When bulldogs take on Big Pharma

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Eric Eyre was honored on May 4, 2023, at the Kanawha County Commission in Charleston, W.Va. | TheStoryIsTheThing.Substack.com photograph

By Douglas John Imbrogno | May 9, 2023 | TheStoryIsTheThing.substack.com

My alma mater newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail (nee The Charleston Gazette), refers to itself right on its masthead as “a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper.” There is a sole reason the paper can brand itself such, and that reason is Eric Eyre. My longtime former colleague at the paper won journalism’s apex prize, the Pulitzer, in 2017 for his indefatigable work uncovering the depradations and devastation caused by Big Pharma’s predatory capitalism. His work helped spotlight nationally how Fortune 500 drug companies drenched a small place like West Virginia, and other localities across America, in opioid pills, destroying lives, families, and communities.

Eric’s work has been memorialized in a few ways. He himself wrote the best-selling book “Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic,” a New York Times Critics Top Ten Book of the Year in 2020. The book details how he broke the story open about the tsunami of opioid painkillers poured heedlessly into West Virginia by drug companies looking for more bucks, all the while the reporter of that fearless reporting was wrestling with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s.

In just six years, from 2007 to 2012, a total of 1,728 West Virginians died from an overdose of oxycodone or hydrocodone alone. Those details come from an April 3, 2020, New Yorker profile of Eric by Ken Armstrong, who details a career that has been “the stuff of quiet legend.” Armstrong notes of Eric’s bulldog reporting:

He demanded the unsealing of records, wrote “the story of a lifetime,” won a Pulitzer, and, most important of all, cracked open a public-health crisis that rocked not only West Virginia but the country as a whole. He revealed the numbers that the pharmaceutical industry fought so hard to keep secret. In those six years in which seventeen hundred and twenty-eight West Virginians overdosed and died, drug wholesalers dumped seven hundred and eighty million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills into the state, about four hundred and thirty-three per person.

On May 4, 2023, Eric’s Pulitzer-winning work was honored in West Virginia’s capital city by the Kanawha County Commission and its head, Kent Carper (in the video clip I shot below, enjoy Eric’s joshing with Carper, who played a role in the unfolding of the opioid story, and Carper’s joshing back.) The clip will give you a sense of Eric’s graciousness and style. I worked around many an investigative reporter in 40 years of hanging around newsrooms as a feature writer and editor, and most have egos the size of McMansions, with a sometimes easily offended, too-prideful righteousness. Eric was the most self-effacing major league reporter I have ever known, while also being a model of sustainable outrage in his reporting — which is to say that he was an avatar of all that was best about the legacy of the Charleston Gazette in its heyday.

Eric Eyre addresses the Kanawha County Commission, which on May 4, 2023, honored him with a resolution in praise of his work exposing the opioid crisis and the role of Big Pharma in feeding it.

Eric’s work was profiled in a 24-minute documentary released in 2019, titled “Sustained Outrage,” a favorite aphorism of the Gazette’s kick-asses-and-take-names publisher, Ned Chilton. Sustained outrage was Chilton’s marching orders to his reporters, as a counter to another famous aphorism of his: “Most newspapers have the attention span of a postal clerk.” Which is not to slight postal clerks — they’re supposed to have a short attention span in order to get to the next person in line. Chilton was saying, though, that most newspapers move on too quickly from important subjects, much less sweeping, life-destroying scandals such as the opioid crisis. Only sustained, tireless, and unrelenting coverage will ever expose the true depth of venality of bad actors — which is to say Big Pharma’s rush to profits uber alles, while dooming tens of thousands of people to misery, ruination, and death.

With his widely praised “Death in Mud Lick,” Eric himself wrote the book on his opioid reporting. The book also addresses the personal gravitas of Eric having to wrestle with a 2016 diagnosis of Parkinson’s, whose tremors made it harder to type as the disease worsened, as Ken Armstrong notes in his New Yorker profile. Yet, in the grandest tradition of great reporting by relentless reporters and with the backing of their newspapers, he persevered:

Eyre served his community in a time of need. With his new book, he took the death of a coal miner, William (Bull) Preece, found dead in a trailer in Mud Lick amid a residue of crushed pills, and told the how and the why. His reporting led to restrictions on prescriptions, greater tracking, more transparency. He shamed an industry and saved lives. Working at a small newspaper, Eyre made a big difference.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper greets Eric Eyre, after the commission honored his reporting on the opioid crisis on May 4, 2023. | TheStoryIsTheThing.com photograph

More than $1 billion in settlement money is coming West Virginia’s way to address the toll of the opioid crisis on the state, even as — speaking of bad actors — Big Pharma opioid enablers like the Sackler Family, who bankrolled the now dissolved Purdue Pharma, continue to work the courts, as devastated families and individuals await settlement money:

Parties waiting to finalize the deal are waiting for a court to rule on the legality of a key detail: whether members of the Sackler family who own the company can be protected from lawsuits over OxyContin in exchange for handing over up to $6 billion in cash over time plus the company itself.

The Hartford Courant, May 2, 2023: ‘Frustration grows over wait on settlement with OxyContin maker, CT-based Purdue Pharma’

Armstrong’s 2020 article goes on to describe the rapidly evaporating local news scene: “With hundreds of newspapers going under, scholars write of the “expanding news desert.” The small paper has become the Old West …”

This scenario has only worsened since he wrote those words, as local papers channeling the cojones of the Ned Chiltonian tradition of reporting go belly up. Or they are weakened and sapped of their staffing and courage by dilettante, careless, and maybe hapless owners. Here are thoughts on that from a Dec. 13, 2022 piece I published in my WestVirginiaVille.com substack newsletter, on some unseemly firings at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which Eric Eyre left years ago:

I devoted an edition of my WestVirginiaVille substack newsletter to some very un-bulldoggy developments at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in the past year.

All of that is to say, Eric Eyre’s reporting on the opioid crisis is worth all the props it gets. It is a shining example of how to do local journalism right. If you are a young reporter trying to figure out how to learn the high art of sustained outrage, you would do well to read “Death in Mud Lick.”

And then — gawd help us and the creek don’t rise — become part of the solution that brings truly righteous, bulldog, speak-truth-to-power-and-people-like-the-Sacklers reporting to life.

May a thousand flowers bloom in news deserts.

How to Win a Pulitzer

Here is a six-minute video I edited along with Maria Purdy at the Charleston Gazette-Mail, sketching how the Eric and the newspaper pursued the series of stories that led to the Pulitzer he won in 2017


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Jim Rentch says:

What a paper the Gazette was. Don marsh, Paul nyland, Ken ward, bill haught, Mary Walton, and now Eric eyre. What a legacy.

Errol+Hess says:

Good story. My friend, Dr. Art Van Zee fought and won against opiods and Barbara Kingsolver wrote a pullitzer prize winning novel about it.

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