Sad for 60 Minutes

I grew up admiring 60 Minutes for its storytelling and investigative reporting.

So many original stories. No one on television was doing what 60 Minutes was doing then. It looked so exciting and that was part of why I became a journalist.60 Minutes Logo

So six months after the publication of my book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, it saddened and appalled me to watch the show last night.

Last night, 60 Minutes ran a piece about heroin in Ohio. I’m very happy that these Ohioans, who I know and like and respect, are getting this megaphone. Their story needed telling.

But I have to stand my ground.

Months ago, my publisher and I pitched 60 Minutes on stories from Dreamland: first, the Xalisco Boys heroin traffickers, and then a story about heroin in Ohio.

Over the span of several months and several phone calls, 60 Minutes decided against both ideas.

The Xalisco story wasn’t doable, they concluded, after I convinced them that it was unrealistic to assume that they could show up and in 3-4 days have someone magically open up a heroin lab for them to film. I argued that there were other ways to tell the story. I found them sources, people with years of experience in the drug underworld who trusted me. That wasn’t good enough. They wanted traffickers who spoke English. I told a producer that the traffickers in the Xalisco system were working-class guys from Mexico without even sixth-grade educations and that they spoke only Spanish. He also insisted that 60 Minutes had to have film of dope being made, and had to have it accessible after three days of reporting on the ground.

The Ohio story that we then pitched 60 Minutes had no such cost/danger/language concerns. The state was awash in heroin now. America’s opiate ground zero – for many reasons I made clear in Dreamland. Pills had taken hold there first, and heroin had come sooner than it had anywhere else. Over lunch, a 60 Minutes producer even asked me what story I would do in Ohio. I gave her some ideas.

60 Minutes did go to Ohio. Made it look as if they had figured out who to talk to, and what questions to ask, all on their own. No mention of what led them there and what explained the whole story to them. When I asked them whether they were going to refer to my book, one producer said they wanted to focus on the personal stories of local folks. They could have done the personal stories of local folks in Alabama, or anywhere else in America, but then they wouldn’t have had a book telling them specifically where to look, whom to talk to, and what the story was.

Care to leave 60 Minutes a few of your thoughts? Here’s the comment page to the episode, and here’s the show’s Facebook page.

Parents and others in Ohio and elsewhere are understandably thrilled that major media like 60 Minutes are finally taking an interest in this topic. I’m glad for them and very happy that the issue is now getting attention. Wayne, Brenda, Tracy, Jenna, Rob and others spoke with eloquence and force, and in my opinion saved the piece.

I hope they won’t see this as raining on their long-overdue parade … but I have to say something to defend myself, my family’s sacrifice, and my work. If I don’t, who will?

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.

I’m thrilled to receive emails like this one, from a retired undercover narcotics officer, who helped in my heroin education:

“The 60 minutes Heroin story last night was the “CliffNotes” version of your book, they needed to have you on that piece! … These news stories are great but they are quickly becoming “old news”. They need to go a few layers deeper. It’s time to talk about solutions! Thanks to guys like you the nation now knows very clearly what the problem is, now it’s time to move the national narrative towards developing real solutions through accountability. … Keep up the good fight Brother …Be Safe!”

It isn’t often that a book more or less scoops radio, TV, and print. But I believe that, to a large degree, is what Dreamland did.

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.

And even after the months of dealing with them, I might not have written this blogpost had not Sunday’s show itself seemed to involve so little original reporting and seemed to rely so heavily on my book.

Is that what it means to be 60 Minutes these days? Just riff off the work of an independent reporter and do nothing to recognize it?

The whole episode reminds me that 60 Minutes is no longer a standard bearer of anything except cost containment. Shows like 60 Minutes no longer set the national debate. They’re followers, imitators, People Magazinenow, where once they were leaders.

Yet I’m also invigorated, exhilarated even, by this experience. For it means that I and many independent colleagues have wide-open spaces now where we can harvest stories. That if we’re willing to put in the work and take the risks, that important stories will be ours to find. It means it’s a great time to be an independent journalist.

The Daily Show made fun of TV cable journalists, and gave respect to real reporters. It taught a generation to be skeptical of what was reported to them on television. The next step is to elevate real independent journalism.

As desiccated titans collapse, abdicating any role in maintaining standards of journalism, we now have this terrain to ourselves. We must work it, push at it, be relentless. But it’s there. People want it, thirst for it, as I’ve found in the reaction to Dreamland. When we find these stories – as now only we are equipped to do – they will probably mean more than ever.

Remember, too, that if you want risk-taking, on-the-edge, original, independent, red-blooded American journalism, then you have to look pretty far past 60 Minutes. The Atlantic is doing some good stuff. As is the Atavist. Might check out the Marshall Project. I thought Grantland looked good before ESPN pulled its plug. I’m sure there are many places I don’t know of – and I invite them to chime in.

I’d also strongly suggest that the books recently written by my friends and former colleagues Gerry Hadden, Alfredo Corchado, and Jill Leovy are well worth your time.

And if you want to read the full story of America’s opiate epidemic from a journalist with no one but his wife and daughter standing behind him, then I’d suggest my own book, Dreamland.


Filed under Books, For The Record, The Heroin Heartland

31 Responses to Sad for 60 Minutes

  1. Im sorry to hear that they ripped your book off like that.It was a low ball move.Thanks for getting the story out there.

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  3. John Eastberg

    I tried to share the 60 minute story with friends on FB to bring awareness and discovered CBS want’s to charge for 60M stories. Not only are we bombarded with commercials now we have to pay for meaningful public interest and safety stories. Shame on 60 minutes for selling out.

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  5. Arno Kumagai

    Sam: Your courage and passionate commitment to justice shine through all of the dishonesty and lack of integrity of CBS. You’ve done a huge service to the public–including all of the nameless individuals and families struggling with addiction. I also used to admire 60 Minutes–they’ve become a bunch of unscrupulous hacks these days… Keep up the great work and happy new year. Arno

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  9. PS. Check Bryan’s Smile Facebook Page as it states my thoughts about your blog and the 60 minute segment.

  10. I lost my son less than 2 years ago. I have been trying to get information to give and get since before he died. Yes, it is sad that they did not at least, mention your book. However, I think now you will get more attention as the 60 minute episode was about families and heart and fear. Your book will now be something that I will read, but nothing puts people into action more than the fear that this could be your child. Your research and story may have led them to Ohio, but those families will lead others to your book. Thank you for your part in getting this story out there. Please feel free to look at our site. We are in Los Angeles where no one wants to hear about it until I show them my son’s picture and tell our personal story.

  11. samquinones

    The subject needs a lot more media play and then there really needs to be some serious resources allocated to help people that are caught in the grip of the heroin underworld and/or lifestyle.

    Believe me, I know. At 62 years of age, when I have no need for publicity, a career or much else for that matter, I have come out with my story. I think that if you check out the video book trailer on the website you’ll see there aren’t too many stories like mine, and certainly not many by authors able to write it themselves and willing to “come out of the closet”, so to speak. My book is already leaving everyone that’s ever met me in the past 30 years speechless. But it’s a story that needed to be told and I hope that it may be an inspiration to others at the bottom of the same hole I was once in.

    It’s called “Tempting the Devil in the Name of God…the Heavy Hand of Fate”. Back then heroin wasn’t all controlled by the cartels like today. There were many independent smugglers and dealers all over the US and both syndicate underworld types of organization in it, as well as old hippies turned cocaine and heroin smugglers.


    Howard Beckman

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  13. I sympathize deeply with your justified feeling of indignation. I’m not surprised that this happened to you. I worked for a period of time as a journalist. When I was looking for a job I naively applied to The New York Times, submitting clips from my stories published in the Michigan Daily when I was a student. The beat I had been given was Gay and Lesbian issues. I had covered international medical conferences about AIDS held in Ann Arbor Michigan. I was also a reader of the New York Times. A short period of time after my clips had been submitted a story ran in the A section of The New York Times about AIDS with all the reporting coming out of Ann Arbor, same individuals I had interviewed, same topic. Ethics and money collide, feeding the beast of news consumption comes first. So sorry you were royally screwed by a TV show, but I’m not surprised.

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  15. Greg B.

    Just watched the 60 Minutes segment on YouTube ….It would have been meaningless to me if I hadn’t first read your book. They stole your intellectual property.

  16. Jeri

    This is the real story:

    Sympathy is for white people: The “60 Minutes” segment that highlights America’s startling double standard on addiction.

  17. Trip81

    60 minutes unfortunately is under the production time and cost crunch. The internet has taken away the luxury of time, and reality TV has taken away money for quality news production. This is frustrating to the intelligent audience and has resulted in sound bites on serious topics, heroin in Ohio included. The audience’s attention span no longer exists for “old fashion” well researched reports. Staffs are smaller and story lines are used from books to blogs. By lines and credit unfortunately are a thing of the past. I like the Internet, but miss professional reporting.

  18. Paul Sternt

    This story gives 60 Minutes a chance to salvage some of it integrity if it does an on-air acknowledgment of the original work it stole. Not very likely.

  19. Stephanie Dayton

    I am disappointed by 60 minutes-the early forerunner of feature length news pieces. I’ve not seen the 60 minutes piece nor have I read your book. However, I live in Indiana and am acutely aware of the HIV outbreak of over 200 cases in 6 months in a very small, rural community resulting from opana/heroin abuse. I will be purchasing your book and will skip 60 minutes…probably permanently.

  20. Pim Van Hemmen


    I am a former journalist. I had not watched 60 minutes for years, but saw Truth in the movie theater on Saturday, and Sunday night as the football game ended my wife and I decided to watch 60 minutes while eating dinner in front of the tube. We watched the heroin piece with great interest because we have teenagers and know this is a serious problem. Then it ended, and my wife looked at me and said: “Is it over? Is that it? That’s how they ended it?”

    It was the lamest piece of reporting on planet earth. In the old days 60 minutes might have owned that story, instead they didn’t just steal it, they barely knew how to do it. You are right to feel cheated. I know that won’t make you feel better, but 60 minutes is now a joke, and I won’t watch it anymore.

  21. Victoria Camron

    I’m sorry, but why are you surprised? Broadcasters have long considered print media — including book authors, apparently — to be their sources. Everyone working in newspapers knows that TV uses our social media, websites and print products as their assignment sheets. Why did you spend so much time talking to the 60 Minutes folks if you didn’t have a contract with them? You were far too trusting.

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  23. Debra J Wallerstein

    What 60 Minutes did cheapens the brand and is quite a slap at your work, that is true.

    Let’s not forget, though, that chronic pain patients actually NEED oxycodone, OxyContin and hydrocodone in order to live some semblance of a comfortable life, as was so elequently pointed out by a previous commenter.

    Pain patients don’t take these opiates for fun or to get high. Just ask one of them what effect these drugs have on them! They will tell you that they give them a modicum of relief from unrelenting pain. That’s it.

    While I believe you that there is a crisis, I don’t believe we should be sentencing people who endure chronic pain to a lifetime of misery.

    Parents–where are your children getting the money to buy these drugs? Their disease of addiction is one they invited into their lives with monetary assistance from somewhere

    Why are we punishing the pain sufferers? We don’t talk about depriving society of alcohol in order to cure alcoholics. yet we deprive people who have legitimate medical needs of the very opiates that keep them functioning on a daily basis in order to cure addicts.

    It doesn’t make sense and it isn’t right.

  24. Kevin McKeown

    Isn’t this what American capitalism has become? If you can steal a marketable idea or creation from someone and don’t, you’re an even bigger fool than the intended victim. Cheating is only a bad thing if you get caught.

  25. leslie bates

    Bet if your book had been published by the CBS publishing subsidiary you would have gotten lots of mention. Just like the music artists they feature just happen to have a new album on a CBS owned label. Sadly, the show has turned into a bit of an infomercial for CBS holdings.

  26. Sandy Auriene Sullivan

    I am terribly sorry 60 Minutes did such a disservice to you but as a chronic pain patient who is on the suffering end because of hyperbolic stories about pain medications we have people now dying in agony because of misplaced fears.

    Lets be clear. Pain patients, legit ones including terminal cancer patients today across the US – since 2010 in fact have been struggling to obtain their medication. We patients don’t go on to use heroin. However, some families, though it is rarely talked about have treated their terminal family member *WITH* heroin because *access* to pain medications were out of reach either due to cost or misplaced addiction fears.

    Why doesn’t anyone…. ever talk to the chronic pain patient? We CPPs would love to have our side represented when these topics are discussed.

    It isn’t journalism to present half the story nor is it journalism to steal a story. It’s lazy.

    It also has a terrible impact. People die. Not from addiction, these are patients who kill themselves because there are people who abuse our medications.

    Think about it. If blood pressure meds or insulin had street value; would we punish those who need it or deal with the problem on the street?

    What we as a nation are doing however is just that… taking away the insulin and handing human beings a chocolate bar – with a goodbye and good luck as they limp off to their death sentence. Chronic pain patients are an expensive demographic to TREAT.

    When will anyone talk to us? We are talking about it here:

    • Dana Gower

      Radley Balko, who I believe is the best journalist working today, has been writing about this for years. He currently writes for the Washington Post. I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear from you.

  27. Ray Stewart

    Lowers my opinion of 60 minutes. Sad that profit drives. Keep up the good work. America needs you.

  28. Richard McManus

    I had exactly the same reaction when I watched 60 Minutes on Sunday. 60 Minutes did your story and now I understand they basically stole it from you. They had the audacity to participate in subsequent meetings to learn more, thereby causing you to unwittingly participate in the theft.

    I’d recently heard you laying out the story on radio one day. I found it well constructed, cogent and quite plausible. I expected your book to be the cause-celebre on a national level as the rest of the country is just now becoming aware of the suburban saturated heroin epidemic. Something you discovered and substantiated years ago.

    I came across your post here, because I’m at this moment listening to NPR and the panelist are referencing suburban heroin addiction. . . and scratching their heads as to the causation. My incredulous reaction was . . . is no one aware of ‘Dreamland’, is no one aware of Sam Quinones? I turned to the internet to see why no one was referencing you and found this post.

    From the first moment I heard your interview, I thought there were quarters of power that would be very interested in promoting the publicity the story you broke.

    My background is Fortune 50 Executive, not publishing, but I’d be willing to devote some time to brainstorming ‘traction’ ideas for your story / book.

    The issue you raise here, 60 Minutes’ plagiarism of your work and likely other’s also has merit – journalistically, and I believe legally.

    Richard McManus

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