Journalist and media entrepreneur Steve Brill on Tuesday unveils what he deems a new journalistic genre, the “DocuSerial.”
Brill and Huffington Post are combining for a 58,000-word, 15-part Brill-reported series, “America’s Most Admired Law Breaker.” The unsparing investigation details how giant Johnson & Johnson violated FDA restrictions in its marketing and sale of a wildly successful anti-psychotic drug, Risperdal.
“My goal in doing this was to demonstrate that digital media can propel long-form substantive journalism rather than threaten it. And the best way to think of it is a different way to publish a nonfiction book, not just as a long magazine article that’s not printed,” Brill said Monday in a phone chat.
The series begins Tuesday morning. In sum, he shows how over years the company circumvented the FDA by cynically and successfully pushing the drug’s use for very different maladies, notably in the treatment of children and the elderly. These problems included dementia and the marketing proceeded despite internal acknowledgement of mounting clinical evidence that the drug caused strokes and other side effects.
“It is a story that in its depiction of strategies, tactics and mindset should make us wonder about the prescription drugs that are so much a part of our lives,” Brill writes.
Relying on court and other previously undisclosed documents, the five-month investigation by Brill shows how the corporation’s financial goals were premised on the decidedly suspect, arguably shameful marketing of the drug, heavy-handed counterattacks on whistleblowers and at times compliant regulators.
Brill discloses how “no single drug in U.S. history has incurred larger criminal fines and civil damages payments for illegal marketing than Risperdal.” Nevertheless, he also concludes that the company will make billions of dollars on the drug.
The enterprise will include the 15-chapter series, podcast and hundreds of pages of internal corporate documents, government documents and both depositions and trial transcripts run in their entirety.
(Full disclosure: I am a friend of the author, have helped edit some of his previous work and books and offered suggestions on a first draft of the DocuSerial).
Brill said Monday that the latest effort is a way “to make something like this accessible as soon as ready and distributed to a vast audience quickly.” He then conceded that could be said about many online efforts.
More important, perhaps, “given what I write, it’s a way to load all the documents I have spent last 5 months poring through and give readers a chance to read as many as possible. It makes my journalism more accountable. If I quote from a deposition and there are ellipses in the story, you can look at the original transcript and see if I was fair or unfair.”
Brill’s many ventures includes his revolutionizing legal journalism in starting both American Lawyer magazine and Court TV. In recent years, Brill has done two long and impactful Time magazine cover stories. One detailed the irrationality of healthcare pricing, the other the frenetic White House quest to fix the so-called Obamacare website. The first, “Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us,” had significant impact
It prompted the Department of Health and Human Services to release nationwide data on the price tags for the 100 most common inpatient procedures. It disclosed stunningly different prices for the same procedures, even among nearby hospitals. It also disclosed the dramatically lower amounts that Medicare reimburses them for those procedures, resulting from the program’s analysis of the real costs.
Brill said that with the first big Time piece, “I had all the bills and I would describe a line on the bill of a 19-page single space bill. Here I could run the whole bill and just black out the patient’s name.”
“This was difficult,” he said. “We had to essentially create a whole different website. This becomes part of the whole production of the DocuSerial.”