Two miniseries show that deception begins with language.
“I believe in the gods of America
I believe in the land of the free
But no one told me
That the gods believe in nothing
So with empty hands I pray
And from day to hopeless day
They still don't see me.”
Capitalism. A system where the means of production are owned and operated by individuals, as opposed to the government. That’s what we were taught in school. It is commonly espoused as the best system, because it encourages individual freedom, which goes hand-in-hand with democracy.
While capitalism is great when it works well, that is, when it allows everyone to better their lives in terms of wealth, it has time and again exposed the worst of mankind. Somewhere along the way, individuals who own and operate the means of production in a capitalistic system manipulate whatever safeguards, or loopholes, there are to rig the system in their favour.
Two miniseries on Disney + Hotstar throw light on two recent and ongoing true stories and raise the question: does capitalism corrupt the individual or does the individual corrupt capitalism?
The Dropout: Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford University in 2003. She was studying chemical engineering and came up with an amazing idea – conducting blood tests with a few drops of blood as opposed to vials. She dropped out because she did not get the support she wanted at Stanford – whoever she spoke to said it couldn’t be done. She used her college tuition to start a company called Theranos.
However, the Edison, the device invented to conduct these blood tests, just didn’t work in spite of repeated attempts to improve it. What is startling is that, over the years, Holmes continued to gain prominent investors including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Jim Mattis and Rupert Murdoch through manipulation and lies. Theranos even set up wellness centres for blood tests with the reputed pharmacy chain Walgreens, and began conducting tests for the public. By 2015, Theranos was valued at $9 billion and Holmes was on the cover of Forbes. Soon after that, things started to crumble, when two young interns at Theranos, Tyler Shultz and Erica Cheung, turned whistleblowers.
The Dropout is an example of how precarious start-up valuations can actually be. Start-ups can sometimes become a belief in an idea without feet-on-the-ground reality checks. It is also a study in how dogged determination to get a product to succeed to the exclusion of everything else, including the truth, can be detrimental to the end user of that product. At one point investor George Shultz, US Secretary of State during the Reagan Administration, was asked why he continued to believe Elizabeth Holmes in spite of information to the contrary. Was it because he didn’t want to be wrong? The same question could be asked of Elizabeth Holmes.
The Dropout has a good cast with a standout performance from Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes. I also recommend the documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley which tells the Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos story with additional details.
Dopesick: You may have heard, over the last few years, that there is an opioid crisis in America and that one family is responsible for it. Dopesick tells this story. It is based on the book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy.
In 1995, Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler family since 1952, received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a pain medication called Oxycontin, an opioid. An opioid is a class of drugs that are similar to opium in their effects on the human system. The FDA approved a label that stated that the medication was non-addictive.
Purdue Pharma then began an extensive marketing campaign to recommend the drug for all types of pain, temporary to long-term. They flooded the market, from doctors in private practice to hospitals, with marketing literature that skewed unsuspecting doctors in favour of the drug, via Purdue’s network of sales representatives, whose sales performances were heavily incentivised.
Though the Sacklers have come under scrutiny in recent years, a lot of damage has already been done. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “from 1999–2019, nearly 500,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids”. More details here.
The miniseries focuses on Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family and the lawyers trying to prosecute them, but it spends an equal amount of time on stories of ordinary people whose pain led to addiction through no fault of their own, and in some cases, addiction led to crime. Families and communities were, and continue to be, devastated by addiction and a related rise in crime in their neighbourhoods. Dopesick has received awards for writing for Danny Strong and acting for Michael Keaton and Kaitlyn Dever.
As an editor and a writer, I continue to be intrigued by the use of language to manipulate. Both these miniseries show that deception begins with language. In The Dropout, Elizabeth Holmes is shown using words wrapped in charm to get multimillionaire businessmen and politicians, who you think would know better, to invest in a company that was hollow. She is shown side-stepping enquiries about her product by talking of trade secrets and rivals eager to get their hands on what she had.
In the case of Purdue, its original OxyContin label claimed, without any evidence, that “delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.” This article states that “Purdue trained its sales representatives to carry the message that the risk of addiction was ‘less than one percent’.”
However, having stated the above, I’m also heartened by those who use words for good, like Wall Street Journal’s journalist John Carreyrou, who broke the story on Theranos thanks to Tyler Shultz and Erica Cheung, and author Beth Macy who wrote the book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America. One particular highlight for me from the documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley were the extracts from Erica Cheung’s letter on Theranos to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). That letter led to the shutting down of the Theranos lab.
We mustn’t forget the creators and writers of these miniseries - Elizabeth Meriwether for the Dropout and Danny Strong for Dopesick, whose writing brought these stories to a wider audience.
The saving grace in these stories from The Dropout and Dopesick is that as much as the capitalistic system failed, it also succeeded because of the strength of institutions like the press and regulatory bodies, and more importantly, because of the strength – moral, political and legal – of some of the people involved.
Till next time,