November 5, 2015

Author accuses 60 Minutes of stealing idea from his book



Cover courtesy of author’s website.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a publicist who hasn’t watched or listened to a news story with the sinking knowledge that they had pitched the same story to the same outlet without luck. It’s the nature of media and, really, just one of those unfortunate things. But Sam Quinones thinks that 60 Minutes crossed the line, using not just his story idea, but his research, sources, and book, all without giving crediting him.

Quinones’ book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, has received a good amount of attention since its publication in April. Published by Bloomsbury, the book and author have been featured in The New York Times, LA Times, NPR, C-Span, and many, many more. But it’s one feature he didn’t get that’s really stuck in his craw.

Since its release, I’ve been disappointed to see Time, Sports Illustrated, Washington Post and now the New York Times publish stories on topics that I dealt with first in Dreamland and not mention it. (Btw, my book clearly cites several books to which I am indebted, both in the text and in the acknowledgements.) But 60 Minutes seemed to me to cross a line.

Writing on his blog, Quinones, a former LA Times reporter who says he quit his job to research the book, explains that he and his publicist had both pitched 60 Minutes a story about the Xalisco Boys heroin traffickers, and when that proved to be a difficult sell, a story about heroin in Ohio.

Quinones claims that a producer for the show asked him, over lunch, what story he would do in Ohio, and that he “gave her some ideas,” but, as far as he knew, the show idea ultimately decided against it. And that was what he thought … until Sunday night.

As LA Observed put it: “Last night, 60 Minutes did a segment from Ohio using the same peg behind Quinones’ book, that opiates have invaded the American heartland and that Mexican drug cartels and addiction to prescription painkillers are elements of the story. CBS quoted many people who Quinones had previously worked with.”

Sometimes a book comes out at the right time to take advantage of the news cycle, and sometimes a book influences that news cycle. Quinones believes that his book did both, and is asking for credit.

I spent years working on this story, interviewing hundreds of people, poring over documents, taking collect phone calls from Mexican traffickers in prisons. Before doing it, I lived and wrote for 10 years in Mexico, which made me distinctly prepared to see a part of this story that 60 Minutes producers, judging from our phone calls, knew only because of me.

I took a leave of absence from the LA Times, where my book’s story began (as I note several times). I finally resigned from the paper to finish this book. I went all over the country. Each trip meant time away from my wife and daughter; each trip meant scrimping on meals and motels. When few people were talking about heroin, when most folks I met looked at me askance for researching the topic, I risked my professional career and my family’s financial future: all to find a story that I believed to be profound in its nationwide impact, and in what it says about our country.

Then there’s what it may say about our major media …


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.