Theranos CEO Calls WSJ a Tabloid at WSJ’s Own Conference
“Drama” is not usually a word uttered in the same breath as “tech conference.” But at this year’s WSJDLive, The Wall Street Journal’s second annual digital confab, the question on everyone’s lips was, would Elizabeth Holmes show?
The 31-year-old CEO of Theranos was scheduled as a guest speaker long before the same newspaper hosting the event published a brutal exposé of the secretive blood-testing startup. The Journal alleged in deep detail that Theranos’ diagnostics technology wasn’t performing as promised.
Holmes has given interviews since the story appeared last week to push back against its claims, but that’s not the same thing as showing up in the heart of enemy territory. But she did. Needless to say, things were a little awkward.
“I read what was written in the article,” Holmes said. “We disagree with it. We think it was false. And we think it was misleading.”
In that instance, Holmes was specifically referring to a Journal report that Food and Drug Administration inspectors recently showed up unannounced at Theranos over concerns about data it had submitted to the agency. But the quote could stand for Holmes’ assessment of the Journal‘s reporting in general.
She said the Journal‘s claim Theranos was using its proprietary Edison technology to run just fifteen of more than 200 tests it offers was irrelevant, because “Edison” was a company codename for old tech it doesn’t use anymore. She said the Journal failed to provide the proper context for the way it tests the proficiency of its “finger-stick” blood tests. And she said the Journal misrepresented the issues around the fact that it uses blood drawn from finger pricks—the method at the heart of Theranos’ promise to put an end to the painful practice of drawing vials of blood from patients’ veins—for just one of its tests.
In its piece, the Journal said Theranos had dialed back its finger-prick testing under pressure from regulators. Holmes said the company was merely taking a hiatus as it made a voluntary switch to a more rigorous approval process.
“If you have cars driving on a road and I’m going to take everybody from driving on the right side of the road to the left side of the road, the only way to do that is to pause,” she said.
‘What we know are the facts’
In addition to defending her company, which is valued at $9 billion on more than $400 million in funding, Holmes went on the offensive against the Journal’s sources. Of four former employees cited by the Journal anonymously, Holmes claimed one had worked at the company for two months in 2005. “The others are very clearly confused.”
She also assailed the Journal for quoting the widow of a Theranos researcher whom the newspaper said committed suicide in 2013 after reportedly telling his wife that the company’s technology wasn’t working.
“I’ve never seen The Wall Street Journal as a tabloid magazine, and to quote a widow is to just really going into an inappropriate area,” Holmes said.
For the length of her onstage appearance, which lasted more than 30 minutes, Holmes was unwavering in her defense of her company and her criticism of the Journal. But I at least came away feeling like she still didn’t address the more fundamental concern, which isn’t just the company’s science, but how Theranos has played into the Silicon Valley myth-making machine to give the impression that its technology is more advanced than it is. Science moves slowly. Silicon Valley moves fast and breaks things. Theranos has tried to have it both ways, which makes it not entirely surprising that the company now finds itself on the defensive.
“What we know are the facts of what we’ve done and we know the integrity of what we’ve done,” Holmes said. Now Theranos just has to convince everyone else.
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