American Fire and Bad Blood: two excellent pieces of journalism

Good journalism is hard to do — I have said this many times — and when I find some, I tend to pay some attention. A couple of examples of excellent long-form journalism that I have come across lately are American Fire by Monica Hesse and Bad Blood by John Carreyrou.

American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land is the story of two sad souls who set more than 80 fires to abandoned buildings between November 2012 and April 2013 in Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The once-thriving county has come to hard times, and although no one was hurt by these fires, the area is served by volunteer fire departments that found themselves stretched to the limit. Who would do this? and why? Monica Hesse set out to answer this question after covering the trial of the two culprits for the Washington Post. She chronicles the massive efforts that law enforcement and private citizens made to find out who in their midst was setting these fire.

Hesse has dug deep and come up with a highly readable book, and if you have an afternoon and/or evening to settle back with it, you will find yourself caught up in the fascinating story of this place.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou, is a different book altogether. Elizabeth Holmes was certainly no sad soul; she was blonde, blue-eyed, and deep-voiced and had dropped out of Stanford after her freshman year because she had Silicon Valley’s Next Big Idea. Or so she said. The idea was to create software that would conduct blood tests with just a small drop of blood — a finger prick — rather than having to draw a vial of blood from a person’s arm. That would allow home-testing of blood on a daily basis, and then medications could be adjusted on the fly based on those tests. Such technology could revolutionize the medical industry.

Holmes sold her idea to venture capitalists, investors, and people you have heard of (Rupert Murdock, Betsy DeVoss, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, etc.), and by 2014 her company, Theranos, had raised $9 billion. Not only was Holmes raising money, but she was also getting rave notices from the nation’s technology press.

The problem was that her technology didn’t work, and that’s what John Carreyrou, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, found out. This book is the story of how Carreyrou uncovered the fraud and of what happened to him and his sources when he did. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s riveting.

Lesson: People who have lots and lots of money are sometimes greedier than smart. And sometimes they’re not very nice.

Both of these books will pull you in and keep you reading way past your bedtime.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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