IF YOU ARE A GLUTTON FOR DISASTER YOU CAN ALSO IMMERSE YOURSELF in a four-hour audio treatment of the Theranos saga. The Dropout from ABC News and Nightline reintroduces all the same folks we met in the Carreyrou book and the Gibney film, and they repeat the same basic story. But host and co-producer Rebecca Jarvis, the chief business and technology correspondent at ABC News, has extra time to share source material not found elsewhere, such as tape from court depositions. The podcast format allows her to break the story into six digestible segments, each ending with the requisite cliffhanger.
One perceptive moment in the podcast comes in the fourth episode, when Jarvis speaks with John Ioannidis, a Greek-American professor of medicine at Stanford University. After commenting wryly that the name Theranos sounds like a combination of the Greek words tyrranos (“tyrant”) and thanatos (“death”), Ioannidis points out that any technology as ostensibly disruptive as the Theranos finger-stick test ought to have been vetted in thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers. Instead he “practically found nothing” after a 2015 literature search, which prompted him to write a JAMA opinion piece critical of Theranos-style stealth research. “How can the validity of the claims made be assessed, if the evidence is not within reach of other scientists to evaluate and scrutinize?” Ioannidis asked.
It’s a seemingly unassailable point, and it was the first time anyone had dared question Theranos in public. But the disturbing fact is that many early-stage life sciences and biotechnology startups sidestep the scrutiny and disclosure that comes with peer review, lest they divulge their intellectual property and risk being outflanked by competitors. Holmes didn’t invent this culture of secrecy; she exploited it.
For the most part, the Gibney film and the ABC podcast foreground the deception and the deceivers and leave these important process questions in the back seat. At bottom, what’s happening is that Americans aren’t committing enough true crimes to satisfy the market demand for true-crime documentaries, true-crime cable series, and true-crime podcasts. Theranos is fundamentally a business story about Silicon Valley ethics and investing practices gone awry—about venture capitalists and board members who let themselves be duped by a protégé and who failed to ask the most basic questions about the company they were duty-bound to govern. But because the story features a young female founder, and because it’s also got all that scary, scarlet blood, it’s been sucked into a transmedia content-generating machine that, like Theranos’s own devices, dilutes its meaning more and more at each stage.