See my initial paragraphs.) How do you want news outlets to apologize? The Post, for its part, has now posted a large correction as well. Of course, nobody sees corrections anymore because we’ve all moved on to the next outrage.
  3. The Smollett incident is a classic case of the news media – especially celebrity-saturated TV media – rushing to stoke the outrage. But you know who did the most thorough reporting of the whole case? That member of the “mainstream media,” the Chicago Tribune (and other Chicago outlets), whose reporters did smell something funny from the outset. Why? Because they have beat sources within City Hall and the police department. So let’s not lump all outlets together.
  4. The Mueller report has been filed with no new indictments. We’ll find out what’s in it soon enough (we hope). From what I’ve seen, the NEWS REPORTS about the Mueller report have said exactly that. It’s the endless opinion columns and cable-news bloviators who have speculated, speculated, speculated.

Listen, there are many reasons to be cynical about media. Too much is about access, and when you’re doing entertainment or politics, access is extremely valuable. If you upset a big name, they’ll go to your rival.

Moreover, the business of news is business – unless you’re ProPublica, the idea is to make money, and that means attracting audiences, and that means pitching things in black and white. (Fox News is just as much a part of the “mainstream media” as the other sources – just because they’re ideologically aligned with the Trump White House doesn’t mean they’re not trying to make a buck. Rupert Murdoch has been a master of that since the 1960s, aligning himself with whomever will help him to the biggest profits.)

But most news reporters – whether reporting on your local school board or dealing with the chaos in Washington – are just trying to tell the story as straightforwardly and honestly as they can. We’re in a time when everything is both political and heightened. So do yourself the favor that “Network’s” Howard Beale suggested with television: Shut it off. When it comes to the Internet, read widely. And let the loudest and most celebrity-driven social media return to the sewer from whence it came.

Postscript: Ricky Gervais had a great line about engaging with Twitter in his New York Times Magazine Q&A: “It’s like going into a toilet stall and arguing with graffiti.”

Reviews: Biographies of Peter Arno and the Wright Brothers

Writers write, or so I’ve heard. I consider myself a writer, and yet I haven’t written much in the last two months, unless you count my social media posts. (And does anybody count social media posts?) So I’m going to rectify this by catching up on book reviews. Here are two for starters.

‘Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist’ by Michael Maslin

Image result for peter arno biography

You’d probably recognize a Peter Arno cartoon even if you don’t know the name. Characterized by bold, almost casual lines, peopled by pulchritudinous young women, monied older men, and commuter types, and featuring the occasional absurdist situation (in one caption-less cartoon, a man is drowning in a water-filled shower stall, pointing at the door handle, as his shocked wife gasps) they seemed as elegant and yet easily tossed-off as a Cole Porter lyric. In that, they were much like Arno himself, a bon vivant of the first order who was part of — and chronicled — the smart set of the first half of the 20th century.

Too bad so little of Arno’s personality comes across in Michael Maslin’s biography, labeled as the “first-ever portrait of America’s seminal cartoonist.”

It’s not that Maslin skims through Arno’s life; if anything, he offers painstaking detail when it comes to his arguments with New Yorker editors — Arno, the star cartoonist almost from the magazine’s origins, always wanted more money — and reviews of his work. But it’s a lot of tell, not show. Arno was obviously a complex man, with tumultuous marriages and colorful adventures, and yet there’s little sense of what drove him. Sure, it can be dangerous to play cocktail-psychology games, but it’s equally wearying to wade through endless block-quoted passages of profiles and correspondence.

For that matter, there’s little sense of Arno’s milieu, the nightclubs and bright lights of Broadway. There’s a photograph of Arno with a girlfriend on the back cover, both in evening clothes down to the girlfriend’s pearl choker. Arno is staring into the distance, a cigarette between two fingers. The photographer? Twenty-one-year-old Stanley Kubrick, on assignment for Look. Whether it’s a testament to Kubrick or simply the power of photography, the picture says more than 10,000 of Maslin’s words.

There are some worthwhile nuggets: Arno was apparently the man who invented the phrase “back to the old drawing board,” and there are rich details about the New Yorker’s early staff. But even that lily is gilded, as Maslin sees fit to pad out the book with a 30-page afterword featuring sometimes empty quotes from his cartoonist contemporaries and descendants. There may be a biography to be written about Peter Arno, but for now, stick with the collections.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

‘The Wright Brothers’ by David McCullough

Image result for wright brothers mccullough

You know what you’re going to get when you pick up a David McCullough biography: sturdy prose, thorough research, and generally an uplifting story. McCullough doesn’t do cads and mountebanks; his subjects are presidents (J. Adams, T. Roosevelt, Truman) and great projects (the Panama Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge), and even when he deals with tragedy — as he did in his first book, 1968’s “The Johnstown Flood” — he finds the heroes amid the destruction.

Even when his subjects are less than heroic (Adams, in particular, could be petty and vindictive), they’re usually paragons of probity, testament to humanity’s better angels.

So it is with the Wright Brothers, the subjects of McCullough’s 2015 biography.

Wilbur and Orville, the inventors of the airplane, are honest, hard-working, and, well, inventive. Though history has painted them as small-town bicycle mechanics who somehow took off one December day in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, McCullough shows that these were two smart and painstaking businessmen. Indeed, their Dayton bicycle firm was already hugely successful, with enough business to set them for life. Instead, fascinated by flight and the ongoing efforts to create a motorized craft, they tinkered and researched, trying and failing numerous times before finally succeeding with the Flyer in Kitty Hawk.

More interestingly, McCullough continues the story, to the brothers’ test flights outside of Dayton, their negotiations with various governments — the airplane was even then seen as a military innovation — and their welcome in France, where they dazzled crowds by flying for hours at a time. In retrospect, it’s amazing how quickly their crude invention (why, the first planes didn’t even have seats!) became an essential form of transportation.

Unfortunately for McCullough, the Wrights are rather colorless. Their correspondence rarely contains humor, and as characters they’re frankly less interesting than their invention or some of the settings. (Getting to North Carolina’s Outer Banks at the turn of the 20th century wasn’t for the faint of heart, and let’s just say that there were no beach houses when you did. The Wrights braved torrential rains, ungodly heat and bitter cold to make sure their plane could fly in a place with necessary winds.) They never married, and McCullough spends little time on business affairs. Perhaps only the brothers’ sister, Katharine — described as “fiery” and “high-spirited” — offers a brace of emotion, though McCullough is careful in his handling of her. I got the feeling she was quite the spitfire, and it’s a shame she didn’t grow up a half-century later, when she probably would have taken a public-facing executive role while her brothers handled the engineering.

McCullough essentially ends his book with the brothers’ flight over Manhattan in 1909. There was much more afterwards. The brothers did form an aerospace company after the New York flight — it became Curtiss-Wright after a couple mergers and remains in business today — but they cared more about their planes than patent fights, and McCullough devotes just a few pages to their final decades. (Elder brother Wilbur died in 1912; Orville lived until 1948.) Still, McCullough’s choice is the right one. It must have been a startling sight — a flying machine high over the Statue of Liberty, up there with the birds and skyscrapers, before the world was full of such things.

“The Wright Brothers” is minor McCullough, but even minor McCullough is worth the trip. Besides, it’s always a pleasure to hear that resonant voice in your head.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Hal Blaine, 1929-2019

Hal Blaine in his native habitat.

Hal Blaine had a stamp, like the kind of embosser you used to show a bill has been paid or a letter has been received. Hal’s read “Hal Blaine Strikes Again,” and he liked to use it on sheet music.

It was a pun, you see. Hal Blaine, one of the busiest, most talented, most influential drummers in rock ‘n’ roll history, struck again and again and again, whether it was solid four-beats or delicate brushwork or the thunder underpinning the Wall of Sound – on “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Strangers in the Night” and “Good Vibrations” and “I’m a Believer” and “Aquarius” and “Superstar” and even backing up John Denver on tour.

Huey Lewis sings about the heart of rock ‘n’ roll. Hal Blaine was its living, pumping pulse.

Hal Blaine died Monday. He was 90. I always knew it would happen – death comes for us all – but somehow I hoped that Hal’s heart would beat to 100 and beyond.

I met Hal on an October day in 2011. It was unplanned; I had traveled to Los Angeles to interview Brian Wilson at the Capitol Records tower in conjunction with the forthcoming “Smile” boxed set release and a series I had planned to write on creativity. Wilson was challenging and intriguing and, once we got going, took all of maybe 15 minutes. So with an afternoon to kill before flying back to Atlanta, I asked the publicist if someone else would be available. Perhaps Hal Blaine.

She made a call and said he’d be interested, and the next thing I knew my videographer and I were driving out to Hal’s house in Palm Desert.

I don’t know how I imagined a pop legend’s house would look, but Hal Blaine’s house was a relatively modest dwelling in a subdivision carved out of the desert. The living room was dominated by a model train set; the walls were lined with memorabilia, including LP covers and a 1970s article featuring a photo of Hal in front of his Rolls-Royce. (The car went in a divorce, he said.) Hal was shorter than I imagined – this was the guy whose arms pounded the verse finales on “Da Doo Ron Ron”? — but his personality was every bit as muscular as I’d hoped.

He took us to his pool out back – nothing elaborate, just a standard-sized suburban pool with a few chairs here and there – and, over glasses of water, we talked. Or, I should say, he talked. I listened, rapt.

Some of it, I’m sure, recapitulated stories he’d told in his memoir, “The Wrecking Crew.” Other stories were reveries of times past, people lost. Years earlier I had gotten an out-of-the-blue email from Larry Levine, Spector’s engineer, in response to a piece about Spector’s shooting of Lana Clarkson. Blaine was visibly sad as he spoke of Levine’s decline and passing in 2008.

Blaine talked about the Beach Boys’ Wilson brothers and their overbearing father, Murry. He complained about bassist Carole Kaye, who he believed had taken credit for work done by Blaine’s preferred rhythm section partner, Joe Osborn. (Blaine himself was accused of the occasional embellishment, including the “Wrecking Crew” name, which he popularized in his memoir; Kaye said the musicians – including Osborn, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Steve Douglas, fellow drummer Earl Palmer, and Larry Knechtel — were called the Clique.) He told rollicking tales of his service in Korea. When I asked him what he liked to listen to, he said SiriusXM’s ‘60s on 6 channel – “because half the songs are me,” he joked.

Or half-joked. Hal Blaine knew how good he was.

My videographer and I ended up staying for two hours.

I don’t know where my interview recordings are, or what happened to my notes. I’d always planned to write a story about Blaine himself, rather than simply use a couple sentences in my story on Wilson. But I never got the opportunity, and so what I have to hold on to are the following: a couple photographs, a set of drumsticks, and an 8 ½-by-11 piece of paper stamped with “Hal Blaine Strikes Again.”

That, and the music.

Rest in power, Hal Blaine.