The Media Today

A tale of two celebrity trials

September 1, 2021

Yesterday, in-person jury selection began in the trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the Silicon Valley blood-testing startup Theranos. She faces fraud charges over claims she made aggrandizing the company’s technology. Prospective jurors were asked extensive written questions about their media diet, including their knowledge of a specific longform book, documentary, and podcast series about Holmes; of two hundred or so possible jurors, around half had followed some media about the case, and, per Holmes’s lawyer, thirty or so were familiar with one of the longer works. The lawyer argued that the judge in the case shouldn’t even screen the latter group for bias, lest his questions contaminate the jury pool as a whole; though the judge seemed to balk at that suggestion, he took care to steer clear of substantive details in his questions about media consumption yesterday, instead asking when possible jurors last heard about Holmes. One candidate was dismissed because he works at a radio station. Another said he’d been pinged by a news alert about the start of jury selection and thought, “yeah, yeah, I know.”

Holmes has long been hard for news consumers to avoid—various reports about the trial referred to her as a one-time media darling. In the heyday of Theranos, Holmes aggressively styled herself as a dazzling Silicon Valley success story with a Steve Jobs aesthetic and a juicing regimen, and many reporters lapped it up without scrutinizing the many mysteries of the technology she was hawking. Holmes astutely played the tech-media access game and won glowing profiles in major outlets at key moments for her company; as Benjamin Wallace wrote recently for New York, journalists “in some sense created Theranos, splashing Holmes and her Jobsian black turtleneck on the covers of magazines like Forbes, Fortune, and the Times’s T.” Roger Parloff, who wrote the Fortune cover story, later admitted that he had been duped by Holmes. Parloff may now be called to testify in Holmes’s trial, with prosecutors making the case that she intentionally courted over-the-top media coverage as part of a ploy to excite investors. “The articles made it a lot easier for these investors to be defrauded,” a prosecutor said in May. Holmes’s lies, and her failure to correct them, were “an important tool the defendant used to commit the fraud.”

ICYMI: CJR looks back at its coverage of race over six decades

If journalists in some sense created Theranos, in another sense they took it down. In recent years, the company has been the subject of some excellent investigative reporting, most notably by John Carreyrou, who published a damning series of articles about Theranos in the Wall Street Journal starting in 2015, and later wrote Bad Blood, the book about the company that appeared on possible jurors’ questionnaires. The credulous coverage of Holmes was one reason that Carreyrou decided to start investigating the company; he was particularly puzzled by a passage in a New Yorker profile which referred to her “comically vague” description of a Theranos machine. (“A chemistry is performed so that a chemical reaction occurs and generates a signal from the chemical interaction.”) As publication neared, Carreyrou had to face down a series of threats from Theranos—an army of lawyers marched into the Journal’s newsroom and threatened to sue; Holmes tried, without success, to have Rupert Murdoch, the Journal’s owner and a Theranos investor, kill the story. “Elizabeth and her henchmen pulled out all the stops to try to keep me from reporting what I’d discovered,” Carreyrou says in Bad Blood: The Final Chapter, a new podcast pegged to the trial. “They had my sources followed by private investigators… They threatened doctors who had spoken to me and tried to get them to recant.”

The media has been similarly central to another high-profile trial that is playing out: that of R. Kelly, the R&B singer who faces charges of racketeering and sex trafficking linked to his reported abuse of women, girls, and a boy. As with Holmes, the media burnished Kelly’s legend for years—as CJR’s Alexandria Neason wrote in 2019, the press assumed “a passive role, giving Kelly magazine covers, features, and positive music reviews”—and dogged investigative reporting, including articles by the music journalist Jim DeRogatis and dream hampton’s documentary Surviving R. Kelly, aided his fall from grace. There are important differences between the two cases, not least the fact that DeRogatis first reported allegations against Kelly way back in 2000. Still, media complicity and accountability are clearly both at issue in both.

As with the Holmes story, the media has also been a player in Kelly’s trial itself. There was a concern, during jury selection, that Kelly’s high media profile would make it hard to seat unbiased jurors. Press coverage has also been at the core of some of the allegations against him. Last week, a witness told the court that Kelly barred women living in his home from watching hampton’s documentary, forcing them to “immediately change the channel” should it come on; the same witness alleged that Kelly lurked in the shadows when Gayle King, of CBS News, interviewed her and another woman about Kelly’s alleged abuses in 2019, coughing to remind the women of his presence and keep them on message. King also interviewed Kelly, who cried and angrily jumped to his feet in response to questions.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Both trials, of course, are playing out under an intense spotlight; Kari Paul, who covered the start of the Holmes trial for The Guardian, referred to the scene at the courthouse yesterday as a “media circus.” In his new podcast, Carreyrou, who was also present yesterday, previewed Holmes’s likely legal strategy: present herself as a puppet of Sunny Balwani, an older Theranos executive who was once Holmes’s romantic partner, and, essentially, try to convince the jury—and, by logical extension, the press and public following the trial—that she’s still the Elizabeth Holmes that starred in so much glowing media coverage. “Elizabeth knows how to tell stories that strike an emotional chord,” Carreyrou said. (He and other observers have even speculated that Holmes recently had a baby as a piece of “theater.”) The image softening may not work, Carreyrou added, but “after years of reporting on her, I have to say: if anyone is brazen enough, sly enough to pull this off, it might just be Elizabeth Holmes.”

Below, more on two trials:

  • R. Kelly, I: As R. Kelly’s trial got underway in New York, news organizations learned that they and members of the public would not be allowed to observe directly in the courtroom. “Attorneys representing multiple media outlets requested to have at least a limited pool of reporters allowed into the courtroom,” CNN reported at the time, but the judge said no, citing “the need to spread out jurors in the gallery” and the inappropriateness of “seating jurors with members of the public, including reporters.”
  • R. Kelly, II: Also as the trial got underway, Slate’s Nitish Pahwa asked DeRogatis how it would feel to see Kelly take the stand after reporting on him for so long. DeRogatis said that he spoke ahead of the trial with hampton, and that they “both agreed that, despite all the work we have done in reporting this story, we are fully expecting to be shocked by some of the things that come out in court.” DeRogatis added that while he doesn’t think his feelings matter, he has “always been extraordinarily proud of the fact that in twenty years of reporting, there has not been a single clarification, correction, or [legal] threat.”
  • Elizabeth Holmes, I: The potential witness list for the Holmes trial includes numerous very high-profile people who either invested in Theranos or served on its board, including Murdoch, Henry Kissinger, and Trump’s former defense secretary James Mattis. In addition to Parloff, who wrote the Fortune story about Holmes, Carreyrou could also be called to testify; he told Bloomberg that, while he has yet to receive a subpoena, he’d be willing to do so—as long as it doesn’t interfere with his podcast. “I would be a very good witness for the prosecution and a terrible one for the defense,” he said.
  • Elizabeth Holmes (x) II: As Elizabeth Holmes went to trial, another Elizabeth Holmes, an author and reporter for the Journal, reshared an essay she wrote for Marie Claire, in 2018, on “the perils of having an infamous name twin.” “The web has made it much easier to find your name twin,” the latter Holmes wrote, “and name confusion online can be a problem IRL, resulting in misfired emails, inaccurate search results, and social media firestorms. The 24/7 news cycle fans the flames, speeding up the time from unknown entity to household name.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: What comes next for Afghan journalism and journalism on Afghanistan

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.