If you’ve been watching the current crop of tech founder series, The Dropout on Hulu, Super Pumped: The Rise and Fall of Uber on Showtime, and WeCrashed on Apple TV+, you might have noticed that these are shows largely populated not by anti-heroes, but by evil billionaire villains: Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout, Travis Kalanick in Super Pumped, and Adam and Rebekah Neumann on WeCrashed. The stories all also follow a similar formula: The tech founder comes up with a great idea and raises hundreds of millions of dollars in investment capital, but as their companies “disrupt” and grow on their way to IPO status, so do the egos and greedy appetites of the founders.
While hubris eventually brings them all down, that’s only part of the story. What few people are acknowledging about these villain-led series is that there is a common hero in all three: Journalists. All of the tech grifters engage in despicable behavior, but it’s good reporting and a lot of help from whistleblowers that bring that behavior to light.
It’s no coincidence, for instance, that WeCrashed opens on September 18th, 2019. That’s the day that the WeWork board of directors voted to boot Adam Neumann as CEO. It’s also the same day that the Wall Street Journal released a scathing piece about Neumann’s bizarre, tyrannical control of the company, whose value he had consistently overinflated ahead of the IPO. That piece of journalism was the nail in Neumann’s coffin. The series itself is based on the podcast WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork, but much of the podcast itself likely relied on the reporting of the WSJ’s Eliot Brown, who also wrote the definitive book on the fall of the Neumanns.
Last week’s episode of The Droput, meanwhile, dug into the reporting of another WSJ journalist, John Carreyrou, whose dogged reporting eventually took down Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, even after Theranos scared away many of his sources. He would also write the definitive book on the subject, Bad Blood. (Not for nothing, but as good as everyone else has been on this show, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Carreyrou and LisaGay Hamilton as his WSJ editor have been highlights for me).
There was no one specific article that proved to be the death knell to Travis Kalanick’s tenure as CEO of Uber. His reign ended thanks a thousand journalistic paper cuts led by the likes of Ben Smith at Buzzfeed, Mike Isaac at the New York Times, and citizen journalist (and later NYTimes technology opinion editor) Susan Fowler, whose blog post on the sexual harassment she experienced as an engineer at Uber may have been the piece most responsible for Kalanick’s ouster (Mike Isaac, by the way, would write not only the definitive book on the rise and fall of Uber but the one that would form the basis for the television series).
For all the think pieces written about these shows, the ruminations on the stellar performances of Amanda Seyfried or Anne Hathaway, the fawning over Elizabeth Holmes’ weird dancing, and all the fact vs. fiction pieces, I don’t want to see the contributions of reporters get lost in the mix. The Truth shall set you free … of your job, if you’re a grifter CEO of a unicorn company. But the Truth, more often than not, is brought to you by a few brave whistleblowers and an excellent investigative reporter.
Image sources (in order of posting): Hulu, Showtime, Apple TV+