Nov 20 • 12M

Chapter 9, Part 1: “F*ck That Guy”

Martin Shkreli being dehumanized in the press, and called “hideous” and “repulsive,” puts him in impressive company. The same was true for John D. Rockefeller.

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Christie Smythe
My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
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John D. Rockefeller was also called “repulsive” by the press.
John D. Rockefeller was also called “repulsive” by the press.

He was the first billionaire, one of the most famous businessmen who ever walked the Earth. And to one of the most well-known journalists of his day, he deserved nothing but revile for his accomplishments. 

John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, is remembered as both a ruthless monopolist and generous philanthropist. Ida Tarbell, a journalist, had other words for him in a 19-part series she wrote for McClure’s Magazine in 1905.

She described the industrialist as “‘a living mummy,’ hideous and diseased, leprous and reptilian,” according to Ron Chernow, the author of a hefty 1998 biography on Rockefeller, Titan. Chernow, who also wrote a biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster musical, wasn’t so much erasing Rockefeller’s sins as pointing out that Tarbell was not, strictly speaking, “objective.” 

“She found in Rockefeller ‘concentration, craftiness, cruelty and something indefinably repulsive,’” Chernow wrote.

Tarbell had long nursed a personal grudge against Rockefeller. Her father, an independent oil refiner in Western Pennsylvania, had lost most of his business because of Rockefeller’s crafty machinations to corner the market. When Rockefeller bought out small refiners, he urged them to take Standard Oil stock — and many did so and became rich. But Frank Tarbell stubbornly refused, and he struggled.

Ida Tarbell’s Standard Oil take-down, which was a huge success for McClure’s, painted a detailed and deeply reported portrait of the company’s sneaky and coercive tactics for eliminating competition. It also portrayed Rockefeller, a churchgoing teetotaler, as a physical incarnate of evil. His habit of fidgeting, for instance, “suggested that Rockefeller had a guilt-ridden conscience, that God was torturing him, that he could not enjoy his ill-gotten wealth” as Tarbell described him, according to Chernow. 

“The ordinary reader could find no more satisfying fantasy,” Chernow wrote.

It’s not difficult to understand why Ida Tarbell showed nothing but contempt for Rockefeller. She had been aggrieved, and she saw many other people had been aggrieved; she looked into the causes, and she found plenty of evidence that he was to blame.

It’s also not hard to understand why an expose describing him like a ghoul from a horror franchise was so spectacularly successful. Rockefeller — who rose from modest upbringing with a semi-absentee con artist for a father — had been like a living, breathing Horatio Alger story. By the Progressive Era, his comeuppance was long overdue. 

Ida Tarbell.
Ida Tarbell.

But why did the media in the 21st century broadly decide to treat Martin Shkreli, a comparative nobody, in the same fashion, with the same venomous adjectives and monster-like characterizations? (Google “Martin Shkreli” and “repulsive” and you will find numerous instances of respected publications literally calling him that, in their own words. You can also find colorful appositives like “evil little prick” and, my personal favorite, “human mysterious mattress stain.”)

True, he jacked up the price of a drug massively and sounded cavalier and uncaring about it. True. he got arrested and sent to prison for securities fraud. True, he publicly “hit on” female journalists as a means of rattling their composure. But the negative impact from all of that, apart from to himself, was fairly limited. There were no writers, editors and journalists who, like Tarbell with Rockefeller, were motivated to crusade against him because they had been personally wronged or had witnessed evidence of vile misdeeds.

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There were some journalists I knew who mostly towed company lines when they crafted their searing descriptions of Martin, and didn’t really believe he was “that bad” themselves. One New York Post reporter, for instance, defaulted to her employer’s sensationalist style in making it sound in articles like Martin was too “hideous” to ever land a date. “Do you really think that’s true?” Martin asked her one day, annoyed, over the phone. “No, I know it’s not,” she apparently replied, shrugging. 

Others were crass opportunists, looking to spin a “satisfying fantasy” about a poster boy of corporate greed, and propel themselves to stardom. (More specifics on that later.) But there was another element underneath all of that, as hard and unyielding as a diamond, which had lined up forcefully against him. Somewhere up in the lofty ivory towers of magazines, major newspapers and book publishers, there was genuine hate for him. It wasn’t just play-acting for a mob in order to drive clicks. 

The animus didn’t announce itself. There was no press release stating that “we, the powers that be in the media establishment, have decreed that Martin Shkreli is a repulsive creature, who will only ever be a repulsive creature, and we will never acknowledge him as anything else.” But if you did what I did — try to pitch a book showing Martin as a flawed but three-dimensional human being — you ran into it right away.

In October 2017, just after Martin lost his bail and was thrown in a federal lockup, I was invited to a cocktail party for book editors and film agents in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was nerve-racking going alone, and introducing myself to groups of literary strangers, wearing a name tag that just said “Christie Smythe, Bloomberg.” But after calming my nerves with a couple of free glasses of wine, I was able to regale a few people in the entertainment business with my Martin Shkreli adventures. I felt excited by the pull of their curiosity.

Martin Shkreli and (an older) John D. Rockefeller.
Martin Shkreli and (an older) John D. Rockefeller.

Then a film agent, who had invited me to the party and was fascinated by SMIRK, tried to introduce me to a group of book editors, who were laughing and talking pleasantly amongst themselves. I smiled, and explained what I was working on: “I’m writing an exclusive book on Martin Shkreli,” I said, brightly. The response was like a pile of bricks suddenly falling from the sky and landing inches in front of me.

“F*ck that guy!,” an editor said abruptly. She turned her body physically away from me, and her friends followed suit. My smile faded but I continued to stand near her, training my gaze on her face for a few moments as she tried to avoid eye contact. I was mesmerized by her rudeness.

I played her reaction over and over again in my mind, trying to pick it apart and understand it. Why the rudeness? What so much contempt? Why did book editors have a more visceral, personalized hatred for Martin than entertainment people? What did that mean? 

“Cancel culture” was a term just beginning to enter the lexicon, and that seemed like maybe part of the situation. Perhaps he had been lumped in with all the canceled “bad men,” like Harvey Weinstein, I surmised. 

But then again, Harvey Weinstein had preyed on women in Hollywood for decades. He coerced, abused, assaulted and raped them. Martin was just…a jerk to some women on the internet. How could that be the same? And how could he already be so canceled that even just a book about him, and not by him, was greeted with the type of enthusiasm typically reserved for a warm dog turd? 

The questions kept surfacing in my mind after the cocktail party. Back at home, I watched some of Martin’s live stream videos again, especially when he acted strange and uncooperative, disrupting the traditional power dynamic, in conversations with journalists. It wasn’t just women journalists he did this to; he was also chaotic and disorienting with men. I found myself smiling as I replayed a video where he turned the tables on an arrogant male reporter I knew, confounding and frustrating him by replying to every question with a question.

And then suffering through the cringe, I rewatched the video where he stonewalled former CNN reporter Laurie Segall and got under her skin by asking her on a “date.” Woven in with his snarky retorts, arguments and non-sequiturs, I discovered a bracing honesty. It was relatable honesty. 

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“I understand you have a job and you need to substantiate your existence as a journalist,” he said, as he brushed aside her repeated request that he come on CNN for an interview. “But at the end of the day, we’re both humans. You come on here and you ask me a bunch of questions, and I indulge you. And when I try to ask you a question, you won’t answer. Why is that?”

“That’s not true at all,” Segall replied. It was true, though. And her confidence started to drastically crumble as she recognized that.

I compared that exchange to all the times when I had interacted with Martin: when he had called me after his arrest, to apologize to me, for not believing me when I had written a year earlier that he was under criminal investigation; when he had spun his entire defense narrative for me while I met with him at his office at Turing Pharmaceuticals; when he had sought my advice for picking a new lawyer; the multiple times we’d chatted over drinks about the book; and the evening I’d met his parents. 

Search results when you google “Martin Shkreli” and “repulsive.”
Search results when you google “Martin Shkreli” and “repulsive.”

Each time I behaved like, well, myself. I didn’t adopt a posture. I didn’t pretend to cozy up to him to win his favor, or put on a show of denouncing him and scorning him for the benefit of an audience. With me, he felt like he could be reasonably sure I meant what I said, and that the person he was interacting with was “real.” And I felt the same way about him. 

That was why we could keep up a rapport even if I criticized him, or he got angry with me over something and stopped talking to me briefly — because we could both return to a fundamental state of just being humans to each other. So many other journalists could not — or would not — do the same.

I realized that was the hidden root of the intense, irrational media hatred for him: He would not play their game. He would not let them set the terms of engagement. He would not let himself be impressed and wooed by a big media brand, like CNN or the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. 

He would not fall for their flattery only to get stabbed in the back; or believe their “cover” stories, like when they “blamed” their editors. He would not go along with their trite “rise,” and “fall” and “apology” and “redemption” narratives. 

A surge of indignation rose up inside me: Why was it so  hard for journalists to just act like people, and tell real stories about people? You could be ethical and still treat your subject like a human. You shouldn’t have to play “a game.” They shouldn’t have to play “a game.” You should be able to just tell the truth. 

I started to feel like I was being actively prevented from telling the truth by the very media establishment that was supposed to help me do it. I grabbed a piece of paper and dashed off a letter to Martin, bitterly describing the cocktail party and the interaction with the book editor.

“F*ck everyone,” I wrote.