Martin Shkreli: The Most ‘Hated’ (and Interesting) Man In America Just Hoaxed The World’s Media

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If you’re going to embrace confected outraged and unbalanced reporting, it’s a good idea to get your facts straight first. Chris Graham reports.

I don’t know Martin Shkreli from Adam. But the more I see of him – and it’s entirely on the web so far – the more I like. Or maybe the less I dislike.

In case you missed it, Shkreli is the ‘Big Pharma’ guy from America who jacked up the price of a drug called Daraprim late last year from, reportedly, $13.50 to $750 overnight.

That’s per tablet.

It was a big story in the US. And it was a big story here in Australia as well. Indeed, the story of the Turing Pharmaceutical CEO reverberated around the world.

Shkreli quickly became known as ‘The Most Hated Man In America’, and was dubbed the face of Wall Street greed.

It’s still a big story in America, and that’s due in no small part to Shkreli’s skilful playing of the media.

Even politicians have tried it on, and it seems the more desperate the politician, the greater the outrage.

Only yesterday, Hillary Clinton obviously decided that beating up on Shkreli, old news though it is, will distract from her growing unpopularity. In what’s been dubbed by media as “the weirdest line of the day”, Clinton, for no apparent reason, described Shkreli to campaign crowds as “like the worst bad date you can imagine”.

Democrats presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. (IMAGE: iprimages, Flickr)
Democrats presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. (IMAGE: iprimages, Flickr)

Which may or may not be true, but probably falls short if you imagine Monica Lewinsky’s first date at the White House.

Anyhoo… this weekend, February 14, Shkreli decided to turn Valentine’s Day into April Fools Day, courtesy of a Twitter account that has grown exponentially over the last few months, and now boasts more than 100,000 followers.

By way of brief background, some time in 2015, Shkreli paid $2 million for the only copy of the final album by rap group Wu-Tang Clan. He did so, he says, because he (a) loves rap and (b) believes people should support the arts more.

Fast forward to about a week ago, when Shkreli reportedly wrote to rapper Kanye West, offering him $10 million to release his next album, The Life Of Pablo, only to Shkreli. I say reportedly because that’s what media are reporting, but given the rest of this story, it’s quite possibly wrong… but I couldn’t be arsed checking, because it really doesn’t matter.

Because here’s Shkreli’s Valentines Day tweets.

There’s more, but you get the general drift. Shkreli is claiming some mysterious man named ‘Daquan’ made off with his cash… which had magically increased by $5 million.

You don’t actually need to know anything about Bitcoin, like the fact that transactions are publicly searchable (and none of that size occurred around that time) to work out that Shkreli was yanking everyone’s chain.

You didn’t even need to know that ‘Sitoshi’ is (a) a made up name and (b) more likely a reference to Satoshi Nakamoto, the still anonymous creator/s of Bitcoin… hence how in the world did Shkreli get in touch with him/her/them to retrieve the stolen loot?

All you needed to know was a tiny little bit of Shkreli’s story, and given he’s been on a media loop for months now, that’s not a particularly challenging feat. Particularly not for a ‘journalist’.

The guy is not only exceedingly rich – hence, handing over $15 million to a complete stranger over the internet seems, shall we say, ‘unlikely’ – but he’s also pretty unflappable.

In the past few months, Shkreli has been pilloried by international media, charged with securities fraud by the FBI, and even dragged before federal Congress to testify on drug pricing, even though constitutionally he can (and did) ‘plead the fifth’ and refused to testify.

Martin Shkreli appears before the US Congress, and 'pleads the 5th' on questions around drug pricing.
Martin Shkreli appears before the US Congress, and ‘pleads the 5th’ on questions around drug pricing.

As that unfolded, Shkreli sat before Congress smiling like a Cheshire cat while various politicians tried their hand at grandstanding to the assembled media. My personal opinion – at least some of Shkreli’s manner was down to nerves, although shortly after being excused he tweeted that the politicians were “imbeciles”. Which, if you watched the circus, is pretty hard to refute.

But regardless, he’s done numerous interviews and faced serious questioning, and not once has the guy even raised his voice, let alone looked like losing his cool.

Indeed in media interviews, he’s come across as quite considered, even charming. Shkreli is, to put it plainly, the Hannibal Lecter of media scapegoats. No matter the stress, his pulse does not appear to quicken.

Another clue was that after tweeting his outburst, Shkreli decided to invite his Twitter followers to a live webchat, in which he appeared to share his ‘distress at losing $15 million’ with the world. Followed shortly after by seemingly ambivalent tweets about learning to speak Mandarin, and Kanye West.

Martin Shkreli doing his webcam chat... and his level best to pretend he just lost $15 million.
Martin Shkreli doing his webcam chat… and his level best to pretend he just lost $15 million.

Like I said, Shkreli is rich, and outwardly calm, but it’s doubtful even he would get over losing $15 million that quickly.

It was all pretty obviously a hoax. And yet, that didn’t stop the world’s media from jumping on the story. And when I say ‘jumping on’, I mean ‘piling on’, like the zombies in Shaun of the Dead.

It’s almost impossible to know now which media outlet actually ‘broke’ the ‘yarn’, but before long, it was rocketing around the globe.

At this juncture, it’s worth briefly explaining, from an industry perspective, what is actually going on. In the media world, we call this phenomenon ‘churnalism’. Some other media outlet breaks a story, so you quickly ‘churn it’, post it on your own website, and then try and steal as much of your competitor’s traffic as you can.

The problem with ‘churnalism’, of course, is that it relies on getting a story up really, really quickly. And as a first year journalism student – or, perhaps, a five-year-old who has developed basic cognitive skills – can tell you, racing like Richard Petty to get a story up somewhat flies in the face of that most fundamental, but now antiquated, of journalistic principles… check your facts.

In the haste to publish, media are now firmly in the business of publishing whatever horseshit some hack from another newsroom has cooked up. The facts are often the first casualty.

The Australian media’s coverage of the Sydney siege is a case in point – you remember that one, when journalists variously reported that Sydney airspace had been shut down; that bombs were planted all over the city; that the Sydney Harbour Bridge had been closed; that police were jamming mobile phones; that Lakemba mosque was being raided… all because ‘someone else reported it’.

Anyway, back to Shkreli and the Bitcoin story… who, you might ask, ‘churned’ it?

Internationally, RT.com ran with the yarn – a disappointing development, given it’s generally one of the more reliable sources from the US. And here’s Sky News’ coverage in the UK. And the HuffPost. And the Daily Mail, of course, which is to Churnalism as Donald Trump is to over-statement… prolific. And here’s the UK Independent. The UK Standard. The Inquisitr. Mother Jones. And the ironically named FACT Magazine.

And that’s just a small taste of the online stuff. The story was repeated dozens and dozens and dozens of times online, and it made it onto television, too: Here’s a small NBC affiliate’s take. God only knows how many Fox outlets picked it up.

And what about in Australia? Well, as you might expect… PedestrianTV. That is almost literally the sum total of Pedestrian’s contribution to media on any – and every – given day… stealing other people’s work.

Martin Shkreli... the 'Most Hated Man In America' just got a lot more interesting.
Martin Shkreli… the ‘Most Hated Man In America’ just got a lot more interesting.

Business Insider got stung. And yes, even our national newspaper, The Australian, lived up to their usual standard of reporting.

There were outlets that questioned the story early – Finance Magnates, for example, and The Next Web, which appears to have been one of the first to call out the hoax (although they may have fallen for another trap set by Shkreli, which is proving harder to debunk… that during his live webcast, he left a credit card exposed, and someone stole his number then used it to send him $1,200 worth of lube. My money is on fake, but we’ve got a bit more research to do on this one. In the meantime, here’s the NY Daily News’ take).

The upshot: Google-ing ‘Martin Shkreli’ and ‘Bitcoin’ is a bit like Google-ing ‘George W Bush’ and ‘you’re fucking kidding’. You get an awful lot of hits, and none of them reflect particularly well on anyone.

Except, I hasten to add, Martin Shkreli.

Whatever you think of the man (my jury is still out) and his business practices (he’s mounted a defence of the price rise on Daraprim in the video below, if anyone is actually interested) you certainly can’t fault him for the public service he’s performing in exposing the laziness, the incompetence, and the pack mentality of the media.

Fact is, I don’t know if Shkreli really is the ‘Most Hated Man In America’. I do know that he’s managed to elevate ‘the piss-take’ to an art form, and has actually run his own poll on his unpopularity via his Twitter account. Interestingly, after more than 30,000 votes, opinion seems to be split.

I also know that if you’re relying on the media to get a sense of the man, then you’re almost as foolish as the many journalists Shkreli has exposed.

On that front, the final word belongs to Shkreli himself. Here’s that interview he did recently explaining his Wu-Tang Gang album purchase, his life, and yes, jacking up the price of Daraprim.

Apart from being quite illuminating, and providing the ‘other’ perspective that you doubtless didn’t get in the first Shkreli-induced media frenzy last year, it’s worth watching by pure virtue of the fact that none of the people interviewing him are actually journalists.

* Chris Graham tweets here and Facebooks here. New Matilda is Australia’s leading independent media outlet, and relies almost entirely on reader subscriptions for its survival. You can support independent media here – subs start from just $6 per month.

And if you’re still reading… this video is also interesting.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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