May 26 • 13M

Chapter 2, Part 1: The "most hated" man in America

(Recording contains additional commentary at the end.) This is Chapter 2, Part 1 of my serialized memoir, SMIRK, about my relationship with Martin Shkreli.

 
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My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
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Martin Shkreli on the morning of his arrest in December 2015, being led by federal agents.
Martin Shkreli on the morning of his arrest in December 2015, being led by federal agents.

Just before dawn on Dec. 17, 2015, I broke the story of Martin Shkreli’s arrest. The criminal fraud case against him had been building for the past year. Prosecutors were ready for an indictment to be unsealed. FBI agents were outside of his apartment building in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. And I was at my desk, at Bloomberg’s headquarters, waiting for confirmation from sources that he was in handcuffs. 

Once I got word, and told an editor to hit the “publish” button, the story swiftly went viral. It spread like a brushfire on Twitter, with its footprint only growing as competitors rushed to match our work and publish their own accounts. Photos were taken of Martin Shkreli being led around by federal agents, and glowering under the hood of a gray sweatshirt.

“Iconic,” one of the Bloomberg editors remarked.

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I was sent down to Brooklyn to cover his arraignment. When I arrived in the courtroom, there was hardly room even to stand. The “small potatoes” fraud case my editors had nearly persuaded me to ignore in late 2014 was suddenly the biggest story in New York. Reporters from dozens of media outlets were smashed into benches and crammed into the aisles. Some of the reporters were arguing with security guards who were trying to evict them.

“If you don’t have a seat, you’ve got to leave,” the guards bellowed. 

One took pity on me, though. He pointed me in the direction of a clerk, who sighed heavily, looked around the room, and finally told me I could sit inside the “well” — the area where lawyers, defendants and government agents congregate — if I could find space. There was just enough room for me to squeeze in.

When Martin was led before the judge, still wearing the sweatshirt from his “iconic” photos, the hundred or so people in the courtroom fell silent. He pleaded “not guilty” to the charges and the judge set his bail at $5 million. 

The whole proceeding was over in just a few minutes. After it ended, the throng of journalists practically climbed over one another to get outside and be ready for the “perp walk.” 

I left more slowly. I didn’t need to get a photo of Martin, and I doubted he would make any meaningful statement to questions reporters would likely shout at him. As I made my way out of the courtroom, I saw Martin was still lurking near the judge, waiting for his lawyers. I took a moment to look at him to fix some details about his appearance in my mind. He stared back at me, seemingly examining me with similar curiosity.

Eventually, I headed out of the courtroom and walked toward the building’s entryway. On my way, I greeted two prosecutors who were standing in the lobby and surveying the scene outside the courthouse. Reporters and photographers, standing in the rain, were jockeying for prime viewing spots as they waited for Martin to emerge. 

“This is our favorite part,” one of the prosecutors said to me and grinned.

Finally, Martin did appear, marching through the lobby as if on a mission, wearing sunglasses and a dark jacket. 

Martin Shkreli walks through a swarm of journalists as he leaves the courthouse after his arraignment. His father is standing just behind him.
Martin Shkreli walks through a swarm of journalists as he leaves the courthouse after his arraignment. His father is standing just behind him.

“He’s coming!” someone in the mob said, and it rushed forward. I caught only a few glimpses of Martin as the crowd swallowed and then moved with him, en masse, toward a waiting SUV.

So, why all the fuss? How did the arrest of a scrappy hedge fund and drug company founder become one of the biggest stories of the year? It wasn’t because of the fraud charges. Those were just awkward exposition, cluttering up what the narrative was supposed to be: This was supposedly a repugnant, greedy monster without equal in corporate villainy. He was the “Pharma Bro” and the “most hated man in America.” And he was getting his comeuppance. 

Three months earlier, in September 2015, Martin and his tiny drug startup, Turing Pharmaceuticals, became synonymous with the evils of the entire industry. It happened when the company bought the rights to a decades-old treatment for toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can be deadly to unborn babies and HIV patients.  

Under Martin’s leadership as CEO, Turing jacked up the sticker price of the drug by more than 5,000 percent. The New York Times first reported the Daraprim price hikeon Sept. 20, 2015, setting off an overnight explosion of public outrage (even though Turing gave the drug away for free to people who were uninsured). 

Drug price increases, even hefty ones for old drugs, were hardly a new business practice by the time Martin came along. Pharmaceutical companies had been employing that strategy for decades. What made this time different had less to do with the actual impact and harm caused by the price increase (there was some harm, and I will dig into that more in a future post) and more to do with Martin’s particularly brash personality and response to the outrage.

After all, giants like Pfizer and Novartis, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, were faceless corporations, at least to the general public. (And even in a post-Covid vaccine world, most Americans would struggle to identify the Pfizer CEO’s picture in a line up.) Whatever heartless-seeming business decisions their executives might make, they could generally count on remaining safe from public ire.

Martin, on the other hand, had a highly recognizable face in an industry led by gray-haired WASP-y types, elite doctors and well-groomed corporate managers. With his dark hair and eyes, ivory skin, and angular cheekbones — courtesy of his Albanian immigrant parents — he looked almost “vampiric,” as one journalist described him, or more like moody teen than a titan of industry. 

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Further distinguishing him from the usual C-suite characters, he also embraced and engaged directly with controversy. Rather than stay quiet and let a PR team sugar coat or obscure his actions, or make some pretense of apology, he attempted to defend himself. 

He tried to explain to people that insurers, not patients, bore the brunt of the price increase and that he wanted to use proceeds to improve the drug. But instead of taking his responses seriously, many observers simply remarked he sounded like an impudent, spoiled child.

His vivid expressions, his blunt language, and the vast public fury over patients struggling to afford prescriptions all combined into a complete package, optimized for social media sharing. He morphed into a living meme — and not only the face of drug company greed, but its poster boy. 

Rapidly, he became known as the “Pharma Bro,” a moniker that packed an added twist of scornful irony. The slang term “bro” usually refers to a sort of hyper-masculine jock or college fraternity brother stereotype.

Apart from one widely publicized photo that was harvested from a social media feed, where he purposely struck a macho pose in sunglasses to amuse his friends, Martin looked nothing like a “bro.” He was lightly built, often hunching (leading some people to believe his 5’10” frame was significantly shorter), and he spent far more time reading books than working out at the gym.

Martin Shkreli struck a silly pose to amuse friends. The photo may have contributed to people calling him the “Pharma Bro.”
Martin Shkreli struck a silly pose to amuse friends. The photo may have contributed to people calling him the “Pharma Bro.”

Looking through the flurry of coverage after the drug price increase, it’s difficult to pin down exactly when and how the “Pharma Bro” label came into being. But it seems likely it was a media or social media creation. Eschewing their usual reluctance to use nicknames of unclear provenance, major news organizations adopted the phrase almost immediately after it first appeared — such as the Washington Post in a headline on Sept. 23, 2015.

His notoriety was amplified exponentially through social media. On Twitter, people found him not only easy to hate, but fun to hate. Like medieval European villagers pelting an outcast with rotten vegetables, people on Twitter hurled an unending torrent of vile remarks at Martin. So much contempt was heaped on him that the BBC questioned in a headline, also published on Sept. 23, 2015, whether he was the “most hated man in America.” And the expression stuck.

Martin, of course, didn’t help his own cause. He trolled people — especially the reporters writing stories about him — on social media and toyed with reporters in private, pitting us against one another as we competed for information from him, about him, and about the legal case that would blow up his life.

Making matters even worse for him was a Congressional hearing on drug prices, held just weeks after his arrest, where he invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to avoid answering questions. Photographers captured his many expressions of indignation and annoyance during his brief appearance. 

When the hearing was over, he tweeted that the Congressional representatives on the panel were “imbeciles.” If people watching the event didn’t think ill of him before the hearing, they most likely came away with that impression afterward.

Journalists felt increasingly free to editorialize about him, describing him in their stories with terms like “human garbage,” “a dumpster fire,” and “scum.” Some either cheered on or joined in the firehose of Twitter hate, throwing out crude comments at him or about him, and even suggestions of violence. One reporter, for instance, bemoaned on Twitter that he had passed Shkreli on the street in New York City but hadn’t punched him.

Watching this all unfold, though, I felt a stirring of skepticism. It seemed…impossible, really…that he could actually be as terrible as he was being portrayed. Honestly, it was hard to believe anyone on Earth could be that bad, apart from serial killers and genocidal despots (of which he was neither).

I started to wonder if the lens I was looking through was warped, possibly by the massive beam of attention focused on him, which was becoming self-perpetuating. Were people making Martin sound so awful because they truly felt he was that awful? Or were they tailoring their words to further an agenda, and to capture some of the attention — lavished by people hating on him — for themselves? 

The more I started to pick at the narrative, the more I found threads which matched the latter.

(Note: Audio recording contains additional commentary at the end.)

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