BY BOB WHITBY
First came the e-mail hinting at dirt on the Orlando Sentinel. And I bit. Then came the phone call, and I bit again. Then came the documents, and I continued to chomp. Who can resist the tantalizing allure of afflicting the afflicters? Most people, probably, but I do not count myself among them. I know how journalism is made -- news, like hot dogs, is a product you should not inspect closely if you wish to keep consuming it. And I am well versed in the haughty, insular nature of monopoly dailies. It's all polish, professionalism and public editors on the outside, but there are bones in the closet.
In retrospect I see that I was played. By the best, in fact, but that's little consolation. The only way to salvage this ugly affair is to turn it into a short (I promise) tutorial on corporate protectionism.
In October, the Sentinel published a five-day series on the dangers of OxyContin, a potent prescription painkiller with a troubling history of overdoses. Reporter Doris Bloodsworth did nine months of the requisite legwork, examining 500 autopsy reports from around the state, 5,000 pages of documents from a state inquiry into the marketing of OxyContin, and scores of interviews with doctors and families. Bloodsworth was able to link some 200 deaths in 2001 and 2002 to the painkiller, the same stuff that Rush Limbaugh was hooked on. (Why oh why ... never mind.)
In the past, OxyContin has been criticized as being the prescription drug of choice for abusers, who crush the pill and snort it, bypassing its time-release mechanism. Doing so sometimes has the unpleasant side effect of death. Of course Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, can't be held responsible for the misbehavior of addicts. You are supposed to take the pills whole; it says so right on the label.
But Bloodsworth was interested in deaths among people taking OxyContin correctly, under the supervision of a physician. That kind of publicity can seriously cut into a company's bottom line.
So Purdue got busy picking the series apart, and Orlando Weekly got a phone call from their PR agency in Tampa (red flag there). Would I be interested in debunking this "harmful and misleading" series of articles, wondered Robin Hogen, Purdue Pharma's vice president for public affairs? A deal with the devil, but why not hear what Old Scratch has to say?
After two months of high-priced lawyers scrutinizing the series, here's what Purdue Pharma came up with: David Rokisky, one of the innocent "victims" Bloodsworth wrote about, has a history of drug abuse; and Gerry Cover, a Kissimmee man who died of an overdose, had drugs besides oxycodone (the active ingredient in OxyContin) in his system.
Both are quasi-legitimate concerns. And both are indicative of how far Purdue will go to protect the franchise.
Bloodsworth interviewed Rokisky, who told her that until a doctor prescribed OxyContin, "Life was perfect." She also wrote that, "He didn't even drink or smoke." Purdue Pharma's lawyers, however, did a little background check on Rokisky and learned that he's also an ex-cop from Albuquerque who pled guilty to one count of distributing cocaine in April 2000, and who, according to his lawyer, "had problems" with cocaine and steroids.
Regarding Cover's death, Bloodsworth wrote, "An autopsy determined that he had a lethal dose of oxycodone." The autopsy actually says "toxic" instead of "lethal." It also notes the presence of several other prescription drugs in Cover's blood, and pegs "multidrug overdose" as the cause of death.
Purdue lawyers are also trying to make hay out of the idea that the Sentinel's analysis of autopsy reports doesn't conform to scientific standards, which is ridiculous. Reporting isn't analyzing, and the Sentinel isn't JAMA.
Said inaccuracies aside, what's interesting is what Purdue isn't contesting about the series. Bloodsworth wrote about the company's aggressive marketing campaign, which recently came under fire from the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of congress. She also wrote about doctors who didn't fully understand what they were prescribing, the incredible profits Purdue made from OxyContin and the company's attack-dog tactics when criticized in the press.
"We found out very quickly that this wasn't about truth or facts or science," she quotes Hogen saying at public-relations seminar in 2002. "It was really about politics, and we had to think politically
"Including playing journalists to do their bidding. I feel so dirty.