The annoying similarity between the Theranos and Fyre festival Documentaries

A little while back I watched two documentaries (released by Netflix and Hulu) about the Fyre festival bait-and-switch debacle. And just a few days ago I watched a documentary (released by HBO) about the implosion of Theranos. It was very glaring that they all share the same central flaw.

First, a word on quality. (Because, funnily enough, this has been much discussed online.) I’d say the Netflix-released Fyre documentary is clearly superior to the Hulu one. Not that the former is spectacular or anything. It’s just a decent, watchable documentary. Whereas the latter is frankly not even worth your time.

It commits one of the cardinal sins, which is an overreliance on pointless stock footage and flashy motion graphics. Best I can tell, this is done in pursuit of three aims. 1) To have filler content during narrator-heavy sections. 2) To pad out the runtime. 3) To lend the film some semblance of being ultra-modern and visually interesting. This trend in documentary filmmaking is fast becoming a pet peeve of mine. It really is just a lazy way of trying to artificially keep the viewer’s attention. And, in that sense, there’s an aspect of condescension in it. “The facts surely won’t be enough to keep you ADD-era simpletons engaged for ninety minutes, so here’s some eye-candy footage of… uhh, I don’t know… the skyline of some metropolis to keep you entertained while we dole them out.” Even under normal circumstances this is irritating. But when your documentary is about an event attended by vloggers obsessed with filming themselves – who would no doubt love to let you use their videos and display their Youtube name – you really don’t have any excuse for not showing us the thing itself as much as possible. Viewers want to glimpse the chaos as it unfolds. Not hear you describe how paying to go viral on Instagram works.

Additionally, although the interview with Billy McFarland (Fyre festival co-founder) was touted as a distinguishing ‘get’ for the Hulu documentary, it’s a total bust. He obviously does not want to be there. He obviously does not want to candidly explain himself. He’s just there to get paid. I suppose there is some small value in having him on-the-record dodging questions and seeming unrepentant. But the smallness of that added-value will only become increasingly apparent to you as you’re shown clip after clip from the interview. To the point where you’ll wish they had instead just put a surly-faced cardboard cutout of him in a chair and bombarded it with the same questions. That, at least, would be over quicker.

As for my thoughts on HBO’s Theranos documentary, I found it to be a serviceable overview of what happened. But unfortunately it was also bland and rather shallow. This was surprising to me because, due to the prestige-network releasing it and it being positively reviewed, I watched it expecting it to be very good. Alas. I just generally don’t like documentaries which are merely an infodump executed without much finesse or deeper exploration. And although not being able to speak with the subject (e.g. Elizabeth Holmes) needn’t be a fatal blow for a documentary, in this case it does really hurt. Because it creates a painfully conspicuous vacuum of information. Which cannot, no matter what experts or fancy reenactments you resort to, be filled in with mere speculation. The fact that the filmmakers have little to no evidence about Holmes’ (or her top-level co-conspirators’) motivations or reasoning or self-justification really limits how interesting this film could ever hope to be. And, yes, that’s not their fault. But you’ve still got to call a spade a spade.

Anyway, I’ll move on to my main point. All of these documentaries seek to paint the head honcho as just about the only culprit. (That’s Billy McFarland and Elizabeth Holmes.) This is, I believe, a very objectionable fixation. Because it seems to let a whole bunch of other people, who also warrant some varying degree of blame, off the hook.

Take the Fyre festival case. You’ve got interviews with employees who plainly admit that they knew months in advance that ticket-buyers were not going to get anything like what they paid for. They also explain how they complied with orders to offer expensive VIP perks which they knew weren’t real. Some of them even knew or suspected that McFarland was lying to investors to get a new influx of money and stay afloat. But, hey, what were they supposed to do, when faced with the imposing might of a mild-mannered 25-year-old party-boy? Who among us could stand firm and live up to our moral principles when confronted with the feeble browbeating he greeted any protest with? Who indeed.

Look, let me tell you something. I sympathize with anyone who is put in a position where their boss is asking them to become party to blatant fraud. That’s really fucking rotten. But not because you have to decide whether (and if so, how) to go on with the soul-crushing new form your job has taken. Because there is, in fact, no such choice. That’s the crux of it. Your employer has just made it utterly untenable for you to continue working there. They might as well have fired you. And losing a job is – it should be said – a big deal. Absolutely. For some people, in precarious circumstances, it can truly be a massive hardship. One that’s difficult to bounce back from. Because the job market may well refuse to yield any new opportunity. Nevertheless, none of this is an excuse for staying at your desk, keeping your mouth shut and collecting your paycheck. If you’re asked to sell customers not just something which will fall a bit below their lofty expectations but which either literally doesn’t exist or might as well not, you must resign or become (at the very least, morally) an accessory to fraud. I hate to sound self-righteous. But this could not be more black and white. Moreover, if you then participate in a documentary and say “sure, I griped about the whole thing a little but, gee, once I got overruled, what else could I do but try to make the best of it”? Not only did you not do the right thing at the time but now you’re even trying to obfuscate that fact. This warrants stern criticism.

(In particular, one should note that the Netflix documentary was produced by ‘Jerry Media’, an unscrupulous outfit who built a name for themselves by rampantly and shamelessly stealing other people’s online content. Although they are a separate company, they did market the Fyre festival itself. And have since tried their best to avoid taking any blame for their role in promoting it and helping to conceal the customer backlash. In short, they are bottom-feeder douchebags who cynically helped make this documentary, hoping that they could control the narrative in their favour by pointing the finger at McFarland alone. Fuck them. Given that they have no actual talents of their own – and their past behavior has now been exposed – they will no doubt dissolve into non-entity status soon enough. A strange sort of karma exists. Because wait long enough and the internet trash does get taken to the curb. Just look at Gawker…)

The same thing applies to the employees at Theranos who knew that the Edison blood-testing device was largely just smoke-and-mirrors. Only in this case the matter was so much more grave, given that they were abetting the defrauding of people seeking health care. Those poor bastards were even given erroneous test results because Theranos’ technology was so half-baked and faulty. Leading, one has to imagine, to the making of ill-advised medical decision for themselves. The consequences of this could have been dire.

One has to concede, though, that the difference here is that several Theranos employees are shown leaving their jobs and whistleblowing. This is definitely to be applauded. But what about all the others who didn’t get up and leave? Who decided that they could stomach helping to mislead people and saddle them with incorrect information about their health? Hmm, to be fair, they were working at one of the hottest new companies in Silicon Valley. Everyone was raving about it. Everyone was heaping praise on its apparently groundbreaking innovation. I guess they were so bowled over by this high-status that they forgot that screwing over sick people seeking help is one of the shittiest things you can do.

Amazingly, their favoured excuse-making (issued both to themselves and parroted to those around them) seems to be ‘fake it until you make it’. They must have felt they were on solid ground because of the long history of resorts to this maxim. After all, take any of the big companies selling entertainment-dispensing devices. How often have they given press conferences where they theatrically exaggerate what their near-future offerings will be able to do? This question can be answered by an inverse observation. Consumers have gotten so used to it that they automatically view claims of this kind with a healthy dose of skepticism. They know that the finished product may well be a notch or two inferior by the time it’s released.

However… there are a select few industries which have their own special extra layer of ethical standards. Medical technology is the perfect example of this. Theranos may have revered and tried to model itself after software and/or electronics companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, etc. But one of its many crucial mistakes was believing that they were actually its kin. And that it could operate the same way: 70% PR, 30% R&D. You know exactly what I mean, don’t you? It’s become an omnipresent formula. Focus mostly on getting people infatuated with your clever marketing and your slick brand image, so they’ll view your product – even after buying it – through the prism of its reputation.

Whereas, when you’re dealing with people’s physical health and wellbeing, there is zero leeway for hyperbole or peddling half-finished inventions. And any attempt to ignore this rule should be penalized very, very severely. Because this is not promising hipsters that they’ll have, say, a featherlight, folding iPhone-iPad hybrid within a year or two. This is telling people you can accurately test for hepatitis when not only is this untrue, but your machine can barely pipette blood from one container to another. If any kind of fraud should land you in prison, it’s this one. As these are lies which can ruin people’s lives.

Given all this, you can easily understand why the former-employees (not to mention the execs at Walgreens, who allegedly shirked any thorough due diligence when putting the Edison into their stores) would be glad about this documentary. I’m sure they’re pleased that Holmes has been made the face of this debacle. Let her go down in history with all the blame attached to her. As if she was some kind of magical puppet-master, psychically ensnaring her employees and forcing them to ignore their sense of right and wrong. When the truth is that as soon as these people learned that Theranos, now with its machine out in the wild, was flatout lying, they should have left. And, preferably, whistleblown to regulators or the press. Because by staying they were choosing to become complicit facilitators. Again, it’s as simple as that. And it cannot be stated enough.

As for why the documentarians themselves – in both the Fyre festival and Theranos cases – felt the need to myopically zero in on one person? I expect that’s a simpler and somewhat more innocuous answer. (Excepting, of course, when those with a vested interest in hoodwinking viewers about the true scope of culpability are involved with making the film. Then they’re purely hoping to spare their own hides.) It’s just easier – especially if your film’s duration can only be so long – to exclusively focus on the charismatic fraudster who masterminded the whole thing. Not least because any portrait of them (and their individual rise-and-fall) is bound to captivate the viewer. It takes a very peculiar type of person to orchestrate a giant, elaborate con. You have to be at least a little bit broken in a bunch of different ways. And there is something fascinating about that.

Plus, it’s just a more readily-digestible story. And more self-contained too. Why one person – who’s either a pathological liar or a delusional narcissist – hoped to gain wealth and fame by selling people on a mirage is… what? Well, quite a straightforward thing. If you see what I mean. But how a system of lax regulation and a culture which worships ‘visionaries’ and an army of ambitious, ethically-compromised employees enable that person’s plan? That’s complex and nuanced. And, more importantly, hard to explain in an hour and a half. So I’m not even sure I can really accuse the documentarians in question of laziness. Arguably, they’re just working within their artistic constraints. And giving the people what they want.

To wrap up, let me be abundantly clear: I’m not at all suggesting that McFarland or Holmes were merely patsies, and somehow innocent of the massive frauds they’re accused of. They are obviously not that. They may even deserve the majority of the blame. Fine. But that doesn’t mean they’re not being scapegoated. In a certain way. To a certain extent. And I think that people should greet this opportunist misdirect with more than a shrug. Because although it’s easier to just direct your scorn at a figurehead, rather than a system or hundreds of minor accomplices, it’s not actually just.

[Y’know, while I’m here – yeah, I’m aware a blog post isn’t a physical place but, shit, go with me – let me make a tangential point that’s also been on my mind.

Let’s take Elizabeth Holmes as an example. All signs point to the fact that she is a crook. And everyone knows this. Which means she has been designated a ‘bad person’ in the public consciousness. This in turn seems to give people a sense of licence for their childish mean-spiritedness. It emboldens their worst instincts. Because there has been endless dwelling on and mockery of: her “creepy” stare, her “odd” face, her “weird” voice, her “bizarre” dress sense, etc. Everything and anything really. And this has been done in insidiously subtle ways (i.e. look at how websites/magazines/documentaries ‘creatively’ edit photos and videos of her.) As well as very, very crude ways.

Normally, petty and superficial attacks on how a person looks or talks or carries themselves are considered off limits. They’re thought of as the stock-in-trade of some of the shittiest elements in society, like internet trolls and gossip rags. And rightfully so.

But when commenting on an officially-designated bad person, you finally get to show how ugly you are. Let’s go to the extreme end of the scale for another example. Because I think it proves the point even more forcefully. I have repeatedly heard some variation of “Eurgh, just look at him! Harvey Weinstein is so fat and hideous! How disgusting!” I’d wager you have too. And yet… Weinstein was very credibly accused (by dozens of people) of having been a serial rapist and sexual abuser for decades. I mean, holy fuck. That should easily – easily! – suffice as the whole gamut of your condemnation and hatred. If it doesn’t? If in fact you feel the need to attack his personal appearance as well? That speaks volumes. Now, it ought to be said that in moments of forgetfulness, we can all make this mistake. We are not always our best, most cognizant selves. But those who make it constantly have shown you who they truly are at heart. They have shown you what they value, how their mind works. I recommend you remember the insight they’ve granted you.]

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